Just a few years ago, anyone who wanted to travel Main Street between downtown and Brightleaf Square had to pass through an urban dead zone. The tobacco factories and warehouses between the Downtown Loop and North Duke Street, seemingly devoid of life, loomed threateningly on either side of the street.
It’s not like that today, of course. The mixed-use West Village project now appears to be thriving, and a city streetscaping project has furnished motorists with smooth pavement and pedestrians with attractive sidewalks on either side. Day and night, Pop’s restaurant and the West End Wine Bar both draw customers to an area that was once a depressing monument to this city’s defunct tobacco economy.
But one very prominent spot was not so welcoming, according to a member of the Durham County Board of Commissioners: the corner of Duke and Main, where the still-empty Chesterfield Building looms.
“I know at night that block there can seem, you know, dark and very vacant,” said Ellen Reckhow, the board’s vice chairwoman. “I’ve walked it after dark in that area, and it’ll be good to breathe some life into what I consider to be a critical block.”
The resuscitation comes courtesy of developer Josh Parker, who is about to take control of the former cigarette factory. The project has been delayed a few months, as The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz reported this morning, but it is still on track to get under way by summer, Parker insists.
“We’ve now set June 30 as our closing date, with construction to follow immediately thereafter,” Parker told Bull City Rising. “We were hoping to get started late April and just started running out of time.”
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Notwithstanding the temporary setback, Parker says a $63 million bond offering will fund his purchase of the Chesterfield from Select Capital Management of Illinois.
The 1948 factory-warehouse is valued at $541,000, and the land where it’s located is worth nearly $816,000, county tax records say. The building encompasses about 300,000 square feet and sits on nearly 1.5 acres.
Parker owns Chesterfield Partners, which expects to pay $90 million to buy and redevelop the building. When finished in early 2013, it should boast 122 rental apartments, 100,000 square feet of office space, 20,000 square feet of commercial storage space in the building’s core, and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space, not to mention rooftop amenities.
About two dozen apartments will be set aside for affordable housing, Parker said.
The construction should generate 200 jobs, and the building could provide 150 to 200 “indirect jobs” after completion, a lawyer for Chesterfield Partners told Durham County commissioners in 2010.
Robert Eagle of Barnhill Contracting is the renovation’s senior project manager. Barnhill also handled the second phase of West Village’s renovation.
“From a square footage standpoint, or even potential dollar amount, it’s not as big as Phase II,” Eagle said of the Chesterfield. “But it is still a substantial project by most standards.”
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Motorists and pedestrians can breathe easy about one aspect of the refurbishment, according to both Parker and Eagle.
“There won’t be a major disruption where the entire street is closed down or anything like that for any length of time,” Eagle said.
That should come as a relief to anyone who tried to drive between downtown and Brightleaf when the West Village renovations and the city streetscaping closed that part of Main for months at a time.
“We’re excited to get it going,” Parker said. “It’s obviously taken a little longer than we wanted, but all things considered, we’re on a good path, and we’re excited to get it done and make it a big win for Durham.”
Many local residents will recall that the building’s future even last year was in doubt as Parker wrangled with former Duke basketball stars Christian Laettner and Brian Davis for control of the site. Parker won that battle, and he could be in line for an even bigger victory if his vision for the Chesterfield comes to fruition.
“I think what’s great about this is we’ve got probably the most prominent corner in Durham, the corner of Duke and Main Street,” the developer said. “It’s a major gateway into town, and it’s going to be really a bridge between the Brightleaf Square area and downtown, tying it to the downtown master plan and really showing people that if you come down Duke Street, everything that’s going on [to] the right is alive and active.
“I think right now, you might have some question about that if you were driving down Duke Street. But I think having this building done will sort of flip the ‘open’ switch on for anyone who’s not aware of what’s happening there.”
Inquiries from potential tenants prove the allure of a renovated Chesterfield, according to Parker.
“We’ve had very strong demand,” he said. “We’ve actually signed a letter of intent with a technology company for their corporate headquarters, and there’s very strong demand for office.”
That prompted Parker to drop the number of apartments from 152 to 122 in order to double the amount of office space, which was originally planned to cover 50,000 square feet.
The developer declined to identify the technology company but stated that it is local. “It’s going to be great to keep them here and see them grow their operation,” he said.
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Downtown Durham president Bill Kalkhof isn’t surprised by the interest in the Chesterfield. “The first floor should get a lot of attention from folks, particularly when you look at it — it’s one of the great sidewalks in downtown,” he said, predicting that the area will prove ideal for outdoor dining.
“Plus you’re surrounded across the street by a whole bunch of Duke University employees and residents in an almost completely filled West Village,” Kalkhof added, referring to the university’s Office of Regional and Durham Affairs. “It’s a great location.”
The downtown impresario even predicted that the Chesterfield will be able to compete with American Tobacco for business tenants.
As for the residential component, Kalkhof said, the building is close to every part of Duke. It’s also accessible to virtually all of the university via the free Bull City Connector bus, he and Reckhow noted in separate interviews.
And the Chesterfield is a short drive to Research Triangle Park. “You’re in a very urban area with lots of amenities all around you, so I would think that would be very very attractive to the type of creative class employees that you see in downtown,” stated Kalkhof.
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Richard Morgan, owner of the Morgan Imports shop off Gregson and Main, can’t wait for the renovation to be complete. The West Village refurbishment has brought more people and energy to Brightleaf, Morgan asserted, but the Chesterfield is needed to finish the central Main Street corridor.
“It’s the last piece between us and Five Points downtown,” he said.
He called Durham “very lucky” that its tobacco legacy buildings — American Tobacco and the Liggett & Myers complex, most of which is now part of West Village — were preserved instead of being demolished. “It’s made a huge difference in everything that’s happening downtown right now,” Morgan said.
Some of those long-dead Bull City structures that are being revived nearly disappeared, he recalled. “At one time, that building was slated to come down,” Morgan said of the Chesterfield. “I just think what they’re going to do, it couldn’t be better for Brightleaf and everybody downtown.”