Council approves East Main St. site as new home of DPDHQ

This site had been the front runner for a while, and according to the Herald the council sealed the deal last night:

City Council members signed off Monday on the choice of a site for Durham’s next police headquarters, agreeing to spend $5.7 million to buy a 4.5-acre property for it off East Main Street.

The city intends to demolish the historic Carpenter Motor Co. buildings as well as the small restaurant Not Just Wings which are presently on the site. Open Durham has an early drawing of the potential footprint.

The city intends to foot the bill for the project in part by selling off the old HQ, whose last appraisal came in at $5.1M. Still, the $4.5M price tag for the new East Main St. parcel was too high for Eugene Brown who provided the lone dissent in the 6-1 vote.

This sort of structure is typically built like a fortress with limited ingress and egress points, so you could expect for the streetscape to be pretty bleak. David Arneson of Center Studio Architecture brought up such concerns on the ABCD Durham mailing list, and presented two alternate layouts:



I don’t know how feasible Arneson’s alternatives are, but the idea of getting a usable streetscape on East Main St. here is really compelling. Councilman Schewel did respond and allay some of the fears regarding the setback for surface parking along East Main:

Of the several “fits” we saw for the site at the council work session, none of them included a parking lot in front of the building along Main St. I feel very comfortable in saying that the City staff planning this HQ are going to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

However the site ends up being developed, it’s now pretty certain that it will be developed. The opportunity available to citizens now is to help ensure it’s developed responsibly.

Another big question: what’s going to come of the old site? As of right now, it’s hard to predict, since we’re still several years out. I personally have kind of an affinity for the structure, which is in a style without much representation in Durham. It’s pretty safe to assume that the city will sell the site, and I really think it has the potential to be a lot more interesting than the generic student housing across the street at 605 West.

What is this “Durham Innovation District” thing?

You may have seen headlines about some thing called “Durham.ID.” Despite the name, it is 1) not related to and 2) not even actually a domain name; rather it’s… an “Innovation District.”

What’s an “Innovation District?” Well, apparently:

“We want it to be technology; we want it to be big data; we want it to be all kinds of interactions day and night to make this truly a fun place to be,” he said.

Yeah, OK. Nothing says “fun” like “big data.” But let’s roll with it.

Here’s the tldr; version: basically, this is a potentially large mixed use development (skewed towards office space but with residential and commercial components) which is a joint venture between Longfellow Partners and Measurement Inc. From what I can tell, Measurement owns most of the property presently; it’s unclear to me whether they intend to simply sell it all to Longfellow or whether they want to retain some ownership stake going forward. The project will run from Central Park to West Village to DSA to the DAP. About a third of the proposed space will come from extant historic structures which are in various states of readiness for occupancy, and the rest will come from infill of vacant lots and surface parking.

The PR material certainly invokes the ATC, but this project will lean more heavily on new construction. They’ve got a map in PDF form over at WRAL, and I’ve used that to fill in the footprint on google maps (more or less). Retained historic structures are highlighted in green, non-historic but completed structures in red; everything else will be used for new construction:


At first blush, I can tell you one thing that makes me excited: they’re going to kill off a massive chunk of surface parking and replace it with decks. A lot of those lots seem completely expendable. My only minor concern is the loss of the Farmer’s Market lot on Morris St., and I hope they can continue to provide free or cheap parking for the Market going forward.

The plan calls for the preservation of several historic structures, some of which are already in use. The Carmichael Warehouse, the Brodie Duke warehouse, the Imperial Building, the BC building, and the Power House will all be retained (Carmichael already is leased by Duke; I’m unclear on the others). Everything else will be new construction (save for the already completed but seemingly vacant generic office building on Hunt known as “Morris Ridge”).

Several structures aren’t going to survive. There are two small commercial / light industrial buildings across from the DAP that will be demolished. There are three houses on Morris that look like they’re going to be demolished; two of them look extremely run down and one seems to house Burke-Little & Associates. The Young Roofing Company building also looks like it’s getting the axe, as is the DPS building at the corner of Hunt and Morriss.

The two curious residential properties on Liggett are also going away, and that’s the site of “proposed public park.” I’m unclear on the fate of the weird light industrial building on that block that seems to still exist in the plans for some reason.

