Downtown Durham leads the Monday N&O
Trader Joe's coming to... er, NEAR Durham

DAP renovations: An inside-the-park homer, for now

Alan DeLisle from the City and Ken Reiter from Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse gave an update last Wednesday on the Durham Athletic Park renovations. The two dozen or so residents and businessfolk in the audience got to see an interesting presentation on exactly what $4 million in bond funds can buy in the old DAP, which remains one of the last examples standing of an early 20th century ballpark.

Dap_washington As folks may remember, the City put out an open call for developers interested in re-developing the DAP.  SBER -- the Baltimore-based firm that's worked on urban projects including Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Boston's Fenway Park, and which is active in Durham's American Tobacco and Rolling Hills projects -- responded.  And in a big way: they initially proposed needing $11m in funding for an ambitious re-development of the whole area, including not just the DAP itself but new construction in the old DAP parking lot, the relocation of county social services from tobacco warehouses on N. Duke St. for adaptive re-use, and so forth.  Basically, a major transformation of the area around the DAP.

This plan seems to have run into a perfect storm of pause. On the one hand, $11m is a far sight from $4m, especially in terms of the already-piecemealed bond funds. On the other, plenty of local businesspeople, like Hank Scherich of Measurement Inc. and Denny Clark, were already active property owners around the DAP and were already working on re-development of their own -- without an imposed master plan or city funding. In December, the City Council partnered with SBER on the project, but at the lower $4 million bond fund level.

At the same time, the possible uses for the DAP have expanded, adding to the challenge of planning a renovation. Most intriguing is the widely-reported interest of Minor League Baseball in using the DAP as a training ground for umpires, groundskeepers and the like -- possibly with an adjacent MiLB museum. At the same time, NC Central's addition of a baseball team adds a new 'home team' for the DAP, alongside the Durham School for the Arts and other users.

So on the plan we saw on Wednesday night (which was only a couple of weeks old at the time) has to accommodate a wide range of uses, and from the looks of it, SBER has done a great job with stretching limited dollars on the plan. They've brought on board the Boston-based architects D'AIQ, who've done work at Fenway and for the Philadelphia Phillies, to help design the renovations, and SBER's own Fenway team has been down to the Bull City weekly looking at the plans.

One of the most noteworthy things about the revitalization of the DAP is a desire to keep the structure and its aesthetics true to its original form -- well, maybe with a little bit of "Bull Durham" movie touches added. For instance, SBER's proposed an 'arcade' alongside the concession stands to the east side of the DAP, a promenade of sorts to provide a walking/browsing/eating experience popular at other ballparks... and also helping to recreate a scene straight out of the Costner film, complete with the old carnival-like elements.

The existing, turret-like entrance would remain, but with a wrought iron fence and new concrete or pavers to upgrade the look. Additionally, two former entrances -- one near the concessions area, and another that was the former segregated entrance for African-Americans off of Foster St. -- would be re-opened, possibly with a monument at the latter. 

SBER was relieved to find that the grandstand structure was in better shape structurally than anticipated, and is considering excavating under them for expansions to locker room/shower and batting cage facilities.

The addition of NCCU to the mix brings NCAA requirements for Division I baseball to the stage, too. SBER demonstrated on the plan at the DAP is too small to meet the requirements as they stand, so they've proposed building a wall along the right-field line -- backing up to the locally-owned investors' properties on Foster St.  (Like the Blue Monster in the DBAP or Fenway's better-known Green Monster, these walls make homers a bit harder to hit, bringing a smaller field to big-field compliance.)

A new batting cage may also be added to the eastern side of the park near the concessions/festival area, bringing up the intriguing idea of 'family days' that mix baseball games with picnics and kids' batting time in the cage. However, the grandstand itself, which seats about 1,400, won't be expanded, though it will be moderately renovated and brought to code and ADA compliance.

A major topic in the meeting, covered well in last week's Herald-Sun article, of the many uses of the park. After the City and SBER looked at how many groups want to use the park -- from NCCU and DSA, to events like the beer festival and blues festivals, to USA Baseball and concerts and the like -- they're proposing that the field be used for games and events only, with practices relegated to other facilities. As Reiter pointed out, much of the wear and tear on the field today is due to overuse, and dialing back the uses could help the field be more sustainable.

For their part, Minor League Baseball as proposed would come in and be the operator of the field; they see the challenges of prepping a field to go from Division I NCAA baseball to a beer fest and back in short order as good training for groundskeepers before they go back to Round Rock or Elmira. Reiter noted that the City had a lot of contemplation to do on how to bring in an outside group like MiLB as the year-round field operator.

And what of the MiLB museum, or other facilities? Reiter was clear that this was a "zero base" proposal -- what can you do, for $4 million, inside the walls of the ballpark? A museum for MiLB wasn't in these plans... though Reiter mentioned, entirely tangentially but tantalizingly, that SBER had worked with in Providence, R.I. to develop museums within historic buildings, noting that they'd partnered with local property owners to make that happen.

And as for Durham's own local property owners? Scherich and Clark were both in attendance and watching. Clark's big comment: a concern that the right-field line wall would obscure or get in the way of the locally-owned buildings along Foster Street. Perhaps the outfield wall could be a clear wall, he mused.

(To my mind, that could certainly broaden the MiLB involvement: they could bring minor league teams' trainers and paramedics to the ballpark, to learn how to help outfielders recover from injuries sustained when they run into a transparent wall. But I digress. In any case, SBER noted that a wall in the vicinity of 8 feet was all that would be needed.)

SBER and the City are planning to shore up plans and start construction by early fall at the latest in order to have the park open for April 2008. But everyone was clear that some changes were still in the works.

Or, as Reiter put it with a wry grin: "We haven’t unveiled all of our secrets yet."

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