Developer to hear from public on proposal for Liberty Warehouse

Jan. 23, 2014 @ 08:54 AM

A Chapel Hill development firm will hear feedback today on a proposal to demolish most of the Liberty Warehouse, the former tobacco auction warehouse buildings located between Rigsbee Avenue and Foster Street, to build a mixed-use project with apartments and shops.

East West Partners has proposed a development that would include 246 apartments, ground-floor retail shops, a parking deck, and several interior courtyards, according to plans filed with Durham City-County Planning. The developer wants to incorporate an existing wall that now stands along the Durham Central Park side into the project, as well as existing signs and recycled building materials.
“But other than that, the rest of the building will be coming down,” East West Partners President Roger Perry said in an interview about the project Wednesday. “The building is beyond repair. In addition, it’s functionally obsolete. As you know, a huge hole in the roof (is) leaking, and the way the building is built, it’s not constructed in a way that allows for rehabilitation as a residential and retail building. We’ve been very clear about that all along – we’ve said all along that the building will have to be razed.”
The development would have five stories along one side and four stories along another. Perry also said the firm wants to make sure the new construction fits in with the Durham Central Park area architecture, but also makes a statement about “what is being done today.”

Wendy Hillis, executive director of the historic preservation advocacy group Preservation Durham, said she initially had concerns that while the plans call for preserving of portions of the wall on the park side, versions she had seen earlier Wednesday appeared not to include a portion of brick wall that stands at the corner of Rigsbee Avenue and West Corporation Street.
However, according to an email from East West Partners’ Bryson Powell, there are “brick signage elements” that are proposed to be included in the design.
“Yes we are committed to incorporating the brick signage elements currently on Rigsbee and are planning to relocate them to a more appropriate location within our new building,” Powell said in an email sent Wednesday evening.  “I'll touch on this at [Thursday's] meeting.”

Hillis said the keeping the corner was one of the stipulations of a deal that the group had reached with the developer in exchange for support for the Durham City Council removing the building’s landmark status.
The council voted 6-0 in May of last year to remove the landmark designation, reversing a decision the council had made in 2011. While Preservation Durham came to an agreement with the developer to support the decision, the council’s vote last year went against the advice of a city and county advisory board, the Historic Preservation Commission.
Hillis said that although Preservation Durham leaders felt that the building was a historic landmark, and “never wanted to see the building come down,” she also said group officials felt the “writing on the wall” was that the landmark designation would be removed. She said they tried to find a way to best partner with the developer to ensure portions of the Liberty Warehouse would be retained.
In addition to incorporating the brick façades on the sides of the building, the letter-agreement Preservation Durham reached with the developer also stipulated that the developer use wooden building materials in the construction of the building and to incorporate an outdoor exhibit or indoor museum space in to commemorate Liberty Warehouse’s use as a tobacco auction warehouse.
In addition, the agreement also called for “regular communication and meetings as the project proceeds towards construction.”
Going forward, Hillis added that a concern for the group is making sure that the building fits in with what she said is a post-industrial, grungy, “do-it-yourself” aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood.
“(We want to make sure) that this is not just any other multi-family development because the fear is that that would fly in the face of a lot of what has made this area successful aesthetically,” she said.
She added that while the building is not an “architectural gem,” Liberty Warehouse is important to Durham’s history as the city’s last tobacco auction warehouse property.
“I think the difficult thing is that it’s not an attractive building from the outside; it’s an interesting building because of its association with the tobacco trade,” she said.
Ann Alexander, executive director of Durham Central Park Inc., which is the 5-acre park adjacent to Liberty Warehouse, said the developers came to park’s board meeting last year to talk about the development plans.
“So we are anticipating being able to work well together,” she said. “(The project is) going to change the whole area, but maybe it’ll change it for the better. Who knows? That warehouse is just sitting there empty and full of water, so we’re hoping to work well with them and have it be great for Durham. We are their front yard; we’re a very important park for them.”
Heavy rains in May 2011 caused a portion of the building’s roof to collapse. The collapse forced nonprofits, artists, and other tenants who were leasing space there to move to new venues.
East West Partners, a Chapel Hill-based firm that was behind development of the Woodcroft residential neighborhood in southern Durham and other development projects in the Triangle, is under contract to buy the property from Durham-based Greenfire Development by April. Perry said the company “fully intends” to comply with the closing date.
The community meeting on the project will be held from 6 to 7:30 in the third-floor conference room at the Durham County Library, 300 N. Roxboro St.