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Durham skyscraper construction is a go; traffic in some lanes could stop

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.38.27 AM
Photo from Austin Lawrence Partners

The Durham tower, 27 stories of glass and concrete that will redefine the downtown skyline (touché, Durham Clinical Research Institute!) is really happening. Yes, you’ve heard it before. No, this is not a drill.

On Feb. 15, construction workers will begin shoring up the hole and prepping the foundation, the first step in a 27-month process of building the skyscraper. When complete, the City Center will have ground-floor retail, 155,000 square feet of office space — 55,000 of it leased by Duke University. There will be 21 floors of residences and two levels of underground parking.

Last night at a neighborhood meeting held in the mid-century Modern offices of Austin Lawrence Partners at the SouthBank Building, ALP President Greg Hills told the 30 or so people assembled: “I’m not sure we thought this day would happen. The dirt hole that’s been there, I apologize if it inconvenienced or bothered anybody.”



Photo by Lisa Sorg

The hole, actually the cavern, at Corcoran, Main and Parrish streets, has been sitting there, very hole-like, for a year. To prepare for the skyscraper, ALP demolished three vacant buildings (and a piano left inside one of them) along Main and Parrish streets, removing the façade brick by brick for later use on new structures. Originally, ALP had planned to save the structures, but after structural testing, came before the Historic Preservation Commission to say, sorry, but a lot of the bricks are essentially congealed dust. The HPC, after much gnashing of teeth, approved the demolition.

The adjacent green space, privately owned but publicly occupied as a de facto park, was excavated — an old bank vault removed — and then obscured behind green fencing. For a year. That did bother people who not only were annoyed by the construction fencing but also noted that the green space could have been used until the project was assured.



Photo by Lisa Sorg

Construction delays worried downtown business owners and residents, who wondered if the financing had fallen through, and thus if the heart of the city would permanently have a hole.

When the $70 million project came before City Council for approval in April 2014 —a $4 million incentives package as part of the deal — the target date for completion was mid-2016. Construction on the tower was estimated to begin last September, Hills said, “but the deal got complicated. Our intentions were good.”

Hillis said last night that the financing is “solid,” and that even if an economic crash similar to the 2009 recession occurs, “the project will go on.”

At the meeting, downtown residents and business owners learned what “will go on” means. There will be noise. There will be booms from cranes swinging over adjoining buildings (everyone, check your insurance). And there will be major traffic changes.

“We do we know we’re all going to make a sacrifice to make a better Durham,” Hills said.

Corcoran Street will become one-way south for the entire duration of the project; Parrish Street will become one-way west for a year, starting in June. For businesses and residents that just endured a year-plus of the Downtown Loop water main replacement, well, they’re over it.

Lisa Miller of Seven Star Cycles, 104 W. Parrish St., told Hills and the development team that city officials had said the public would have an opportunity to comment on the traffic plans. “That didn’t happen,” she said.

Other Parrish Street businesses will be affected as well. The Carrack Modern Art, which has become a downtown cultural destination at 111 W. Parrish St., adjoins the skyscraper site. Gallery owner Laura Ritchie says structural engineers would inspect the building this week to see if the exterior wall needs bolstered. (Loaf is on the first floor of the same building.)

Day-to-day, though, Ritchie said, “I’m concerned about scheduling, because our shows are short. I’m worried about visibility. I’m worried about artists loading in and out.“

Like most developments, the City Center has its supporters and its opponents. The anti-skyscraper side says it is concerned that the even higher condo/apartment ($1 million for a tower penthouse) and commercial rents threaten to displace long-time local businesses and residents. Hills has long said he wants local businesses in the tower’s ground-floor retail. But with rates for commercial space running at least $35 per square foot — well above the $20-$25 mark that some tenants in Class A space are paying — it’s hard to imagine even successful businesses like The Parlour locating there. That’s a lot of ice cream cones.

The gentrification alarm also sounded when Blue Coffee Café, formerly on the ground floor of the old Jack Tar Motel, had to close as part of ALP’s renovation of that building. (With interior demolition complete, that project begins in earnest in March, and will take about a year.) That project will require a pedestrian tunnel to be built on the north side of Parrish Street.

