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Former Expert Tire building in Duluth gets mixed-use makeover

Joe Kleiman, owner of Kleiman Realty, enjoys a scenic view from the master bedroom of one of the four apartments under construction atop the old Expert Tire building on Thursday. (Bob King / / 6
The former repair area at Expert Tire has been gutted and windows added. It eventually will be turned into office space. (Bob King / / 6
The building that once housed Expert Tire is getting a total makeover, with apartments on top and new commercial or retail business on the lower levels. (Bob King / / 6
Joe Kleiman, owner of Kleiman Realty, stands in the living room of one of the new apartments atop the old Expert Tire building at 624 E. First St. The room features a fireplace (left) and large windows with expansive views of Lake Superior. At right, the hallway leads to the master bedroom. (Bob King / / 6
Carpenter Nathan Davidson applies a noise-proofing compound to soundproof a panel of Sheetrock in the new apartments atop the former Expert Tire building on Thursday. (Bob King / / 6
Jason Isadore, a taper, tapes a drywall seam in a master bath in one of the apartments under construction in the former Expert Tire location. (Bob King / / 6

If you wanted to live on the roof of the former Expert Tire on First Street last winter, you probably would have gotten a little cold.

This winter will be different, since now there’s a fireplace — and walls, 9-foot ceilings and windows with stunning views of Lake Superior.

“It’ll be a brand-new building,” said developer Joe Kleiman, owner of Duluth’s Kleiman Realty.

Kleiman is redeveloping the property at 624 E. First St. into four big apartment units atop a blank canvas with retail or commercial potential.

His reason for picking the old tire shop, aside from the accelerating trend of mixed-use development everywhere, is the first rule of real estate: location, location, location.

“It’s dead center between the two largest employers, Essentia and St. Luke’s,” Kleiman said.

He has his eyes on workers there — or anyone who wants a lake view with a private deck starting at around $2,400 a month for more than 1,800 square feet.

With the first unit opening as soon as Nov. 1, all the pieces of this luxury vision are coming together.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but the worst is behind us,” Kleiman said. “We’re quite a ways along.”

While he wouldn’t say how much the project costs, he did say the redevelopment is “stimulating” local trades with all the work, which started in March.

 With painting about to proceed on the inside, workers recently were getting the weatherproofing and siding ready to create the industrial-chic look that has proven popular in recent years.

Really, mixed-use developments in the area in general have proven popular, from BlueStone Commons to the upcoming Kenwood Village and Endi projects.

“Each has its own niche,” Kleiman said. “Everyone has got something different.”

It’s no accident many new apartment developments are retail and commercial centers, too. The city’s 2006 comprehensive plan, still in effect today, encourages mixed-use development.

The official principle, according to the document: “Encourag(ing) a mix of activities, uses and densities is consistent with historical development patterns, although much of the planning and zoning of the 20th century focused on separating uses.”

Separating uses led to the suburbanization of housing developments and the creation of wide-street commercial districts, but the tide is turning as walkability and access to amenities becomes increasingly important to renters and homeowners.

“Walkable mixed-use communities are attracting empty-nesters who want to rid themselves of the burdens of home maintenance and lawn care and spend less time running errands in cars — as well as millennials who are looking for authenticity, neighborhood identity and ‘buzz,’ and who are avoiding or delaying car ownership,” wrote Sam Black for the Commercial Real Estate Development Association’s magazine.

So long as the two largest demographics in the country want a piece of these kinds of projects, developers will increasingly race to build them. Whether the city likes that or wants to change direction could be a topic of the Imagine Duluth 2035 comprehensive planning that kicks off this week.

One of the questions that effort poses: “Should there be more incentives to improve existing housing rather than new construction or vice versa?”

But there’s no slowing down for now.

Kleiman wanted to name his redeveloped building after a well-known tire company — a tip of the hat to the site’s former use — but the company wouldn’t have it. So just call it 624 East.

The ground floors — the available commercial space is two levels due to the slope it sits on, with newly installed stairs connecting them — still have the feel of an auto shop.

“The space could be split in two,” or it could be one large user, Kleiman said. Either way, guests and employees will have plenty of parking next to the building.

He said a brewery did reach out about the space, but the smells associated with brewing that would travel to the high-end apartments upstairs meant that had to be ruled out.

Kleiman’s crews built a new heated garage space to be used by the apartment tenants, who will have a gas fireplace in each unit and modern appliances, big windows and lots of space.

The old Expert Tire building has come a long way since Kleiman started on it, he said.

“It was a piece of crap. But that’s OK, we like fixing those up.”

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

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