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Scientific Properties "Van Alen" plans start to appear

We here at BCR referred recently to Scientific Properties' plans to build a series of high-rises on the Elkins (now Johnson) Chrysler site just south of the county's Justice Center site. Scientific bought that property back in ought-seven amidst the last few years' general land grab around the city's core.

Little has been said about the project -- save for Scientific head Andy Rothschild's pronouncement about it during his State of Things radio interview, and a cryptic statement on the developer's web site:

With architecturally stunning, environmentally sustainable LEED-certified high-rise office towers, a full-service hotel, corporate conference facilities, luxury residences and a unique assortment of restaurants and boutique retail offerings, Mangum Street will offer tenants and visitors alike a virtually unrivalled combination of extraordinary functionality, environmental responsibility and sophisticated amenities. Defining the new downtown Durham skyline and visible for miles around, the Mangum Street high-rise towers will directly overlook the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the new Durham Performing Arts Center, and provide dramatic views reaching across the entire Triangle region. Development to begin Spring 2009.

After a very slight bit of slooping, we've got a bit (and only a bit) more detail on the project. The real estate listings database LoopNet has a recent entry about the project, known cryptically as "Van Alen," with a matching description to the above and a couple of first-look renderings:

The intriguing choice of name is in part a clever reference to one William Van Alen, according to Scientific head Andy Rothschild. Van Alen happens to have been the architect behind the Chrysler Building in New York. (Build towers on the site of a Chrysler dealership and name the project after the Chrysler Building? Get it?)

Still, the project comes amidst tough times for developers, including a difficult real estate market, and raises the multi-million dollar question for downtown: where will growth occur?

Note the ballpark and Diamond View I/II complexes just to the left of the highlighted project site. Not shown here is the courthouse, which would sit just north of the site on the flip side of Dillard St.

"From our perspective, it's a unique site for downtown," said Rothschild. "You couldn't ask for a more visible site that's more central to everything happening around us."

According to the LoopNet data, the entire project would represent a whopping 1.5 million square feet of development on just over six acres of space, right alongside the Durham Freeway. One of the buildings is listed at 500,000 sq. ft. and likely represents the largest tower planned for the site. Two more towers incorporating office space, a "boutique hotel," residences, retail and civic uses are listed for the site.

Rothschild noted that the three-tower design -- one of several approaches currently under consideration -- gives the developer flexibility in the amount of residential space versus office space to offer in the new complex. Though current plans call for two office towers and a third mixed hotel/residential structure, Rothschild noted that the mix of uses within buildings could flex based on perceived demand during the development phase.

Here's a very, very conceptual view of the massing along Dillard:


Scientific wants to create a signature addition to the Durham skyline with the project, and to that end, the choice of Van Alen as a name was more than a mere witticism referring to the site's current car dealership use. "The Chrysler Building [Van Alen designed] was emblematic of a time of races to the sky in downtown Manhattan. It's aspiring to that level of design."

While Rothschild was explicitly making a connection to the latter portion of meaning -- a reference to the desired design quality -- to this observer, the reference to New York's skyscraper races is also very apt for the impact that this project could have relative to Greenfire's own downtown development plans.

By buying an old car dealership that represents a suboptimal use of downtown land, Scientific has gained site control on a parcel large enough to support a project 50% larger than all of Greenfire's plans for the City Center district downtown.

Whereas Greenfire's stuck with the really much harder job of piecing together multiple parcels, creating parking and pedestrian connections between them, and having unrelated stakeholders interspersed between their sites, Scientific can big the big ol' towers along the freeway in a much less-expensive straight shot.

Of course, there's likely a strategic reason for Scientific's redevelopment plan, too. Greenfire is looking to attract a major tenant to a corporate headquarters site downtown for its skyscraper plan.

All things considered, though, Scientific should have an easier time staging and executing the construction on its parcel, a less-complicated slice of land where construction logistics and tenant parking are easier to execute. Greenfire must wait for the Chapel Hill St. deck to be done in order to have enough spaces to cover the tenants in its building. Scientific's only constraint is getting Johnson Automotive off the site and down to its new home, planned for the Southpoint Auto Mall last time we heard.

All of which gives Scientific a card to play when going after prospective tenants, since no project like this will get built -- especially in these economic times -- without a significant pre-lease component.

(Rothschild in particular noted the challenges of the debt market, referring to the difficulties developers of all shapes and sizes are having borrowing money. The Scientific chief noted that Johnson should relocate their dealership sometime in 2009, and that construction could begin shortly thereafter, but that this project's near-term viability is dependent upon the ability of the firm to find a lender's contribution to pair with existing equity stakes in the project.)

At the same time, this proposal is at the heart of the matter where downtown's growth will come. Once stagnant, the district surrounding the American Tobacco Campus has taken off like a rocket in the past decade, with the 1990s ballpark being surrounded by new office development at Diamond View, the renovation of the ATC itself, the performing arts center, the new courthouse, and the Venable Center renovations by Scientific Properties.

