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Durham Centre goes under Craig Davis' ownership

Jack Hagel reported in today's N&O that the Durham Centre, that albatross on the Durham skyline, has been sold by its out-of-state owners to Craig Davis Properties for a below-market rate of $19.2 million. That price, Hagel tells us, is about 45% below the norm for comparable Triangle buildings.

Durhamcentre As we reported on here earlier this year, the Durham Centre's immediate problem is its lack of occupancy. The tower is rife with open spaces and a vacancy rate that accounts for almost half of the building's space. Hagel attributes this to competition from American Tobacco and credits its campus amenities as the reason why Ambacco can charge a market-premium rate and sit fully-occupied while Durham Centre is half-empty at a bargain rate.

The problem is indeed one of amenities, from a proximal perspective -- but the root cause of that problem goes to the very design of the tower.

The tower rises up over a poorly designed, hulking parking deck that brings a shine to automotive glory to the very edge of the sidewalk. Street level retail's not an option unless, as Michael has suggested, you find a way to slot in stores into the structure parking (no easy task.) Complicating matters, the deck's presence means you have to take an elevator or several flights of stairs just to get to the lobby of the building.

Translation: restaurants and shopping have a hard time in the Durham Centre because the rest of downtown can't get to them, and once you factor in the freeway frenzy of the downtown loop that separates the Centre from downtown, it's not so convenient or obvious for Centre office workers to leave the building for a quick stroll, either. Which makes it a far less attractive place to work than sites like Ambacco or West Village.

Trouble is, the Durham Centre was designed as an office tower that could loom over the gritty, declining city below, sheltered from the riff-raff of Liggett & Myers workers on their way to first-shift jobs. Office workers could drive their Chrysler LeBarons straight into the waiting parking deck, knowing that they would then ascend high above the city to write memos, talk on the phone, or whatever it is we did in the days before email and PowerPoint existed.

Only problem is, Durham's changed. The street is now where the action is and the late-80s megatower design is as out as MTV VJs. Durham's attracted a far more diverse and creative commercial worker base than in the days when a life insurance company had its headquarters there (the old People's Security firm.) And the tenants coming downtown today want a different experience than the Durham Centre can provide.

I'd note that Greenfire's own office tower plans, which keep having the number 2009 floated by them, would be smack in the middle of downtown, more easily accessible to fine dining, future retail, and the posh-hotel Lemanski's building in the old Hill/CCB/SunTrust building. That tower would be a part of the city, not set apart from it the way the Durham Centre is. (Personally, I suspect that the likely future for the We Want Oprah building, should it ever fall out of Ronnie Sturdivant's hands, is as structured parking to support the Greentower, a deck wrapped by retail/office/residential.

Can Craig Davis succeed with the Centre? Probably. The property's coming at a bargain price and, unlike the past owner, Davis is a locally owned firm with local connections. And with a track record of success to boot in Durham -- Davis Park at RTP, despite the cheezy TV commercials, has sold like gangbusters, not to mention Davis' success in commercial development in the Park.

It will be interesting to see if Davis manages to push the City along in the timetable for renovating the Durham Centre parking deck, which is actually managed by the city government, and for the also city-funded quarter-million dollar renovation to the Durham Centre plaza (transforming it into a "contemporary urban plaza and rooftop garden.") The funds for this work were approved in the 2005 general obligation bond. With Davis looking to pour $1 million of renovations into the building, you can bet he'll want the city to step up the timeline.

Dollars and decks aside, here's hoping that Davis' renovation work finds some way to help re-connect the Durham Centre with the downtown that its design turned its back on so many years ago. Because unlike the 1980s, downtown Durham's future lies inside the central downtown core, not above it -- and the faster a new owner realizes that, the sooner this property turns around.

Comments

JDC

Tear it down. That'd be my suggestion to the new owner. That building's got to go. It's like a big middle finger sticking up above the city, especially if you look at it from the northeast corner, as it dwarfs the TROSA furniture/frame shop and the YMCA. Then maybe Roney St. could re-connect with Morgan across from the theatre. It might even make Central Park feel closer to the downtown core, without a heaping pile of 1980s corporate extravagance standing there, sticking out like a sore thumb.

Phil

Kevin -- thanks for this post.

In the past, I've always admired this building's parking deck for being (a) reasonably attractive (i.e., with multiple textures, colors, and plants) and (b) convenient to many venues. But I have learned from your post what the downside is to its placement.

Regarding the Davis Properties in RTP -- I happen to be living there on a six-week housesitting gig. If this were an audioblogcomment, you'd hear the sounds of workmen building more of the row houses at a fast pace.

Not that anyone was suggesting one way or another, but here's a quick comment on the people who live or might live here: I don't think they're the same people who would likely consider living in downtown Durham. The main reason, I'd say, is that there's NOTHING within several miles of here that's more than ~25 years old. No schools, no parks, no old businesses, no established neighborhoods, no restaurants, no art venues, no nothing. Eventually, of course, there will be some shops and restaurants that are walkable from any of the homes in this development. But ONLY from the homes in this development.