But that space, anyway, will stay locally run: the owners of Pizzeria Toro plan to open a diner, albeit more upscale than Blue Coffee’s $5 breakfast special. With a rooftop bar and pool, the new Jack Tar “is going to be a place where a lot of locals go, just to enjoy being there,” Hills said.

The pro-skyscraper side says the tower will further enliven downtown Durham, amping up the central business district into a 24-hour city, and adding stores and other retail destinations to the neighborhood.

Jennings Brody recently opened a new home décor and gift shop, Chet Miller, at 118 W. Parrish St., is next door to the Jack Tar and across the street from the City Center site.

With the Carrack and Loaf, Chet Miller will bear the brunt of the construction inconveniences —and could reap the rewards of its new neighbors.—

“I’m super excited about the potential,” said Brody, who also owns Parker and Otis. “I’m a little scared for my business, but if I can hold on for 2 1/2 years it’ll be great.”


Thomas Matthews

"The anti-skyscraper side says it is concerned that the even higher condo/apartment ($1 million for a tower penthouse) and commercial rents threaten to displace long-time local businesses and residents."

How does that make sense? There's no space to rent there right now, it's a vacant lot and a condemned building. No one will be displaced in this current building, and increasing downtown rental space can only drive down the rents of neighboring buildings.

Lisa Sorg

Thomas, the concern is downtown-wide, where commercial rents are increasing, not solely at this property. The rent will definitely be higher at the old Blue Coffee space. Increased supply of office space will be affordable if the property owners want it to be; whether that will happen is what concerns some downtowners.

Thomas Matthews

I agree in the case of renovations, etc. However this is a wholly new structure on an unused lot, which is the focus of the article.


It kind of feels like we are lacking a basic understanding of economics here.

Joshua Allen

Market forces are at work. You can't have the downtown of 15 years ago that no one went to and cheap rents and have the rivitalization that everyone wanted that's now happened. Now everyone wants to be downtown but there is very limited space. It's the law of supply of demand. Having downtown revitalized comes at a price. People who have the money to pay and want to live there will by default displace people of lesser means, but let's be honest. There weren't many people living downtown before this boom! And the few that were can continue to live there if they own or choose to cash out at great reward. If you don't like it, try to figure out a better system. We're getting density with the high rise. We're supposed to be about density so we can support mass transit. There is no better system than the mix of democracy and capitalism that we have. At least that anyone has though of so far. Limited space means you will have some winners and some losers. How else do you want to decide who gets to live downtown?

BTW, this article is strikingly similar to the N&O article.

Lisa Sorg

Joshua, I wrote both the N&O article and this one, having been assigned by both outlets. The N&O prefers a traditional news format; BCR allows for a more highly voiced style. Thus, this story has the same facts, but additional analysis.


Oh, Lisa...


Durham's downtown streets are just too narrow to support a project of this size.


It seems wildly out of proportion for our downtown.

Ram Neta

Prices rise when increase in demand outstrips increase in supply. If downtown rents are going to stay low given the population increase, there just has to be vastly more inventory. (San Francisco rents have now climbed higher than New York rents precisely because they have such tight zoning restrictions in the former.) If there's demand for inventory at a lower price, then city council should make it easier for property developers to create that inventory: I'll put up the money myself if I'm persuaded that a good developer can work with city council to make it happen.

Erik Landfried

@Tom - Do you mean for the construction period or long-term? I disagree in either case, but am curious which you mean. I do find it amazing that, with the exception of a couple small streets, every north-south road in downtown Durham is or will be one-way during the construction period. Seriously, you have to go all the way to Buchanan on the west side and Dillard on the east side to find two-way north-south roads. That's ridiculous.


For two years now, I've woken up every day but Sunday in Durham to loud, buzzing, ceaseless construction of an ugly mixed-use condo building that all of my friends and most of the long-time residents of Durham could not afford to live in. Some houses were torn down for it. Others were abandoned near it. Many of our neighbors who were trying to make something there just left, for rising rents, taxes, and that ceaseless noise.

When I go where I used to go to relax in Durham Central Park, to try to get away from the concrete and traffic, I watch children shouted over by more construction of even more exclusive condos that even fewer people here could hope to afford - marketed by an "Own Downtown" tagline, if I remember it right.

