Historic Preservation Commission greenlights Greystone Apartments
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Pizzeria Toro team plans diner for Jack Tar, while developer says tower gets underway real soon now

The big-hole-in-the-ground downtown isn't a 21c Museum-Hotel art project or Major the Bull's swimming pool (though the latter would be a sight to see.) It's the future site, we've been told, of Austin Lawrence Partners' city-center tower, on the old Woolworth's site formerly controlled by Greenfire Development.

The developer also bought the old Jack Tar Motel next door from the widow of Ronnie Sturdivant, the early downtown investor killed at his other property on Chapel Hill St. some years back, to provide additional tower parking while maintaining the original hotel use of the building.

This week brings rumblings of what's to come at both sites.

This morning, a press release from the Durham Convention and Visitor's Bureau revealed plans for a diner in the Jack Tar -- with the restaurant taking and preserving that name even as the hotel finds a new moniker.

Meanwhile, the Triangle Business Journal this week tackled public records and Greenfire-cum-ALP staffer Paul Smith to address a question that's been buzzing in some corners of the downtown crowd: does Austin Lawrence have their financing, and can construction begin?

On the restaurant front, the folks who brought Durham Pizzeria Toro -- Cara Stacy, Gray Brooks, and Jay Owens -- have signed on to open a diner in the old "We Want Oprah" building.

The diner is slated for seven-day-a-week operations and will offer everything from breakfast and plate lunches all day long, to weekend brunch. The diner is planned to have a full bar as well.

Brooks -- whose Toro origin story was replete with references to his dozen years learning pizza and restaurants under local chef-entrepreneur Tom Douglas -- brings a different bit of lore to this venture, this time familial and Durham-based in nature.

His grandfather Peter Ligets, it turns out, owned a number of luncheonettes and diners in Durham in the 1940s, it seems.

A Seattle architecture firm will team with Durham's Center Studio Architecture (which worked on Toro and the larger Five Points site rehab) on the build-out, which is slated to be complete in summer 2016.

Oh and hey, guys, here's a big plus with a diner concept: no crazy pizza oven exhausts you have to worry about this time, right? Right?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Meantime, kudos to Triangle Business Journals' Amanda Hoyle for an update on the progress of Austin Lawrence Partners' slightly larger project: the 28-story One City Center tower on the old Woolworth's site.

Quick recap: Woolworth's donated their Corcoran and Main St. site including the remnants of the Geer Building to the City years back. Durham PR firm owner Carl Webb gained control of the site, later joining forces with Michael Lemanski as the other key man in Greenfire for a time. (Gary Kueber has much more on the site's history at the excellent Open Durham site.)

After Greenfire's stumbles in the post-Great Recession era, property control fell to Aspen-based developer Greg Hills, who pitched and won city incentive dollars for the signature skyscraper that local leaders had long favored for the site.

It's slated to be the first new skyscraper in Durham since the 1980s, when the late colorful-character Frank Wittenberg constructed the Durham Centre complex on Morgan St. during the last-generation downtown boom.

The big question we've heard in downtown circles has always been, does Austin Lawrence Partners have the financing lined up to get the project out of the ground?

During the City Council meeting on incentives, we seem to recall Hills talking about the significant interest that real estate investment trusts (REITs) had in projects like this and his confidence of getting financing.

To our (limited) knowledge, REITs are usually the so-called take-out financing on a project; along with pension funds and life insurers, they're looking to sink capital into assets and get cash flows over a long period of time.

More typically, a bank or other shorter-term lender will step up for construction financing, usually as long as they know that there's a take-out lined up.

According to the TBJ's Jones' reporting, a public records search didn't turn up signs of "major construction financing" as would typically be secured by the property itself -- though Armada Hoffler, a firm that partnered with Greenfire earlier to build the Whetstone Apartments on a downtown site Greenfire controlled near American Tobacco, is providing some funding through a joint venture deal.

Still, ALP Durham office managing partner Paul Smith (yep, formerly with Greenfire) told the business newspaper that the "project is doing great, and we're moving forward," saying underground work would resume on the site in the coming weeks.

Read more about the financing and project status at the TBJ, or stop by for their longer-look at the Hills and their larger vision for Durham. 



So this is a tangential question, but something I've been wondering: does Greenfire still actually exist as a going concern?

Rann Bar-On

Meanwhile, Blue Coffee Company, a locally owned African American business, announced that they could not open in their planned Church and Main site, due to TRIPLED construction cost. For those who don't know, Blue used to be in the same set of buildings as this new diner is planned for.

This is straight up classic displacement gentrification, folks: the replacement of a good, cheap, black-owned restaurant with a similar, but pricier white-owned one.


Great reporting, Kevin!


I am distraught to hear that Blue Coffee is not opening in their planned new site. Where did they announce this?


Don't build a business based on location in a location you don't control. Frank @ 9th St Bakery learned this lesson in Durham decades ago. Elmo's is great but it's no longer a bakery.

Bull City Rising

@Liz: I don't know about an announcement, but according to Lisa Sorg, the Blue Coffee folks are now running the cafeteria in the lower level of the NC Mutual Bldg. For those who didn't go there when it was under its previous management, it was this really cool old-school cafeteria populated by NC Mutual building folks as well as visitors from the American Tobacco campus and others. I haven't been to the NC Mutual cafeteria since Blue Coffee took over but will have to stop by.


I think the outpost at the Mutual cafeteria has ended as well. I got an email update from Blue Coffee yesterday (from their Kickstarter) about the halting of the Church and Main construction:



By the way the 21c Museum-Hotel has the most unremarkable entrance of any hotel I've know. inside it's quite nice, but the exterior> No marquee, no lettering, hardly lights. They have nearly a whole block to play with and I've seen entrances to secret service head quarters with more flair than that.

Rann Bar-On

@Natalie: yes, that would be ideal, but few starter businesses can afford to buy a building, and even when they can, it's a gigantic risk. Kelly and Billy bought the building in which they built Dashi. Those early Yelp reviews were a huge problem for them. Cutting one's losses is much easier when you don't own the building. It's a hard decision for any business.

Rob G

@Rann Bar-On:

Do people actually read Yelp? Or give a single f* about what it says?

Rann Bar-On

@Rob G: Not anyone who actually wants to know about food, but unfortunately, yes, they do.

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