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Old and In the Way: More on the Carpenter Building and Durham Police HQ

By Lisa Sorg

“It is not a jewel,” said Kevin Montgomery of O’Brien/Atkins architects, the firm designing the new Durham Police Headquarters. “Old does not mean historic.”

And with that, the old Carpenter Chevrolet was downgraded from 1920s diamond to 21st-century cubic zirconia. The building at Walker and Main streets dates from the 1923, and is in the way of the proposed new $81 million DPD HQ.

“I’m not sold on saving it,” said Councilmember Diane Catotti, at yesterday’s work session, noting that Council would likely be “heavily lobbied” this week to keep it.

Her colleagues, Eddie Davis and Cora Cole-McFadden, were equally skeptical of tapping into the city coffers for nearly $4 million when the money could be used for other projects. 

(For cost comparison’s sake, the city bought the HQ’s 4.5-acre parcel for $5.7 million.)

Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham, has long advocated for saving the Carpenter. As I reported for the INDY in April, it was listed on Preservation Durham's 2013 Places in Peril. Hillis pointed out during an April community visioning session that if you want historical connectivity between American Tobacco Campus to the west and Golden Belt to the east, then save Carpenter.

Certainly, there are problems with incorporating the Carpenter into the headquarter’s design: the floor height, HVAC and electrical systems, and probably the plumbing, considering about six weeks ago I walked by and huge floor fans were on full blast, drying the floor after a flood inside the building.

It’s not a good functional match, a lot like a horse-drawn Tesla, but as Bo Ferguson, deputy city manager for operations, noted, “it can be done.”

And the Carpenter should remain because the headquarters could have gone—and should go— elsewhere.

We would not be discussing the fate of the Carpenter and the headquarters’ potential to be the architectural bully on the block if the city had chosen a different location for the building. 

In addition to the required environmental clean-up—aka years of auto effluent—we learned yesterday that because of the site’s soil characteristics, the building will need a deep foundation. That adds to the both the construction and overall costs, which have now ballooned to $81 million, up from the proposed $62 million. 

Part of that expense is also the additional 36 parking spaces, which were to be surface, to the garage. (Surface parking along that stretch of East Main Street is not easy on the eyes, thus we want less, not more.)

Even with $9.6 million in savings—keeping certain DPD divisions such as property and evidence in their current locations—this is a sticky financial situation for the city.

“No money was created here,” said Councilmember Don Moffitt. “We just know the spending. It still hurts.”

While it’s likely too late to gnash our teeth about this now, it seemed clear from the get-go that the vacant 19-acre site on Fayetteville Street near N.C. 147 was a better fit. Besides the obvious problems with the four acres on Main Street, it’s a tight space with room for growth, whereas the alternative would have provided plenty of room for DPD to expand, if necessary. 

“If I were a developer, I would not build on this site,” Montgomery told Council.  

Updated for clarity: Montgomery was talking about the small triangle of land, but to be honest, it's not a bad concept to ask about the site chosen, too."

What he said. 



So why exactly dont we find another location??? So what they spent $4 m on land, sell it to someone else and build the police fortress elsewhere!


Yeah, "what he said" except that "what he said" just devalued the property for sale to a private developer if council all of a sudden came to their senses and decided to switch to the more appropriate site.

I'm still waiting to follow the money that led to council choosing the Carpenter Motors site. Someone, somewhere, got paid off because the decision never made sense.

If demolishing Carpenter is as done of a deal as it seems, what really gets me riled up is that they are still determined to plop some giant out of scale turd on Main St. Carpenter may only be "old ... not historic" but it relates to the street and the sidewalk much better than other government buildings and the sketches. Ironic because it was built as a freakin' car dealership, but true.

And to the quote from the live-blog that argues "When we say activate, we mean putting functions on that ground level that have eyes on the street, although we're not talking about retail, we're talking about movement. Retail within this building is not an appropriate usage." Does anyone feel that the current police HQ on W. Chapel Hill helps to activate that street?


Love that Milton Small's designed HQ!

Khalid Hawthorne

You can activate the street without retail. Wait...wait...hold the tomatoes. Plus I would not mind the "Triangle" becoming part of a plaza with a retail kiosk. There are safety reasons why retail would not integrate well with the Police HQ. I have not discovered a way around that unless someone has some ideas.

This IS the best site for the Police HQ outside of moving it further out. The Fayetteville Street site has a high future development premium that would be wasted on a government facility, a huge parking lot and a stormwater retention pond. Why not build the HQ at the Hendricks Auto site which is across the same exit? Same reason.