I am naieve as anyone here and know only how things feel to me; but through my eyes, Durham is being consumed by a pattern that connects the luxury hotels and developments that seem to be built for someone none of us are actually allowed to meet. This pattern proclaims what so many cities have before: that all these communities, all these parks, all this history, all these gardens, all this culture, all these memories, all these struggles, all these unique small businesses are ultimately stock photos to feed the 1% who are so starved for meaning, for culture, for reality, for 'character' that they need to continually consume cities and culture to not immediately drop dead from the smart growth tapeworm of their heartbreaking digital emptiness. It gnaws at the smiles that they try to rehabilitate with $20 cocktails named after historical figures. It convinces them to convince us that growth is good, even when the planet is catching on fire; that growth is good, even though it means children play in parks and neighborhoods shoved into the shadows of condos that will inevitably price them out; that growth is good, even though it only will make the smallest fraction of any of us who are affected by it any happier, any more contented.

May this skyscraper sate at least one rich developer's spiritual tapeworm so they can stop pushing their ugly lifeless megaliths on all of us and finally experience the 'enoughness' that some of us used to know, in our peaceful backyards, with our beautiful neighbors, before the shadow started blocking our sun and the noise devoured our songbirds' prayers. And in agreement with the sign that stands before the hole that waits this massively dull mistake: "the sky is not the limit" - but the earth is.

Kevin Davis

Hope: I first visited Durham in 1992, moved here in 2005.

In 1992, the city was still industrial, although the industry was dying (and some, like ATC, had closed.)

In 2005, downtown wasn't filled with beloved small businesses waiting to be forced out by condos. It was filled with... almost nothing. (Parrish St. Grill, the old Main St. deli, Blue Coffee among a few notable exceptions. I guess Ringside, to/for some.)

You could hear songbirds because there were no people.

Durham Central Park was ... industrial land, until citizens reclaimed it with city support. The intent was to make it recreational. It was also, when you talk to some of those involved with its founding, intended to anchor redevelopment of Durham's moribund, dead, empty, dead, vacant, dead downtown.

I see the concern, disappointment, fear you are sharing from many who are worrying about downtown. I wonder in some cases, if they were downtown a decade ago when time seemingly had passed Durham by. In some of the cases, I suspect they moved here in the late 2000s/early 2010s, excited by Durham's promise, not aware that they weren't entering a longstanding status quo, but were in fact part of the wave of change they feared. (Not saying this is the case for you, but in the case of some of Durham's recently most-vocal advocates talking on change, I wonder why I never heard of them until the last few years.)


@Kevin - as a very young chick walking home drunk most nights through downtown Durham in the early 00s, my favorite quip was that I'd have to see anyone on my walks home in order to be harmed on my way back to east durham. I literally saw maybe two dozen people in that walk over the course of FIVE YEARS of walking home after dark from the TTA stop (and the bars). Downtown was so dead.

Khalid Hawthorne

The result of not building UP would be even HIGHER prices...imagine that!

It would be an interesting exercise for people to attach pictures of attractive towers and urban development. We are very good at slamming potential developments but I have not seen a whole lot of alternatives pitched outside of low-rise or green space.

Here are some examples of various density and scale from Vancouver that stick out in my mind:





@Kevin - I appreciate what feels to me like your open minded and thoughtful response, and for the ability to express myself here. I assume that everyone here has very real and personal care for Durham, and that we're all doing our best to figure it out together.

I've only known Durham for a decade. I've seen the area around Central Park totally vacant and scorching on an August day and thought: who would want to walk around here or be here? and I acknowledge that in coming here, I brought my own wishes for the city and had my own affect on it. It's been a dilemma that friends of mine have faced in other cities, too: the community garden or neighborhood commons you create you later find on the brochure of the high-cost condo that displaces all the gardeners and neighbors. I don't have an answer to that pattern that we've seen again and again, and though I forget this when I'm lost in emotions over it, I don't have blame, either. Everyone is doing what they think will benefit the city (except maybe the out-of-town developers).

The main questions I wish we could ask as a community that I don't ever hear (though maybe others are asking) are: why is big high-density and luxury class growth inevitable, and who is it really for?

