Greenfire partner takes new role at Austin Lawrence Partners

Aug. 05, 2013 @ 06:04 PM

Durham-based Greenfire Development’s managing partner has taken a new position with Austin Lawrence Partners, the Colorado-based firm that’s behind a proposal to build a 26-story tower downtown primarily to house apartments.

Paul Smith has played a leading role in managing Greenfire’s business following the 2011 departure of two of the Durham firm’s partners from its day-to-day operations. In May of that year, a partial roof collapse at one of the firm’s properties during heavy rains scattered building tenants and triggered lawsuits.

Smith said he took a more visible role at Greenfire after the partners’ departure “really kind of out of necessity.” Prior to that time, he said his role had been primarily to bring in investors. He said his major concern was to follow through on the firm’s vision and make sure it was successful for investors.

In an email Monday, he confirmed that he has accepted an offer to work as Austin Lawrence’s managing partner for Durham. He said he’ll remain one of the four owners of Greenfire.

The four Greenfire partners will work with investors to determine the “best approach” to manage the firm’s remaining assets, he said.

“We have had great success in the last 12 months in moving all of our larger holdings into development either through sales or partnerships,” Smith said in an email, speaking of Greenfire.

The firm has sold off some real-estate assets downtown, including the property where Austin Lawrence plans to build its tower and several neighboring buildings that front on Main and Parrish streets.

The firm also sold the downtown SunTrust building, which is being redeveloped into a boutique hotel by the Kentucky-based firm 21c Museum Hotels. The firm retained an ownership stake in the SunTrust tower, Smith said.

Greenfire started acquiring property downtown in 2003 as part of a plan to redevelop and revitalize Durham’s City Center.

 “We had over 30 buildings at one point,” Smith said. “What we were trying to get to in the City Center (was to) have enough scale to be able to…generate all of downtown, be a driving force behind that.”

He said the firm was affected by the meltdown of the financial sector during the recession, “which basically caused everything to stop – not just for us.”

In May 2011, a portion of the roof collapsed at buildings on Rigsbee Avenue known as Liberty Warehouse. The buildings had historically been used as tobacco auction warehouses. Greenfire purchased the Liberty Warehouse property in 2006.

In July of that year, partner Carl Webb left Greenfire’s day-to-day operations and launched his own planning, consulting and communications strategy firm. He remained a board member at Greenfire.

Also that summer, Michael Lemanski, the founder and a partner at Greenfire, was named director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government’s new Development Finance initiative.

Lemanski said he’s still working at the school, and has played more of an advisory role at Greenfire. He said the partners will continue to be involved on a part-time basis.

“Paul will continue to be involved in Greenfire asset management just like the rest of us,” he said. “So we’ve been, as you know, managing a bunch of assets and attracting development partners to carry out our master plan over the last 10 years.”

Smith said the firm’s plan was “always to go and find the best partners to work with those properties,” and it has done that.

“Our vision is being fulfilled at this point,” he said Monday.

He said he believes Austin Lawrence is the “right development firm at the right time for Durham.”

In addition to the lot at Main, Corcoran and Parrish streets where its 26-story building is planned, the company is behind the purchase of the SouthBank building at 400 W. Main St..

Greg Hills, president and founder of Austin Lawrence Partners, said that with Greenfire selling properties, there is less for Smith to do for the firm, while the Colorado firm is gearing up. Smith said the firm is looking to break ground next year on the tower project.

“It seemed like a natural fit, the timing was good,” Hills said.