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.

Durham news odds and ends, welcome to spring edition!

Shake off those winter blues, guys, cause spring is here! What’s that? It’s still 25F? Well, that sucks, but at least you’ve got Durham News Odds and Ends to keep you warm…

That does it for this month, folks!

RST “Fiber” doesn’t seem to be bringing fiber to residential customers

You may have seen some recent articles about a Shelby-based company called RST Fiber, which promises to bring their “fiber” Internet services to the Raleigh area. Did you notice anything weird, though? Oh, right: they’re not actually running fiber to houses:

Instead of running cables to each home and business, RST will use wireless transmitters for the “last mile” between its network and individual customers.

The press release was well timed to piggyback off of the Google Fiber announcement (a huge kudos to their PR team for that), and as a result it seems like a lot of media outlets have buried the lede. This doesn’t appear to be much like Google Fiber; at first blush it sounds much closer to the now defunct Clear, and the basic idea would be that you have an RF uplink from your home to… something… which is in turn connected to RST’s fiber network.

Their claim is that this “last mile” link – between their fiber and their customers via some kind of radio – can support “up to” gigabit speeds.

Some notable wireless technologies support “up to” gigabit speeds on paper. There’s LTE (aka “4G”) – the current standard used by mobile networks in the US. What else? How about WiMAX, the technology formerly behind Clear.

Is RST selling a solution based on common mobile network technology? It’s unclear to me. My initial guess was that they were simply an MVNO piggybacking off of AT&T or Verizon’s existing networks, selling their own RST-branded devices to consumers while leasing all the other infrastructure. That seems incorrect, however, since they claim to be laying their own fiber:

RST Fiber, based in Cleveland County, has spent tens of millions of dollars to lease and lay 3,100 miles of fiber optics across North Carolina, according to chief executive Dan Limerick.

Well, if they are building a network of their own, and they want to use 4g for the “last mile”… they need them some spectrum. Who has spectrum in Wake County? I asked the FCC about this, and there was no RST on my search results.

So… what exactly are they doing? Without spectrum, their options for RF tech are severely limited; perhaps their press release provides some hints:

We’re also deploying carrier-class, cutting-edge WiFi capable of delivering one-gigabit symmetrical wireless service network-wide.

Ah, so 802.11ac (5GHz “Wi-Fi”) technically meets the “up to a gigabit” requirement… but only over fairly short distances. To use 802.11ac effectively, they would need access points very close to all of their customers. There’s a blog post that claims that this is, in fact, the technology they are using, but… up to 2 miles for 802.11ac? I’m incredibly skeptical of that range, even assuming external, directional antennae for each customer.

On that blog post, somebody posting under the name of RST CEO Dan Limerick made the following claims about the service’s future:

We will be running middle miles of fiber off of our backbone over the entire network when servicing business and commercial accounts and will service the last mile with a combination of carrier class WiFi and FTTP. Our plans are to service virtually all of the enterprise customers with a fiber connection directly to the customer, not WiFi.

Bolding mine. And regarding residential deployments:

We will be offering FTTH as our lateral builds expand off of our backbone for a reasonable installation charge.

So, they have plans to service enterprise customers with fiber… and FTTH (the “H” stands for “home”) at some point as their “lateral builds expand“… but “carrier class WiFi” seems to be the near term solution for some (if not all) initial residential users.

So the tldr here is: since they seem to be using WiFi for the last mile, RST Fiber’s product is simply not comparable to Google Fiber. Maybe it will become comparable at some point, and maybe it will still beat the garbage service from Time Warner, but just because they used the word “fiber” in all their PR speak doesn’t mean that fiber is what you’ll get if you go sign up.

Caveat emptor.

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.

My experience at the second annual Bull City Food and Beer Experience

This past Christmas, I received a gift from my wife: tickets to the Bull City Food and Beer Experience.

I had no real idea what the event was going to be like, beyond (correctly) guessing that it probably involved food and beer. The event wasn’t cheap – something like 80 bucks a pop – which gets you in the door, where they hand you a tiny little glass.

