After 32 years, Fishmonger's in Brightleaf Square closes because of tax problems
Durham Kids Save to seed post-secondary savings for Y.E. Smith students; 2-for-1 donation match today

County reveals old Courthouse's proposed new look, retail; HPC weighs in this week

I'll be the first to admit it: I've often been underwhelmed, like many of you perhaps, at the County's idea of urban development.

While the County got a great recession-era price on the new Courthouse, for instance, its entry plaza is a barren wasteland at stark contrast with well-activated, engaging urban spaces elsewhere in downtown. And heck, when the project was under discussion, it took a ton of community grousing from this site and hundreds of other folks to preserve even the glimmer of a street-level retail future for the new Courthouse's parking deck.

Similarly, the Human Services building on East Main has managed to be uncharmingly similar to the old Sears department store there that once housed the functions. Sure, there's glass and windows, but it's still a big-box-on-the-block, with all its attractive green space on the inside and no street-level retail to engage East Main -- to say nothing about the big ol' parking lot next door. (Witness the resulting scrutiny over a planned Durham Police HQ just to the east of here.)

It's for these reasons, then, that I feel more than a glimmer of optimism about the proposed refresh of the 1978-era County Courthouse, on the northwest corner of Roxboro and Main.


Compare this to the structure we've known and un-loved for so long:


The old structure -- said by Jim Wise and others to have been outgrown almost as soon as it opened, and brought to obsolescence less than forty years later by the jail-blocking tower -- is proposed to become administrative office space.

And we'll give the County credit for thinking imaginatively on a couple of fronts. The new proposal calls for a recladding of the structure that modernizes its look significantly, though there likely will be some appropriate scrutiny on the cost and ROI of this effort.

And just as importantly, the plans call for retail space along the entire south side of the building, activating the Main Street corridor.

Durham's Historic Preservation Commission gets a crack at the plans on Tuesday. Let's delve a bit more into what this looks like and what it means.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The plan calls for a reboot of the building's exterior -- meaning both its exterior fascia and the landscaping/hardscaping around it, as well as the first floor programming -- as part of a larger remodeling of the structure intended to unify staff currently situated in facilities throughout the county.

As staff at OBrienAtkins put it in their application, the plan calls for the County to "update the exterior facades and fully renovate the building interior," with a "new cladding design to provide better pedestrian scale, new windows with more transparent glazing and enclosure of the existing building recess at street level to provide an improved connection to the existing streetscape."

To the latter point first: the existing structure has the upper floors overhang the first floor and street level. Coupled with highly-reflective window, the structure isn't exactly the most welcoming sight one sees in Durham.

Previously, of course, entering through Main Street's door underneath that overhang brought you through a security checkpoint before you could access courtrooms, jury sequestering and offices on the other levels.

Now, the Main Street side of the building and the lobby itself are re-envisioned as open spaces. Indeed, the entire Main Street frontage would add significant retail pads in both the traditional building envelope and the expanded area.

Add to that the presence of meeting and conference rooms on the first floor -- functions that often involve members of the public, and so a natural use of a ground floor -- and you have a much more welcoming structure more attuned for its post-judicial life as office space, while still presumably reducing the need for visits to upper floors.


We're positively thrilled to see the inclusion of retail so prominently. It's nice to see the County learning how important its stewardship of street frontage can be. (We're not sure if it's a lesson that former County engineer Glen Whisler learned during his time planning projects like the new Courthouse, or something that's more a reflection of his retirement in 2014.)

And the replacement of reflective windows with clearer ones will certainly make the building a more attractive part of the street.

Don't be surprised to hear a fair amount of concern raised about changing the building's exterior skin as this project moves forward.

Based on the description in the HPC agenda item, we're assuming that the old Courthouse shares one of the benefits that the downtown main Library branch has. Little good comes out of the 1970s, it seems, where architecture is concerned, but we should be thankful that both of the buildings are easily "skinned" -- that is, were designed as steel frames with cladding and panels attached to them, making a change in the exterior appearance of the building a simpler matter than many other construction techniques.

A new exterior consisting of an aluminum curtainwall system, terracotta baguette/louver sunshade and stone and metal cladding would replace the existing, off-white monochromatic exterior. Here's some additional renders:



~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One concern we'd like to see more data on is how the exterior cladding change would compare with other alternatives.  The addition of retail and changes to windows could be done, the argument goes, without changing the exterior materials for what could amount to a cosmetic upgrade.

