When it comes to downtown Durham's largest, most significant structures, most exist only in one of two states: renovated or demolished.
Happily, more have followed the former path than the latter, though losses like the beautiful Union Station still smart. And of course, plenty of smaller structures have been lost in the process of building the downtown loop, NC 147, the NC Mutual Building -- or to the ravages of fire in the days when centralized water systems were crazy-talk.
In the urban core, though, the really big prizes are mostly off the table, with West Village, American Tobacco, Brightleaf Square and Golden Belt done.
But there are always exceptions.
And the Chesterfield is certainly an exception.
I had a chance to walk through the building yesterday with Josh Parker, the Millennial-generation Bull City native who started off in development working for Tom Niemann, Christian Laettner, Brian Davis and the crew around the West Village project, and who now has come into sharp relief against some of them with his unexpected bidding for the last undeveloped portion of the property.
Walking the floors of the Chesterfield with Parker and his team, you can't escape the feeling that you've somehow interposed yourself into a purgatory between those two states of existence.
Renovated? Hardly; the peeling lead paint, mysterious oil slicks, omnipresent animal waste and bizarre noises are an everpresent reminder of the liminal state of the building -- the Jaycees could make a killing having their haunted house there -- to say nothing of explaining the rationale behind getting you to sign a notarized disclaimer before you step inside.
But demolished? Not for a hot minute.
If anything, the structure's ever-present tile-covered concrete pillars and poured concrete floors, most still replete with machinery, remind you that this isn't a structure that's going anywhere anytime soon.
But if Parker gets his way, perhaps not for much longer.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Chesterfield was one of the last of the great downtown cigarette factories to be built, and one of the largest, erected in late 1940s -- the final addition to Liggett & Myers sprawling Durham complex. (The mid-50s Crowe Building at American Tobacco holds the distinction, we think, of the last tobacco factory, period.)
L&M's Chesterfield arrived downtown, Parker notes, just in time for the post-World War II peak in American smoking habits.
The decline in that habit brought the eventual relocation of the American Tobacco Co.'s facility on Blackwell & Pettigrew in the 1980s. The Chesterfield hung on until fall 2000, when the last cigarettes rolled off its line, making it not only the last L&M facility to operate, but the last cigarette production in Durham's history, save for a brief (and temporary) resumption of production by Liggett's Vector brand in 2001.
Of course, by the time that transition was underway, a second metamorphosis was taking place, that of the transformation of old factories and warehouses into apartments, offices, restaurants and retail spaces.
And Blue Devil Ventures, that linkage of Laettner, Davis and Niemann, was the first mover in that space in two decades' time, transforming the blocks north of Morgan Street into a pioneering downtown urban space.
Plenty of skeptics thought it would flop; who wanted to live in downtown Durham, anyway? Brightleaf Square and the 500 N. Duke St. project had shown some market interest in shopping and residential,
But nay-sayers thought there was no chance that hundreds more apartments could be absorbed by the market.
They were simply wrong; West Village quickly reached a perennial state of nearly-full occupancy.
American Tobacco followed a few years later, though even with the deep pockets of Capitol Broadcasting behind it, it was hard to get financing, and organizations with hometown ties like Glaxo and Duke leased up space just to get things moving.
Today, of course, we take that success for granted. Every month it seems another restaurant or tenant or shop is opening up in one of Durham's historic tobacco factories, if not elsewhere in downtown.
And almost all of the old Liggett & Myers complex has been renewed, with the opening of West Village's Phase Two last year helping to close in many of the missing pieces on the Main Street corridor.
Yet the Chesterfield still sits there on the skyline, looming over downtown.
"This really is the last tobacco warehouse in Durham where you can still get some sense of what happened here before," Parker says.
From the west, it's hard to miss as you drive in from Duke's campus, or down Gregson St. Viewed from the east, the building is even more prominent, seemingly standing between the railroad corridor and all of west Durham.
And for almost a decade, it's been abandoned as financial challenges and the recession have delayed its arrival as the capstone of West Village.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Chesterfield re-entered the headlines in January, when BCR broke the news that the Laettner/Davis team that started West Village signed over a deed in lieu of foreclosure to Select Capital Management, an investment firm that had loaned money to the effort.
By the end of January, a Charlottesville, Va. firm named Octagon Partners had emerged as the winning horse in a race to control the building, besting rumored attempts by Scientific Properties and Brian Davis to develop the site.
Octagon's interest seemed quite serious; Durham city manager Tom Bonfield is reported to have checked out Octagon on a trip to the city when successfully recruiting Charlottesville's CIO to take the same post here this year, for instance.
As 2010 dragged on, though, Octagon's stance remained that it was involved in due diligence, but no signs of a deal-completion appeared.
Fast forward to fall. Parker tells BCR that he learned in mid-September that an opportunity existed to get a bid in on redeveloping the property, after Octagon and at least one other developer decided not to proceed with the effort.
That plan has hinged upon getting investment backing and positioning his team to apply for and receive stimulus-funded bonds, a process that's cleared a couple of hurdles already but which has a few more to go, most importantly perhaps the County Commissioners meeting on November 8. (County tax dollars are not at risk for the bonds, but a check-mark from elected officials is required under statute.)