It seems isolated/isolating -- much like Meadowmont and Southern Village, except a lot smaller. I'm wondering about the new gated community in Chapel Hill on Ephesus Church Rd. Who's going to live there? I wonder sometimes about the line that "a conservative is a liberal whose daughter just got raped". I hope I'll never feel like a gated community is "worth it" for my peace of mind.

mike

I think the building is fine and it not out of place. It is more attractive than any building in Raleigh. Rather it has two problems that have nothing to do with the building itself. The loop and the garage. The loop probably ain't gonna be fixed anytime soon so we can forget about that. How sad that loop is!! Now the garage just needs a little TLC to get retail the ENTIRE length along morgan street, and nice lounge place on top of that parking deck. then maybe someone will actually buy a condo in the 2nd proposed building.

Arthur

My last experience parking in the Durham Centre deck was about 5 years ago. I attended a morning event at the Civic Center. After the event it took me close to an hour to pay and get out of that deck! Many people were VERY upset. Something about the design makes it very difficult to handle departing crowds.

Dave W.

"The loop probably ain't gonna be fixed anytime soon so we can forget about that."

the defeatist attitude ain't going to get things improved.

It may be in doubt that the loop would be tweaked away to restore the grid, but seems pretty darn easy to at least get the loop converted to two way. That would be a natural building upon the momentum from Chapel Hill and Main having just been convereted to two way, and would make it easier to navigate the inner core of downtown or the area adjacent to the Loop.

I hope more people continue to prod DDI and the city to keep up the progress and momentum on this issue rather than being defeatist and accepting the problems of the one way loop. There is already a feasibility study and cost projection (from the Capital Improvement Plan I think) to convert the loop to two way.

Next up is figuring how to get it done/paid for before costs go up more and we are all ten years older.

mike

It is not defeatist to say it won't be fixed soon. Defeatist would say it will never be fixed. We talked about the loop at the downtown charrette, and trying to make it more pedestrian friendly was brought more than turning it to two way, which would prob make it even more pedestrian unfriendly. However, this would be a city funded project in ALL cities these projects take a long time even in the best managed cities. The city now is still delaying putting aside the money for the ATT bridge over 40, which should have gotten done a while ago. So it is realistic and not defeatist to say it will be a while, like 5 yrs prob at earliest. You are right though that we should continue to prod people to get it improved sooner rather than a very large later.

Toastie

What impact does this have on the proposed Durham Centre II (luxury condos), if any?

Toastie

What impact does this have on the proposed Durham Centre II (luxury condos), if any?

DC

If we ignore Morgan Street for the moment, can anyone explain why some of the ground level parking deck couldn't be converted to street level shops? What would make it most cost prohibitive- putting in the required plumbing, restructuring the facade, building walls?

As an intermediate measure for Morgan, can speed humps be put in to slow down the traffic?

With the proximity to Carolina Theater and Civic Center, it seems like a good place for a restaurant or bar. It would also make the tower above a lot more palatable for office/residence.

dccnc

Craig Davis may now own the building, but you might want to check on who owns the parking deck(s)beneath the building......might be a clue as to why conversion from
parking and non-functioning fountain might be a problem.....

Michael Bacon

You mean Wittenberg's condo tower didn't work out?!? I'm shocked! Shocked!

(I guess I shouldn't jump to that conclusion too soon -- I guess he could have sold the existing tower to finance the other one. I'll say it again -- if I could only short stock in his ventures...)

As to the loop going two-way, I say look at the corner of Roxboro and Ramseur. If you can figure out how to make that thing two-way without completely rebuilding the intersection, your imagination is more expansive than mine.

As for the parking deck, other than the loss of spaces and the fact that the city owns it, I don't see what the major obstacles keep iot from being adapted to retail. If you look at it, it doesn't look too different than unfinished new construction. Roughing in utilities along the ceiling shouldn't be too difficult, and with dropped acoustic tile that should be covered nicely. The lowest pieces of concrete on the ceiling are I'd guess about 11' above the flooring, so even if you dropped the ceiling a foot and raised the floor 6" for floor utilities, you've still got plenty of headroom.

It would never be glamorous retail space, but if you mixed it with an actual entry lobby for the building, you could at least have a newsstand-kind of thing there, as well as a sandwich shop or something. I'm not imagining that you could do all of Morgan St., but you could do enough to break up the wall o' parking effect that exists now.

Barry

"As an intermediate measure for Morgan, can speed humps be put in to slow down the traffic?"

That's not going to happen.

orulz

To compensate for the loss of parking if the street-level spaces are converted to retail, simply convert the rather worthless "park" space on top of the deck to parking. Or, better yet, here's a novel idea: Don't compensate for the loss of parking at all.

Craig Davis should use some of the money they "saved" by getting a bargain on the tower on a per-square-foot basis, and use it to renovate the bottom floor of the parking deck to make the building more attractive.

Michael Bacon

The snag there is that the city owns the deck. Although I'm sure they'd be happy to unload it, the developer would have to take that step to get a hold of it, then do the redevlopment.

dccnc

"Redevelopment" from that deal is more likely to occur on the
parking lot bordered by Seminary, Foster, Hunt and Rigsbee than it is in the Morgan Street property. Craig Davis thinks big. One must also be wondering if he is talking with Mr.
Wittenberg about the air rights on the western portion of
that Morgan Street block.

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