OBrienAtkins claims that they'll see some environmental benefits and lowered utility costs from the project, and one presumes that better exterior materials are a part of that, but we don't have any data on that in the HPC filing.

For what it's worth, I can see the value in modernizing a frankly unattractive, unappealing building to improve the character of this part of downtown.  

The big caveat to me would be, how much does the cladding add to the cost, and does that expense crowd out other projects, such as a far more important re-skinning -- the long-promised, and presumably soon-arriving, renovation of the downtown main Library.

That project, included in the County's 2014-2023 capital improvement program, was originally programmed to cost $14.3 million amidst a larger $120 million in general obligation bonds largely aimed at Durham Public Schools capex. The plan, drafted a couple of years back, called for a GO bond vote this fiscal year, though -- something we haven't heard much about lately. (Update: The main library renovations will be programmed into a bond issue expected to be on the ballot in November 2016.)

And, of course, those plans, budgeted against a 2009 planning process, are in flux. The County Library's website notes a new Raleigh architecture firm is now attached to the Library restart as of earlier this year, and is revising of the 2009-era plan for the facility; we could expect that this could change the funding target for the downtown Library reboot. Currently, the downtown Library is slated to close in 2017 and reopen in 2018 or 2019. (More information at this web site.)

The 1970s courthouse refurb, on the other hand, clocks in in the CIP at just over $16.1 million in total cost. And since that project would be funded by limited obligation bonds, the Courthouse-cum-new administration building won't require voter approval to fund.

On the surface, then, the projects are both "funded" in the CIP, and from different sources of funds. Still, we wouldn't be at all surprised to see more scrutiny over the benefits and cost return of the recladding, particularly if it represents a non-trivial portion of the project cost. 

And that's particularly true when, funding source and voter bond referenda aside, the old Courthouse rehab clocks in as a pricier project than the long-overdue library renewal. It'd be interesting to have some more assurances from the County that the costs for this are still squarely within the most recent CIP figures.

Of course, before we get to anything further where construction is concerned, the Historic Preservation Commission gets to weigh in this Tuesday.

The HPC gets involved with significant projects within the Downtown Durham Historic District, though the project's application notes that that district plan, updated in 2011, excludes the 1970s-era courthouse from any historic designation. Ultimately, in the staff's analysis, this leads to some interesting gymnastics -- with staff finding in some cases that the plan meets the district plan requirements, while in those cases where it doesn't, noting the building's non-historic status as mooting the point, so it would seem.

Planning staff do note that the new cladding and building's base expansion impact two key Modernist elements of the structure, but add that they preserve the Modernist characteristic of a "top-heavy massing of the upper floors over a lighter base."

In another section, staff note that the planned alterations are impacting elements that "are not deteriorated or missing," changes that would not ordinarily meet the criteria required, yet note that because the building isn't historic, most of the criteria in that section don't apply.

It's an interesting set of questions, and one which we'll be very interested to see how the HPC addresses during their meeting this week.


Michael Bacon

Unfortunately I think this fixes the wrong problem with the courthouse. The upper windows and the cornice of the current design aren't all that bad in my opinion. If the "re-skin" helps with energy efficiency, great, but the new design isn't that much better than the old one if you ask me.

The biggest problem with the courthouse is its siting smack in the middle of the block, surrounded by complete dead space. A refurb that left the tower in-tact but built out to the sidewalk on the first level would be a better step, I'd sya.


One way to engage the street without more mass would be outdoor dining areas bounded by 3f or so walls. All four sides have space, and and least 1 is bounded by a surface lot. I'm thinking some, at the ground floor, at least, along the lines of the arcade in Asheville. This is all under the assumption that the building is there to stay.

Joshua Allen

I certainly like the retail street frontage. That's super important for a walkable and vibrant downtown. There are many cities, like Houston, that have little street level retail and that makes for a pedestrian free downtown that only has day time inhabitants.

However, as for the building cladding I actually like the existing skin better than the new renderings. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As ugly as some arhictecture is, it often can be appealing in later decades. I say give it 20 more years.

