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.
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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:
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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.