The four-story office building at 300 E. Main St. has been vacant for at least 15 years. From the vandalized glass blocks on street level to the many boarded-up or glassless upper-story window frames to the faded “Durham City and County Department of Public Health” stencil over the Roxboro Street entrance, everything about it indicates long-standing neglect.
If you think of Roxboro and Main as a gateway between downtown and East Durham, then to many passers-by the structure must have screamed a warning about, not an invitation to, the city’s east side.
And that’s a spot with plenty of passers-by, too. Two years ago, a state Department of Transportation survey recorded an average of 9,600 vehicles per day moving along the block of Roxboro immediately south of Main; 11,000 autos traveled daily on the street between Main and Liberty. On Main between Roxboro and Mangum, 5,300 vehicles journeyed each day. (Tellingly, perhaps, the department’s figures for downtown Durham don’t contain any readings on Main east of Roxboro.)
David Revere, the owner of 300 East Main, doesn’t plan to remake or expand the structure in any radical fashion. Still, the renovations that are set to begin there soon, thanks in part to a city grant, could have an outsized impact.
Jake Fortune-Greeley argues that the building, which he is helping to lease and advising Revere about during the refit process, could play a vital role in the future of both downtown and East Durham.
“Hopefully this will be an example of ... that type of space that can be delivered — good mixed use — and really get a little bit changed in sort of the, the stigma around that side of the corridor,” said Fortune-Greeley, a director at Trinity Partners. “Typically Roxboro has kind of been your ‘Well, I’m not going past that’ [line].”
Local officials seem to have a big stake in luring people across the metaphorical tracks.
“It’s important to me because we’ve spent a lot of effort in the redevelopment of downtown,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “And I think it's equally important that we begin to strengthen our inner-city neighborhoods. I’m of the strong opinion that strong neighborhoods make for strong cities.”
Bell believes that 300 East Main will serve nearby residents by providing job opportunities.
The City Council unanimously approved a $75,000 building improvement grant for 300 East Main and two other projects Monday night. (Check here for details on the other two redevelopment efforts.) And Bell has made neighborhood improvement a key part of his administration thanks in part to his recommitment in his recent State of the City address to pushing forward with the slow-moving redevelopment of Rolling Hills and Southside.
Still, county officials appear at least as eager as the mayor to see Revere’s refurbishment lend a boost to the local economy.
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The county sold 300 East Main, which it had long owned, to a Chapel Hill-based corporation for about $325,000 in March 2007. (The company, controlled by Revere, is called 300 E. Main Street.) This year, the building and its land — just under 0.3 acres — were assigned a total value of $524,000 in county tax records.
More to the point, the county is spending millions to build its new Human Services Complex on the eastern end of the very same block. Portions of the complex opened to the public this week.
In the middle of the block, the county paid to refurbish the old auto dealership that now houses the Criminal Justice Resource Center and some sheriffs’ deputies.
There are certainly some signs that the block may be able to extend the downtown renaissance at least a little to the east. Old Havana Sandwich Shop opened at 310 East Main this winter. And even after the courthouse — which is now catty corner from 300 East Main — moves to the new skyscraper near the Performing Arts Center, there should be plenty of foot and car traffic to feed a retail operation on the corner.
Potentially, the county has seen to that continued foot traffic by placing the Human Services Complex nearby. The fact that the city runs its free Bull City Connector bus service along Main doesn’t hurt, either.
“Businesses are beginning to spring up there because of that traffic,” said Joe Bowser, a Durham County commissioner. “And certainly I’m hoping that [300 East Main] will be part of the whole business structure in that block, eventually.”
Michael Page, the chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, is looking forward to seeing more job opportunities planted in central-city locations such as a refitted 300 East Main.
Like Bowser, Page likes the way a revived 300 East Main could plug into the city center. “That building’s in the hub of where a lot of things could happen — where a lot of things are happening downtown,” the chairman said.
He particularly likes the thought of a refurbished building that is home to more than offices. “I’m really moved by a thriving downtown that offers restaurants and businesses but yet also offers retail establishments as well,” Page said.
Retail, Page emphasized, is central to his vision. “Places where people can do handy shopping for quick kinds of things — it just makes the downtown puzzle look so great,” he stated.
“That’s certainly a good strategic location because it’s a block of Main Street that we’re spending a lot of money on, and it’s in transition,” said Mike Ruffin, the county manager.
“Clearly, buildings next door have been renovated — we have a Cuban restaurant,” he added. “So I think ... it’s important that we see it in a state of condition that will bring, bring distinction to downtown.”
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Revere, a former Californian, owns both 300 East Main and the vacant lot next door through a sole partnership that carries the building’s address as its name. He has in hand architectural schematics drawn up by Alliance Architecture that could be built in relatively short order, since the building has already been gutted and cleaned of asbestos, Fortune-Greeley said.
Starting with the bottom floor, the plans call for putting in 10 executive parking spaces there; attaching two stairwells and one elevator on the building’s east side; creating a lobby and “common corridor” on the east side’s first floor, which would provide bathrooms for retail and office users; and putting in retail parking on the remaining area of the vacant lot to the east. (Fortune-Greeley said he and Revere are looking to secure 40 more parking spots for office tenants.)
The southern elevator will go from the basement to the mezzanine level on the third floor and up to the roof, where the real estate expert said a penthouse or open-air bar could be placed. The rest of the structure, excluding the ground-floor retail area fronting Main, will be used as offices.
With around 7,500 square feet per floor, and a mezzanine on the top level adding another 1,500 square feet, 300 East Main should feature about 3,500 square feet for retail and some 19,000 square feet for commercial use.
All told, Fortune-Greeley expects Revere to pay perhaps $1 million to get 300 East Main to the point of being a shell building, since the structure needs all-new plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems. Client-specific construction could cost another $1 million.
The end result, Fortune-Greeley said, should be premium office space in a very accessible part of Durham.
The city’s grant is contributing nearly a quarter of the cost of a $375,000 first-phase refit focused mainly on readying the first floor for retail and office occupants.
Revere hopes to attract a restaurant beside Main Street on the ground level. The plan is to add windows on that floor so the space commands a great view of Main Street. (Both county office buildings on the west side of Roxboro are set back from the sidewalk.)
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Like much of the work being done in and around downtown, this project involves restoring a historic structure — in this case, one dating to 1925. It was originally built by Freemasons, subsequently taken over by a car dealership and following that housed Durham’s health department, Fortune-Greeley said. (The top-level mezzanine was originally a Freemason temple, he said.)
“We certainly value the old Durham, and so a lot of what we’ve done is preserve what we have instead of tearing it down and create something new,” noted Ruffin, who called Durham’s downtown eclectic and diverse.
Ruffin and his board had hoped the building would be brought back to life sooner. But the sale to Revere seems to have been ill-timed.
“The market tanking has hurt,” the county manager said. “So getting — being able to lease it and getting what he needs to be able to go to the bank and secure financing I think is a problem. That’s not what he told me, but I know that to be the case everywhere.”
Fortune-Greeley would not disclose specific details of the building’s lease situation or private financing, but he said the work at the building had not begun as soon as desired. He also indicated that Ruffin’s assessment of the complications of simultaneously preleasing and financing the structure was correct.
If so, that suggests the importance of the city’s $75,000 investment in jump-starting the initial refit.
It’s yet to be seen if that investment, or the private money set to be poured into 300 East Main, will pay off. But should it happen, it will speak not just to the revitalization of the inner city but to the key role that both city and county tax dollars have played in the downtown renaissance.