Parking has remained one of the most significant challenges, as the team headed by Laettner and Davis still controls the large parking deck at Fuller and Morgan that was always intended to provide some of the parking for the Chesterfield and the rest of West Village.
The presence of sufficient parking to make the project viable without further economic support has seemed like a significant barrier to overcome on the effort. But Parker notes that he expects to have an alternative option for parking in place before the BOCC meeting should the Fuller St. garage not come to fruition.
"We put in an offer to [Laettner and Davis], they didn't formally respond" on using the Fuller St. garage, Parker says. "Then we made an offer on another piece of land, which we're working through the agreement on right now. I think we'll have it fully documented by the 8th."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The economics rely on a range of programs meant to create jobs and to renovate old industrial facilities, from recovery zone bonds that are part of the federal stimulus package -- and for which deadlines are looming -- to federal historic tax credits, to a North Carolina mill redevelopment tax credit designed precisely to help moribund factories find new productive life.
"What really makes it work is the North Carolina mill credit," Parker says, noting the credit applies to facilities that have been at least 80% inactive for at least two years. "That was smart of the legislature to put that in."
While some have speculated that the size of the Chesterfield would make it a challenging project economically, Parker says the structure's newness and design actually lends itself well to rehabilitation.
"The cost of this one is a little bit lower because you've got such a good condition to start with, and you're not having to do structural work, and you're not having to do -- like we go into a lot of new buildings and we have to pour new floors or drop ceilings because of sound transfer. Here, the whole structure is concrete and steel, so we get rid of that cost," says Parker.
That comparative simpler rehab is due in large part to Parker's proposal to take a different approach to the building's core.
Previous development proposals for the building counted on the idea of cutting a "light well" into the core of the building, whose large floor plates create large distances from windows that make internal space quite unsuitable for residential or office use.
Cutting out the building's core adds expense to the effort, Parker notes -- and more importantly, doesn't really make residential units more attractive, he notes.
With the light well plan, you'd end up with residential units looking into each other across a fairly small corridor, Parker notes, meaning you'd be losing leasable square footage for an amenity of purportedly little use. Instead, Parker is proposing to make the building's core a multi-story self-storage unit, accessible via the loading dock at the building's rear.
Residents would take stairs or elevators up to their floor and find a racetrack-style corridor leading to the 152 apartments all placed around the building's edge. Meanwhile, the storage units would have separate external access and would essentially be invisible to apartment residents.
The team is talking to the National Park Service on modifying the existing approval to add and expand windows -- particularly in light of being able to walk back previous approvals from the NPS to build a light core in the center of the structure.
"Albeit that [the light well] was a neat design feature, that's not how the building was ever supposed to be interpreted," Parker says. "The interpretation is this hulking mass, this pinnacle of wealth in the tobacco industry to build this building, with the intent of building another next to it."
That's because -- speaking of renovation and demolition -- the Chesterfield was constructed without a brick front on its eastern side, since L&M expected to demolish many of the Main St. buildings that are today's West Village Phase Two for a twin to the Chesterfield.
Similarly, the apartments floor plan would repeat along floors, making pulls for building systems like HVAC and plumbing simpler.
Outside, Parker's plan calls for retail along Main Street, with slightly below-grade storefronts given the buildings topographical siting. Two Main St. entrances on the ground floor would also provide access to office space on the Chesterfield's first floor and to apartments on the second through sixth floors.
Apartment units will largely be a mix of one and two bedroom units, Parker says, with a small number of three-bedrooms and studios.
The team also intends to set aside 20% of units for affordable workforce housing, targeted to residents earning 80% of the area median income (AMI). And Parker adds that their target rent price for full-market rate units are targeted to be somewhat lower than area options like West Village and the Lofts at Lakeview.
The sixth floor is targeted to include amenities like squash and racquetball courts and a media/theater room in its core in lieu of continuing storage up higher.
And the rooftop is proposed to contain a roof deck, jogging track and community garden. And, of course, a heck of a view.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In development, of course, nothing's final until the building's in the ground and the Certificate of Occupancy is pulled.
With public hearings and bond issuance still looming, there's no guarantee the Chesterfield plans that Josh Parker have laid out will come to fruition.
Still, is Parker is successful, it would bring a few hundred new residents to the urban core, supporting restaurants and theaters and retail options.
In the process, a rehabbed Chesterfield would add street-level activity along what's today one of the last "dead" sides of a street in downtown.
Should the project make it through the financing stage, Parker notes that construction could begin relatively quickly, since Barnhill has kept alive previously-issued building permits.
Demolition and hazard mitigation could start fairly quickly while detailed design work continues.
If all goes well, the project could be at the CO stage 18-20 months after work gets underway.
Until then, the building still sits on Durham's skyline, a dark structure that's one of the last reminders of the work and labor that built the Bull City in its first boomtown era.
If Parker (or anyone else) pulls off this rehab amidst a tough economic climate, it'll be a nice win for the city -- and proof that the homegrown entrepreneurial spirit that brought us our initial industrial era has found new outlets for expression.
(Chesterfield postcard image from UNC's collection, re-used from Endangered Durham)