Building up or building out are still both building, growth, increase. The rents and appraisals of all the neighborhoods bordering these developments have not gone down or stabilized because of an increased high-rise housing stock; they have risen dramatically - doubled, tripled in decades. If we imagine that this is to benefit the lower and middle classes of Durham, I just don't see the numbers agreeing with that. What I see in numbers alone is a massive increase in rents across the board. A pricing out. It is anchoring economic development, and it doesn't seem like letting a downtown stagnate in vacancy is the answer; but I think we are trapped in a story where we choose between vacancy and the other extreme: this nebulous, often dogmatized package deal of usually corporate-driven, high-price growth and economic development that can create a handful of modestly paying local jobs for existing residents, but mostly prices them out of their neighborhoods in the process, as part of a continual terraforming towards the creative class. The influx of this kind of growth may give some benefits to all at first, but the effect on the system almost always seems to be to skew towards the privileged over time; and of course, the environmental effects are non-reversible and rarely talked about.

Arguments about how a high-density high rise replacing a green field is somehow environmental may even have a good logical basis, but the wise 5 year old somewhere in me looks at all that construction and waste and concrete and size and parking decks that certainly don't look like something friendly to our planet, and wonders if there's not a very deeply storied confusion somewhere underneath that argument that we're afraid to explore. I see the math, I've read the arguments when the same thing was being created in Carrboro, and now that that thing (or many of those things) is there, I have to ask: really? Was this really smart development, to which the only alternative would have been something monstrously worse?

So I will share my naieve dream: I dream of community-directed growth that meets the real needs of our existing communities, while creating some space to welcome others. The medium-term and systemic effects are modeled and considered by the community. The impact on the quality of life of the people already there is considered by the community. We consider brave collective action, like community land trusts, municipal banks, and regeneration of the commons. We realize that two kinds of beauty you can't buy or get from outside investors are the beauty of a deeply rooted community that has learned to cooperative over generations and the beauty of natural areas allowed to grow tall mature trees that clean the water and invite rich biodiversity; and the kind of things you do to nurture those forms of beauty may be diametrically opposed to the kind of things you do to attract big investors. In this dream, we stay all the way out of the socially and ecologically devastating race-to-the-bottom that so many impoverished American towns are desperately participating in when an "Open for Business" sign replaces their municipal welcome signs (or in Florida's case, the entire state's... and look at the effect there). We nurture this dream in part by examining what we're creating and who it is for and how much of it we're creating and what it leaves us with when the boom ends, as every boom ends. In this dream, I think a green space begins to be a fantastic alternative to both high rise and sprawl development. I and everyone I know will never be invited into the top floors of any of those high rises; but we would love to meet all of you for a picnic on a beautiful green space, where we talk bravely about what a city for everyone would truly look like and support the genius in each of us for helping that come to be.

End of rant :) and care for all of you

Damian Smith


Khalid Hawthorne

Thanks for playing along Damian! ;-)

@hope - Say that there are 200 units in a downtown tower on around an acre of land. How much land would those 200 units take up in a typical suburban development? How many trees would be cut down? How many vehicle miles would be driven for EVERY basic need (yes...I realize that downtowners still own cars and make trips but they are typically shorter).

As people reference all of the time, Chapel Hill has historically done a great job of thwarting development in their community. The result is that home prices appreciated at a rapid clip due to increasing demand for housing but no new supply.

Gerry Conley

Great comments/articles from all of you. If enough people see what you have sent us and start talking about solutions, Maybe something good will evolve.

Ram Neta

@hope: if all the world's 7 billion people lived together in the same population density as Manhattan, we would all fit in an area the size of the state of Texas. The remaining 99.9999% of God's green earth would be completely untrammeled. Those of us who care about the earth need to encourage density (or else encourage population control).


FWIW, I would be very interested in a post in which first wave gentrifiers complaining about subsequent gentrification consider the moral dilemmas arising from their own impact on the community.

Kevin Davis

@Virgina: There is actually a downtown business owner (whom I like very much) who has been publicly fretting about rent increases when leases turn at their building, where they've been for a decade. Interestingly, if you go back in the Indy to a decade ago and read the story about that building, it's noted that there were other renters displaced when this owner started their business.

Pretty much any activity downtown that isn't a government agency, bank, attorney's office, or tobacco factory (hah!) is a gentrifier. And that's not a concept folks seem comfortable with or aware of.

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