Rob Emerson

Architectural styles fall in and out of favor through the years. Consider all the Queen Anne Victorians and Craftsman bungalows torn down because they were dark and fussy and overly ornamented, or the countless early 20th century brick and glass storefronts that were "improved" by hiding them behind shiny aluminum panels. How about the Jack Tar or the Mutual Community Savings Bank (Durham Hotel) which were both considered hideous and targeted for demolition?

This building is an authentic part of Durham's story, and contributes to the architectural tapestry that makes up our streetscape. Opening up the exterior of the ground floor, adding retail, improving the site, and replacing the non-original mirrored glazing on the upper stories would make this a much better building, while retaining more of its original character, and undoubtedly saving money.

As someone who grew up in the 70's and 80's, I think this building has a certain "Hall of Justice" cache that might just be cool again one day. It seems unnecessary and short-sighted to make such wholesale changes, repackaging 1970's architecture in a shiny new coat that itself will be out of season in a few years.


I don't think the rendering accurately displays the distance from the street to the building. It's a wasteland.

Todd Patton

'originally programmed to cost $14.3 million amidst a larger $120 million in general obligation bonds largely aimed at Durham Public Schools capex. The plan, drafted a couple of years back, called for a GO bond vote this fiscal year, though -- something we haven't heard much about lately.'

The DPS Long Range Facilites Plan, last updated in 2013, includes $396 million in projects over 10 years, 2013-2023.

The list includes a lot of basic renovations at DPS' 50+ facilities that won't get any cheaper by putting them off - roof repairs, painting, HVAC maintenance, fire alarms, etc., but does not include other clear needs such as classroom additions so that trailers could be eliminated.

A 2016 county bond issue is needed, but $100 million for DPS is a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed.

The Mgmt

I am not convinced that building has any value. It's really not all that different from the South Bank building, which is more likely scheduled for the wrecking ball.

Also, it's not clear why low level administrative County work NEEDS to be downtown. Why wouldn't the County put it up for bid, and move lesser functions to a less valuable site. Downtown is better for entrepreneurial functions (both for profit and non profit variety), and we all benefit from places like American Underground having more room to grow. Why not lease/sell it to AU making it an incubation space?

Then we could talk about what to do with that money (more housing transit parks, lower taxes, etc). To me, that renovation looks like a money pit. It might give us a marginally better building, but it also might be a gross misallocation of resources.


Please just sell it to a dwcent developer and spend tge money on a project worthwhile! The buildinh is a dinosaur and always has been from day one- either sell it or tear it down, but don't waste any more money on it!


Sorry about the spelling- fat finger syndrome!


@ The Mgmt - the reason is because the county still sees downtown as the slums where 'no one' wants to locate. They are doing a SERVICE! damnit!


The project looks comparable to the 2012 re-skinning of Duke's Gross Chemistry Building, which didn't add any space and cost $29 million:

It is an interesting idea to wrap the old building with new buildings, bringing the facade to the street. The interior spaces would be dark, but that may be a workable solution. Creatively, atriums and lightwells could be built between the new and old.

@200/sf, $29m would get you 145,000sf of new construction. If it was kept rustic and affordable, maybe double that.

Should be considered.

Erik Landfried

Guess I'll be the contrarian here. I don't have an issue with this building or the plans for it thus far. In fact, I'm pretty encouraged by them. I agree that the cladding should only be added if it's not a huge expense and improves energy efficiency, but I can't imagine that's taking up a huge chunk of the budget. It's 60 feet from the edge of the crosswalk to the front of the building (part of that is an extra wide sidewalk at the crosswalk). That's hardly a wasteland. No, it's not like much of Main Street as you move closer to Five Points, but that seems like a nice amount of space for outdoor patios.

I'm particularly perplexed by the notion that County staff should be flung to suburbia so that some young entrepreneurs can occupy the space. Why, exactly? Why shouldn't County staff be allowed to work downtown and take advantage of all that it offers (good public transit, the ability to walk around, restaurants other than Zaxby's)? The fact that the first floor would mostly be meeting rooms also makes a lot of sense for a downtown location.

I've been as critical as anyone else about the County's previous attempts at building in an urban space, but this offers a new direction. I for one will be encouraging that direction.

Khalid Hawthorne

Plaza spaces can also be activated by retail/ restaurant kiosks. Plus public art and various activities/ sitting places to provide a reason for people to stay and linger. Major the Bull is a good example of a draw but CCB Plaza could use several more.

