We noted here earlier this year that a developer with Wilmington ties is planning to renovate and add a rooftop level to the former Penny Furniture store at Five Points -- proposing, in the process, a mid-block traffic circle on Morris St., which would see a partial two-way traffic flow between the restaurant and the downtown loop.
Now we know a bit more about the project. Bull City firm Center Studio Architecture has asked the Historic Preservation Commission to approve a refurbishment and addition at 108 Morris St, documents filed this week at the City-County Planning Department show. John Fife Jr. of Wilmington is serving as point person for the developer, a corporation called G3 Durham.
The restaurant should be able to seat at least 200, Center Studio partner Scott Harmon told BCR. Diners will be able to choose from a wide variety of decor and cuisine.
“It’s intended to [have] three distinct personalities,” Harmon said. “It’s meant to feel like three separate spaces with feelings and focus, but all served from the same kitchen.”
And that kitchen? “It’s got everything under the sun... It’s going to be a pretty comprehensive menu,” Harmon said.
He would not divulge the name of the restaurateur, and he said his only knowledge of the restaurant concept and cuisine came from reviewing the kitchen design. Fife declined requests for an interview, as did officials at Greenfire Development, which controls the property.
In January, Fife told a Partners Against Crime District 5 meeting that a local restaurateur interested in joining the expanding downtown dining scene is attached to the project.
The prominent interior staircase near the front entrance of 108 Morris will remain, according to plans filed with the Historic Preservation Commission. A new spiral staircase leading from the second floor to the top level will be built beneath a skylight set into the new third-level roof. An elevator to be installed in the northeast corner of the building will serve all three floors.
Plans show bars on every floor and sushi bars stationed on the ground and roof levels. The second floor will have a private dining room enclosed by a combination of permanent walls and sliding doors.
An open-air deck will allow seating on the western and north sides of the roof, respectively overlooking Morris Street and the Durham Arts Council. The rooftop structure will feature sliding doors that when open will allow indoor diners to enjoy fresh air.
Artists’ conceptions of the redeveloped building show the rooftop edifice as being minimally visible from a variety of spots in the Five Points district.
“The new addition occurs above the current roof plane and is held back from the block face in order to differentiate it from the historic street front,” according to plans filed with the Historic Preservation Commission.
The additions were “designed to appear secondary to the building’s historic character, primarily through their location and visibility,” the plans state. “At the same time, the potential to remove these new additions will not adversely affect the historic fabric of the building and thus future modifications can occur without major effect on the historic fabric."
A few aspects of the building’s exterior will change noticeably. The street-level storefront will be restored to a more historically appropriate aspect. All four second-floor windows on the western side, which are currently bricked in, will be reopened.
So will several bricked-in second-floor windows on the northern side. Two new doors will be added to that side. General repairs to the structure’s masonry will also be made.
The developer has yet to decide what will become of Emily Weinstein’s Eno River mural on the northern wall. At best, it will be a secondary consideration, Harmon said. “I think we’re going to treat the historic preservation of the building as a priority over the preservation of the mural.”
Harmon has told the developer that a decision on the mural will need to be made at the latest by the time of the Historic Preservation Commission hearing. Even if it is going to stay, the painting — which the architect characterized as being in poor condition — will be affected by restored and new openings on the northern wall and by masonry repairs.
The developer is hoping to win federal and state tax credits that would reimburse 40 percent of renovation costs excluding the purchase of the property, Harmon said. He expects the state to sign off on the tax credits shortly and believes that the U.S. Department of the Interior could do the same by mid-April.
Locally, Harmon is hopeful that the Historic Preservation Commission will approve redevelopment plans at its April 5 meeting. The Commission has previously issued its approval for the street reconfiguration and traffic circle requested by the developer.
The 11,500-square-foot building at 108 Morris Street is currently owned by a corporation called the Stables, which has Greenfire Development managing partner Michael Lemanski as its manager. The 1910 building, which the Stables purchased for more than $382,000 in July 2004, is listed for sale on Greenfire’s Web site. According to Harmon and others, G3 holds an option to buy the site.
Construction might start as soon as June and could last eight months to a year, Harmon said.
Approval of a plan that will add a traffic circle to the 100 block of Morris Street and allow two-way traffic north of the roundabout was key to the redevelopment moving forward.
108 Morris Street is one of the larger two-story buildings downtown, even without the rooftop addition, according to Harmon. “To get the number of warm bodies in to a restaurant like that on a consistent basis, the restaurateur and the developer both felt like — that the challenges of a one-way Morris Street ... were going to have an impact on the economic viability on the restaurant,” he said.
As noted here last week, Harmon is working to acquire and redevelop a vacant city-owned property at the corner of Morris and East Chapel Hill streets. He’s hoping that structure — 102 Morris, which is right beside 108 — will become home to a pizzeria and bakery as well as the new offices for Center Studio Architecture.