Of course, all of downtown -- from the freeway to the DAP, from Brightleaf Square to Golden Belt -- will, eventually, be redeveloped. The question is, when. American Tobacco owned the first million square feet of leasable space. West Village looks to be close on the heels with residential lease-up. Three other parties -- Greenfire, Scientific Properties, and the loosely-clustered property owners involved in the DAP-area planning -- are each competing to be the first to bring the next million square feet on line.

With the Van Alen planning, Scientific has a chance to bump itself up a bit in line. (Though we're also mighty curious to see what Hank Scherich has in mind for that full-block just west of the farmer's market....)


Tar Heelz

Serious efforts need to be committed to joining "Inside the Loop" w/ south of the loop. We're well on our way to building two separate, disfunctional cities divided by a rail line (and a County parking deck).


It's an exciting project. Thanks for hunting down these pictures for us. I wish Greenfire or whoever made them could have utilized some more up to date software to generate the renderings. I'm sure the photos you found are just to give us an idea of the massing of the buildings/decks and not a representation of the architecture.


Tar Heelz: The separation you speak of is only in your imagination. Have you not seen the Greenfire condo project proposed just north of ATC and the rail line? What else could more closely tie the two sections together than a residential tower and a railstop? Downtown will get bigger simply due to the fact that the traditional center of any town, the courthouse, is being built across the railroad tracks.


Van Alen? Really? The renderings are handsome and it could be a great addition to downtown, but do the developers really feel a need to honor the soon-to-be former car dealership on the property?


When you say "We here at BCR," who exactly is "we"? Why not just say "I"? Just curious if there is more than a team of one at work on this thing.


The name will become even more quaint as Chrysler slowly fades away into bankruptcy.

Joshua Allen

This is an exciting project. I wonder what they are doing for parking? Underground / wrapped? Hard to tell from these massings.

I agree Tar Heelz that we are build 2 distinct areas of downtown that are not connected well. How about a pair pedestrian bridges over the railroad tracks & downtown loop that connect ATHD with Main Street, one at Mangum and one at Blackwell. I'm afraid with so much new development south of the loop and with the loop / rr tracks being so anti-pedestrian, that new restaurants / retail within the loop will have a hard time attracting the same people going south of the loop for shows, ballgames, etc.

Mike Woodard

@ALexis: I'm guessing that's the "royal we." ;-)


Just a thought after reading this and other blogs over the past few days -

Why don't we all just try as hard as we can to find as much wrong with this and every other development in downtown.

Seriously, I fail to understand why on any blog that covers downtown or development the comments section always trend toward the negative.

I for one am willing to have a little faith in the developers who are willing to commit their time and resources to downtown Durham. They have staff's that work hard to make Durham a better place. Yes I wish some of them communicated better, but on the whole I'm glad they are here and proposing spectacular projects. It is perfectly appropriate to offer comments and suggestions that we hope will improve our community. I just wish we could do it in a more supportive way so as to guide good development, not beat people over the head until they submit to the will of the loudest stakeholder.

I for one will try to be positive and constructive so that we encourage good development, not just criticize it. However, I reserve my sentiment about the County Parking Deck/Justice League HQ. That needs work.

And while I'm here. I assume the official blog style guide suggests use of the plural is appropriate. However, I am perfectly fine to assume that Kevin is blogger royalty.


Adam: That's just the nature of the blogosphere. Bloggers and their readers (myself included) complain about lots of things. Keep in mind that few if any of these people are even bothering to actually send their negative comments to the developers, the city, or anywhere it will actually matter; yes, there are some that do, but for the most part, people are just blowing off steam and the projects are going to continue regardless of what they type here.

But I'm not cynical, I promise. :)

Scott Harmon

I appreciate Adam's concerns, and we should strive to highlight and encourage the positive aspects of each developer's plan.

Critical (not as in 'negative', but thoughtful and analytical) consideration is desperately needed, however. Most of the City-partnered projects in downtown developed in the last four decades have done serious damage to the historic/urban fabric of downtown. These projects have lasting impact that will survive all of us. It's important stuff, so positive thinking is not enough. Thorough vetting in the community and among professional peers is essential if we want the best quality we can get. This process is especially appropriate on a project where a public asset is being offered into the deal (such as land, or tax dollars for parking decks, etc.).

Commenting on the Van Alen, I hope some of the raised "plazas" will go away, as they detract from, rather than contribute to, vibrant street life.

I'm very encouraged by how open Scientific has been so far with their concepts. I hope Scientific will host some kind of open public forum during the fuzzy schematics phases and get some free input from the community. Ask our opinion while it still matters. Let your architects hear all the ideas and issues that the ground-up emergent experience of this community has to offer. Pull the community together to talk about your project, give it energy and get the stakeholders invested in your vision. Lead and show the rest of the development community in this town how it can be done.

Imagine what your trip to City Council will be like if you have that kind of investment and commitment behind you. There's nothing like consensus in this town...learn how to build it and you can do anything. AND...what you do will be better because of it.


I've heard that Andy is leaving the area. How will this affect the development?


I REALLY Like this Project it is very exciting ..and i think that durham needs this type of improvement ...with two major colleges

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