The Durham tower, 27 stories of glass and concrete that will redefine the downtown skyline (touché, Durham Clinical Research Institute!) is really happening. Yes, you’ve heard it before. No, this is not a drill.
On Feb. 15, construction workers will begin shoring up the hole and prepping the foundation, the first step in a 27-month process of building the skyscraper. When complete, the City Center will have ground-floor retail, 155,000 square feet of office space — 55,000 of it leased by Duke University. There will be 21 floors of residences and two levels of underground parking.
Last night at a neighborhood meeting held in the mid-century Modern offices of Austin Lawrence Partners at the SouthBank Building, ALP President Greg Hills told the 30 or so people assembled: “I’m not sure we thought this day would happen. The dirt hole that’s been there, I apologize if it inconvenienced or bothered anybody.”
Photo by Lisa Sorg
The hole, actually the cavern, at Corcoran, Main and Parrish streets, has been sitting there, very hole-like, for a year. To prepare for the skyscraper, ALP demolished three vacant buildings (and a piano left inside one of them) along Main and Parrish streets, removing the façade brick by brick for later use on new structures. Originally, ALP had planned to save the structures, but after structural testing, came before the Historic Preservation Commission to say, sorry, but a lot of the bricks are essentially congealed dust. The HPC, after much gnashing of teeth, approved the demolition.
The adjacent green space, privately owned but publicly occupied as a de facto park, was excavated — an old bank vault removed — and then obscured behind green fencing. For a year. That did bother people who not only were annoyed by the construction fencing but also noted that the green space could have been used until the project was assured.
Photo by Lisa Sorg
Construction delays worried downtown business owners and residents, who wondered if the financing had fallen through, and thus if the heart of the city would permanently have a hole.
When the $70 million project came before City Council for approval in April 2014 —a $4 million incentives package as part of the deal — the target date for completion was mid-2016. Construction on the tower was estimated to begin last September, Hills said, “but the deal got complicated. Our intentions were good.”
Hillis said last night that the financing is “solid,” and that even if an economic crash similar to the 2009 recession occurs, “the project will go on.”
At the meeting, downtown residents and business owners learned what “will go on” means. There will be noise. There will be booms from cranes swinging over adjoining buildings (everyone, check your insurance). And there will be major traffic changes.
“We do we know we’re all going to make a sacrifice to make a better Durham,” Hills said.
Corcoran Street will become one-way south for the entire duration of the project; Parrish Street will become one-way west for a year, starting in June. For businesses and residents that just endured a year-plus of the Downtown Loop water main replacement, well, they’re over it.
Lisa Miller of Seven Star Cycles, 104 W. Parrish St., told Hills and the development team that city officials had said the public would have an opportunity to comment on the traffic plans. “That didn’t happen,” she said.
Other Parrish Street businesses will be affected as well. The Carrack Modern Art, which has become a downtown cultural destination at 111 W. Parrish St., adjoins the skyscraper site. Gallery owner Laura Ritchie says structural engineers would inspect the building this week to see if the exterior wall needs bolstered. (Loaf is on the first floor of the same building.)
Day-to-day, though, Ritchie said, “I’m concerned about scheduling, because our shows are short. I’m worried about visibility. I’m worried about artists loading in and out.“
Like most developments, the City Center has its supporters and its opponents. The anti-skyscraper side says it is concerned that the even higher condo/apartment ($1 million for a tower penthouse) and commercial rents threaten to displace long-time local businesses and residents. Hills has long said he wants local businesses in the tower’s ground-floor retail. But with rates for commercial space running at least $35 per square foot — well above the $20-$25 mark that some tenants in Class A space are paying — it’s hard to imagine even successful businesses like The Parlour locating there. That’s a lot of ice cream cones.
The gentrification alarm also sounded when Blue Coffee Café, formerly on the ground floor of the old Jack Tar Motel, had to close as part of ALP’s renovation of that building. (With interior demolition complete, that project begins in earnest in March, and will take about a year.) That project will require a pedestrian tunnel to be built on the north side of Parrish Street.
But that space, anyway, will stay locally run: the owners of Pizzeria Toro plan to open a diner, albeit more upscale than Blue Coffee’s $5 breakfast special. With a rooftop bar and pool, the new Jack Tar “is going to be a place where a lot of locals go, just to enjoy being there,” Hills said.
The pro-skyscraper side says the tower will further enliven downtown Durham, amping up the central business district into a 24-hour city, and adding stores and other retail destinations to the neighborhood.
Jennings Brody recently opened a new home décor and gift shop, Chet Miller, at 118 W. Parrish St., is next door to the Jack Tar and across the street from the City Center site.
With the Carrack and Loaf, Chet Miller will bear the brunt of the construction inconveniences —and could reap the rewards of its new neighbors.—
“I’m super excited about the potential,” said Brody, who also owns Parker and Otis. “I’m a little scared for my business, but if I can hold on for 2 1/2 years it’ll be great.”