I’d say I’m tentatively optimistic right now. The first “phase” of construction looks like it will involve demo of the structures on Liggett St. to make way for the park, demo of the DPS building, and its replacement with two new office buildings and new parking on that block in the extreme southeast of the project. Presumably they’ll also work on road realignment at this time.

Reading between the lines, I don’t think they’re in any hurry to get this all done. The phased approach will allow them to build out at a pace that matches demand.

This project will be worth keeping an eye on; it’s exciting to see a focus on office space rather than just slamming down more residential. All those people will need to work somewhere, you know…

DCM changes name… to DCM

I noticed that DCM has  gone through a bit of rebranding to reflect their non-central-park-adjacent location:

As many of you know, this co-op market was originally named with a location in the Durham Central Park district in mind. As we move into our actual location, on West Chapel Hill Street, conveniently located near to downtown, both Duke campuses, and many residential neighborhoods, we have changed the name of the market to avoid confusion, and to emphasize our cooperative structure. From now on, Durham Central Market will be known as Durham Co-op Market.

So, yeah, from now on you can just call it… DCM. I see what you did there, guys.

In addition to a new name, they’ve got a new (very slow at the time of this writing) web site at The grocer is currently planning to open “just after the new year” and looks to hire 20-30 employees prior to opening.

Wow, there sure is a lot of construction happening downtown

As I often do, I went for a bike ride during my lunch break today. I figured I’d tour some of the construction sites I’ve mentioned and see what they actually look like.

First up is the iconic Hill Building (AKA the Sun Trust Building), which is busy becoming a boutique hotel and is on track for a 2015 completion date.

In the second shot you can see the edge of the Jack Tar, and the new (residential) skyscraper will be directly to the left of the Hill Building in that shot. No work has begun on either of those projects yet (estimated start date is in June).

Here’s the Kent Corner mixed use development, at the intersection of West Chapel Hill and Kent. I think this will be DCM‘s building, but I’m not positive. They’re hopeful for completion in early 2015.

Here’s the site of Capital Broadcasting Corporation’s new hotel going in next to the DPAC.

This is Phase III of West Village; new construction of apartments over formerly a surface parking lot. The structure includes a parking deck which will replace (and expand upon) the number of spaces which had been there previously. The rest of West Village is comprised mostly of renovated historic structures, so this is a bit of a departure; I’ll be interested to see how it integrates with the existing project.

Here’s the development at 501 Willard, which is owned by the same firm that owns North Point Center (home of Costco, Kroger, Home Depot, et al). They’re calling it “Whetstone Apartments“:

This is “605 West,” an apartment complex which is aimed at students. These apartments have replaced Ronnie Sturdivant’s dilapidated Urban Merchant Center on West Chapel Hill St. next to the DPDHQ and are on track for completion this year (in fact, their reps were out advertising at Brightleaf Square when we ate there a few days ago):

Visited, but not pictured: the future hotel on Holland Street which seems to be named the virtually ungoogleable “Hotel Durham.”

You may notice a theme here: lots and lots of condos and apartments. Like, a borderline troubling number of condos and apartments. The three hotels are probably good news (people have historically decried the lack of hotels near downtown, well now they can surely shut up about *that*) but I’m less convinced that all this building up is going to work out for everybody. Consider that construction is going to begin soon on the Liberty Warehouse condos as well, and you’re going to have a flood of units entering the market in 2014-2015.

As a homeowner, I’m watching with more than a little concern here. The markets for single family dwellings and condos are usually distinct, but if the pendulum swings too far and tons of condos are sitting vacant at bargain prices downtown, you can believe the single family market is going to feel the pinch too.

Can we support this growth? I’m not sure. Maybe. But in a best-case scenario where all these rooms are utilized, we’re going to be facing a ton of new challenges related to their success, especially with respect to parking and traffic.

McPherson Hospital project begins anew after years of demolition by neglect

You may remember that the city gave the green light to incentives for an extended stay hotel on the site of the McPherson Hospital last fall. The site, at the corner of Buchanan and Main, has had a troubled history; demolition of the additions to the hospital originally began in 2008, with plans to re-use parts of the original historic structure in the new hotel.