With that, you can get about exactly as drunk and full of food as you’d care to be.

It would be easy to misunderstand this event as a sort of clone of the World Beer Festival, but that’s not really what’s going on. The BCF&BE is deployed (mostly) in the lobbies at the DPAC; this year there were thirty restaurants crammed into the two main lobby areas. The entry level lobby was reserved for VIPS (read: not me) but had some extra stuff, I guess.

The “deal” with the festival is that each of the thirty restaurants was paired with a microbrewery, and they were tasked with coming up with winning combinations of food and beer. Some pairs took this a bit more seriously than others; the Washing Duke, for example, actually incorporated its partner beer into the dish. Most breweries had multiple beers on tap, and some would point you toward the beer that they felt went best with the food. In a lot of cases, though, there didn’t seem to be a lot of coordination – still tasty, but the pairings seemed a bit less deliberate.

I did some napkin math, and at roughly 3 ounces per station, if you tried every pairing you’d consume a respectable 90 ounces of beer. That’s about 7 or 8 beers’ worth, which clocks in at roughly 1125 calories. For the food, I’d reckon about 75 calories per station, give or take, so another 2250 calories, bringing your total to a respectable 3375 calories.

Not an event for those watching their weight, I’d say.

There’s no way I can really do the event justice; there were far too many things going on to describe them all. Most of the restaurants were really good, and I got a chance to try a lot of new (to me) beer.

My favorite bite of the evening probably goes to the WaDuke: some kind of insanely good meat pretzel thing. Also extra bonus points for incorporating the beer into the sauce (and explaining the dish well).

Most “true to the restaurant experience” award clearly goes to Salt Box, which showed up, served delicious food for a little bit to the lucky people who happened to be there at the time, and then promptly closed down before many attendees (myself included) had a chance to grab any.

This event also provided a rare chance to step up on the stage of the DPAC, as some breweries were stationed up there before the Q&A panel punted them (and the crowd) out of the way. The panel itself featured representatives from several of NC’s local breweries, and it was unfortunately rather poorly attended. If I had to change one thing about the event, I’d probably put the Q&A earlier in the night, then starting service afterward. As it was, people were still eating and drinking rather than listening.

All in all, it was pretty sweet! The DPAC proved a surprisingly capable venue for this sort of usage, and it was well worth the cost. I’d definitely recommend it, and hope to hit it back up next year.

Pizzeria Toro sued by apartment resident, wraps up “Dreams of” Cookery events

The HS has news that Pizzeria Toro and the firm that services their cooking equipment (ExhaustClean) have been sued by a resident in one of the neighboring apartments:

The suit claims negligence by the shop and the company ExhaustClean, which was allegedly contracted to clean the shop’s fireplace, chimney and exhaust venting areas three weeks before the fire occurred. According to the lawsuit, the company notified the shop that there were inaccessible areas that it couldn’t or wouldn’t clean because they were blocked.

No response from Toro, as yet.

In better Toro News, they completed their fifth and final pre-opening “Toro Dreams of” event, “Toro Dreams of Mateo,” a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant has been closed since November due to the fire, and the Toro staff (along with several other Durham restaurateurs) hosted charity events at the Cookery in the interim. I’ll be sad to see those events go, but perhaps they’ll return some day under more auspicious circumstances  – who knows?

I haven’t seen an official word on a re-opening date, but the fact that they’re finished doing Cookery events leads me to suspect that Toro will be back in business Real Soon Now.

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.

There’s something [not] in the water

And no, I’m not talking about fluoride this time. Durham is (temporarily) changing its water treatment processes, and you might notice the difference in taste or in smell over the next month.

Durham (like most other triangle cities) uses a process called chloramination to treat its drinking water. Chloramine offers purported benefits over the other allowed option (chlorine) and many municipalities have been switching to it in recent decades.

One concern with chloramination is controlling nitrification. This can be a delicate thing to deal with, and the state of NC requires plants to annually perform these “burn out” periods, during which time only chlorine (and not ammonia) is added to the system. By doing so they can ensure that nitrification is avoided.