I would prefer improving the existing facade and spending the rest on improving the public spaces between the building and the street.

The proposed design would make the Old First Union building more attractive though....

Jonathan Jones

The new facade is more attractive than the existing one, but I don't think it solves the major problem with this building. Its location in the middle of the block, with so much wasted space on all four sides, isn't fixed by putting some fresh lipstick on.

I'm not sure I've ever advocating tearing down an existing building, but I would not be upset if this one were to meet the wrecking ball. I have to wonder if this entire block wouldn't be better off with a start-from-scratch redevelopment.

I am curious BCR, if OBrienAtkins plans mention anything about how the old jail on the top floor or the mix of secured parking/office space in the basement would be handled. Both seem like they would present some interesting challenges to make useful again.


Does anyone know what the plan is for the current Durham police station site is?

Jamie Gruener

I happened to go to this meeting today and can report that the relevant COAs (formally, applications for Certificates of Appropriateness) were both continued. I've not been following this project, but apparently at the September HPC meeting the request was made of the County and OBrienAtkins to clarify some of the features of the COA request prior to the HPC passing judgment.

The resulting strategy (presumably on the assumption that the COA was not going to be approved) was to split the application into two COAs, the first for demolition and the second for the construction. For those following HPC cases, you'll note that the HPC cannot deny a COA for demolition, though they can choose to not shorten the 365 day delay. (I was there to speak about a COA application for 2308 W. Club, a structure slated for demolition under this very same process, but I'm happy to report received a COA that will save the entire structure.)

Critically, and to the incredulity to all present save the petitioners, the demolition COA application pertained *only to the exterior of the building*. The attempt to clarify what "demolition" meant and whether the HPC was in a position to take a position on the definition of "demolition" became the focus of conversation with representatives from the city and county, including a city attorney, stating that the HPC had no authority to pass judgement on whether the COA petition was even valid on that question. Apparently Steve Medlin, Director of the City-County planning department, issued an opinion *yesterday* that under the UDO a petitioner could claim that "demolition" could pertain only to the exterior of a structure. The city attorney further claimed that the opinion overrode any authority the HPC had in determining what was meant by the demolition of a building.

If anyone is curious I can provide some more details, but the end result was that the HPC ultimately decided that they needed additional information before the HPC could issue a judgment on the demolition COA and that without that matter decided no decision could be made on the new construction COA. It was a crazy thing to see unfold.

The Mgmt.

The only crazy thing here is that a Historic Preservation Commission is allowed a voice in the renovation of a freestanding building built in 1978.


I'm glad the county realized that it actually could lease space in its own buildings. Back when they wanted to demolish the building across the street and make the worlds worst park out of that site, they asserted that they couldn't possibly lease the office space to non-governmental parties.

For this site, the plans ignore a bigger problem with this building than the setback on Main St (which I agree could be put to good use as restaurant/coffeehouse patio space, for example). That is the setback/below grade but exposed parking on the Roxboro St. side.,-78.8981836,3a,75y,301.26h,84.17t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sTVQo-JJF0pZYdAXB2hCetQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

I'm not sure how this can be addressed, but fixing this issue would be a better use of funds than redressing the windows.

Rob Emerson

Mgmt -

A local historic district is just that - an entire contiguous district that is comprised of every streetscape, every vista, and every building of every architectural style and age - even the ones built in 1978, and even the ones we might not personally like. This huge structure that served as our courthouse for more than 40 years is inarguably a part of the historic fabric of our downtown, and its disposition does affect all the other buildings and streets around it. It is well within the purview of the HPC to consider the impact of any demolition, major alterations, or new construction anywhere within the district.

Much more important than the specific architectural merits here is the awful precedent that the County's strategy sets. This is clearly a renovation project, not a building demolition. Attempting to force the HPC to approve this as a demolition request (which State Law says they cannot deny) undermines the fundamental value of local historic districts, and will encourage every future applicant who wants to alter a building's exterior to do the same thing.

The City and County are the two government bodies who created the local historic districts and the HPC (and appoint its citizen volunteer commissioners), who wrote the local district guidelines, and who enforce them on citizens. This strategy would never fly if a private developer or homeowner tried it, and for our own government officials to craft and advocate for it because they don't like the process is breathtakingly hypocritical and tremendously disappointing.

The comments to this entry are closed.