There is no way that anyone can provide an accurate cost estimate before examining a particular site. And there are still many variables once construction begins. I am not surprised by the cost at all. My thought process especially for long-term government buildings is to do it right the first time so that you don't have to keep coming back to fix/ alter things later.

Is this building out of scale to the Liberty Projects tower across the street? One thing about Durham is that when we put our minds towards creating solutions we are able to achieve some great things.

Plus that parking lot that will be between Social Services building and the Police HQ will begging for redevelopment especially once the Transit wheels start churning. A nice mixed-income/ mixed-use development that could tie in to the redevelopment of the Liberty Street projects. We need to have some vision here...

Angus Mcmanus

>> The Fayetteville Street site has a high future development premium that would be wasted on a government facility, a huge parking lot..

Right on. Why waste a government facility and mondo parking on a site with a high future development premium when we can waste a government facility and mondo parking on a site with a high CURRENT development premium, while destroying historic structures and kicking out start-up businesses at the same time?


Exactly my thoughts, Angus Mcmanus (if that is your real name, kudos to your parents). The Main St site is also a few hundred FEET from a future light rail station.

I wasn't able to follow this siting decision as closely as I would have liked to and I'm sure there are many legit reasons why the Fayetteville site was not chosen, but development potential cannot be one of them.

Khalid Hawthorne

Angus and Erik...I have never thought that knocking down the building needed to be part of the development of the HQ. That is a separate decision from the siting of the project. It is easier and cheaper to start with a blank slate. I don't think we should do easy and cheap.

My point was that developing this site does not stop development in the E. Main Government Services District. There are very few multi-acre sites close to downtown that are available for development especially ones between downtown and NCCU.

I would like to see an architecturally interesting Police HQ integrated in to a E. Main St. block and the current Carpenter building. Plus I was being very conservative about the development timeframe of the Fayetteville St site.

All about


Erik - I did follow the thoughts for development of the police HQ on this site and from what I gathered from news coverage - future development potential on the Fayetteville Rd site was exactly the number one public reason given. Like I said earlier, I wish I had the ability to "follow the money" on that decision.

Khalid - you don't want the city to do easy and cheap, I don't want the city to do easy and cheap, but what do you think the city is going to do? If you answered easy and cheap, you've won ... won ... won. Except that Durham has lost and shot itself in the foot again going for easy and cheap. Go read the reporting from the last meeting again, even the council members who might have been persuaded to keep Carpenter were shocked by the the $4+ million in cost to keep it.

As far as development potential on the current acres of county-owned surface parking, remember that there was supposed to be development on the front half and structured parking on the back half, but that got "value engineered" out of the county's plan because they went for, you guessed it, easy and cheap.


Just one more thought.

If our city and county governments were enlightened enough to work together, one could have imagined an alternate universe in which the two bureaucracies could invest together in structured parking on the current county lot. That parking could serve both the county building and the city PD HQ, leaving much more room on the PD HQ site for retaining Carpenter and other areas for private redevelopment...

Khalid Hawthorne

Excellent points Chris! There are many cases where we have been penny wise and pound foolish. Yet when persuaded the City can do the right thing. The DPAC is a prime took a lot of pressure from the community to get that project right. They did not spend wildly on that project but invested in important areas to make it a good project.

The Police HQ is a different animal but I would rather make a 20 to 50-year type investment in this site versus "let's just get them in a building". The Carpenter building could serve as the proposed Police Annex (auxiliary services such as lab testing and other services) while the main tower houses command. The citizen's need to keep the focus on creating a long-term solution that integrates the existing building and make smart decisions as far as value engineering. By the way value engineering should not include green items that will save on hard costs (operational) and soft costs (environmental).

As far as parking is concerned, I am glad that there is surface parking there because it leaves open many exciting public/ private possibilities beyond a deck wrapped by retail. I am not sure how the market will play out on that yet but probably closer to a 5-10 year horizon and definitely after the Hendricks & Elkins dealerships have been redeveloped. East of Roxboro is the last downtown development frontier. I am including Elizabeth/ Fayetteville St. in that equation.

The Old Fayetteville St Projects will probably be linked closely with the McDougal Terrace redevelopment project that received a HUD Choice Neighborhood planning grant not too long ago.

Khalid Hawthorne

By the way, I don't want to oversimplify the cost constraints. One constraint is the amount of debt that the city can carry and maintain its AAA rating. At the same time, if this is an important investment by the city raising revenue (tax rate) may be an option. Just something else to consider...

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