Things didn’t go so well, though, what with the economy and all that. So the hospital was left exposed to the elements ever since construction stopped in 2009:

As demolition work has restarted on the project (exactly when I’m uncertain, but it’s within the past month or so), it’s obvious how little of the structure they intend to re-use. It seems likely that most of it was already rendered unusable due to being exposed to the elements for so long, and they’ve started pulling out the wood and glass. Here’s what the shell looked like this morning (pardon the cell phone snaps):

In one of those images, you can see a poster with the rendering of the new hotel. What is retained of the facade will sit roughly in the center of the building, surrounded by the new brick structure.

What’s the deal with light rail?

You might have noticed some headlines about the recent federal approval of the Orange/Durham light rail corridor. Notably absent in the discussion has been Wake County – our neighbors to the east are a bit cool on the idea.

There’s good reason for their skepticism; this isn’t the first time people have talked about bringing light rail to the area. There are numerous hurdles to overcome, but mostly it boils down to a simple, irrefutable fact: the region doesn’t have the potential ridership to financially support light rail without massive subsidies by non-riders. Given the sprawl-y nature of the Raleigh / Durham / Chapel Hill metro area, light rail is going to be of limited utility and limited use – at least at first.

One of the goals of the TTA is to at least link up NCCU, Duke, and UNC. This is a logical start, certainly. Check this map (PDF) or watch the fly-through:

But unless you’re going between those few locations, it seems unlikely that rail transit alone will serve your needs. There’s not much residential density along that corridor, and for rail to be a viable option for commuters people will need ways to get to the train stations, which adds time and complexity (possibly a lot of it, if you’re stuck using buses).

So, you have all these caveats, but it seems like this might be the time that things start to actually move forward.

Or will it?

There’s the big, unanswered question of money. Although Durham and Orange counties have voted for a half cent sales tax hike to contribute to the project, footing the massive $1.3B estimated bill will require both federal and state funding as well, neither of which has been approved (and, given the situation in NC, state-level funding for this kind of infrastructure seems exceedingly unlikely).

In a world where the funding does materialize… what next? Well, you’ve got five years of planning, which in turn is followed by five years of construction. Completion would, optimistically, be pegged at a decade away.

So, what’s the bottom line? I think it’s the right time to have the conversation, because it seems like greater density is in our future, and it’s good that people are considering options, but… don’t get your hopes up. This project isn’t going to happen overnight, and right now it lacks the capital (political and actual) to even get off the ground.

One final note: light rail works best if you have good pedestrian and bike infrastructure to support it, so people can get to/from stations on their own without vehicles. If we’re planning for a future with light rail, one thing we can do right now is to work on improving the environment for cyclists and pedestrians.

The Jack Tar Motel renovation plans move forward

As briefly mentioned in the last DNO&E, the Jack Tar Motel is drawing some new attention from investors. The county has just approved talks related to some incentives for the project:

Colorado-based Austin Lawrence Partners has the Jack Tar property under contract. Greg Hills, the founder and president of Austin Lawrence, which specializes in historic preservation and typically looks for projects in areas in need of revitalization, is a Duke graduate.

Austin Lawrence is seeking $6 million in present-day dollars in incentives from the city and county for renovating the motel, including its interior 250-space parking deck, and the city has asked the county for a 50-50 split.

This building was part of the Ronnie Sturdivant dilapidated motel collection, and may be best known for proudly displayed the perplexing signage “WE WANT OPRAH” in its third story windows. The Motel, like other Sturdivant properties, was left in limbo following his death a few years back. It seems Mr. Sturdivant owed some debts to various governments, and just how to pay them off was a difficult question.

Sturdivant was many things, but “a good taxpayer” was apparently not among them.

What’s especially surprising (and exciting) to me is that Austin Lawrence Partners plan to renovate the existing structure, which was built in the 60’s. Buildings from that era aren’t especially well represented in downtown, but they’re a big part of its character, and I’d mostly expected this building to be demolished to make way for new construction. Consider that another 60’s era Sturdivant property, the dilapidated Holiday Inn / school bus graveyard /Urban Merchant Center on West Chapel Hill St., was razed last year to make way for some (now nearly complete) student apartments.

If Austin Lawrence sounds familiar to you, it’s for good reason; they already owned the vacant lot across the street, and have been planning a 26 story skyscraper there.