Preservation groups wants warehouse to stay a landmark

May. 11, 2013 @ 03:01 PM

Preservation Durham’s leader on Friday urged City Council member to vote against a request by the owners of the Liberty Warehouse to rescind the building’s status as a local historic landmark.

Wendy Hillis, the nonprofit’s executive director, spoke up a day after a Chapel Hill developer, Roger Perry, acknowledged that he has the old tobacco-auction house on Rigsbee Avenue under contract.

Perry on Thursday said his purchase of the property is contingent upon the council’s going along with present owner Greenfire Development’s request for removal of the landmark label.

Hillis weighed in via a letter she emailed to council members that left it far from clear whether the group’s stance is temporary or absolute.

She started by saying flatly that Preservation Durham “opposes any change in landmark status,” and continued by saying the reasons for the council to have labeled the building a landmark in 2011 are still valid today.

But the letter’s second page hinted strongly that the group wants the label retained more as a bargaining tactic, to strengthen the hand of officials and advocates when it comes to dealing with Perry.

“The building should remain a landmark, not to prevent redevelopment, but to make sure that any redevelopment intelligently assesses the historic importance of the site, engages the [city/county Historic Preservation Commission] in what portions of the building to save and ensures that any new construction is appropriate within the industrial context of the neighborhood,” Hillis wrote.

She added that new development in the area around the Durham Athletic Park and Durham Central Park should be “consistent with the aesthetic that is driving” the commercial success of enterprises like Fullsteam Brewery and the Geer Street Garden.

She also argued that removing landmark status from Liberty Warehouse could undermine the preservation commission.

The panel has recommended a vote against Greenfire’s request, but its opinion when it comes to the designation of landmarks is purely advisory. The City Council holds full power over the matter.

Perry has said a redevelopment of the site led by his firm likely would include, “plus or minus” on both counts, about 250 dwellings and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.

He is assuming a nearly complete replacement of the existing structure that retains only the brick façades on its southern and eastern sides.

The landmark label, awarded to the building by the council on the basis of its former role in Durham’s now-defunct tobacco industry, gives Greenfire and future owners a half-price break on their property taxes.

To give it up, Greenfire would have to pay the city and county $29,100 in back taxes, administrators say.

The landmark label also gives the Historic Preservation Commission a veto over changes to the building’s exterior – a power that’s almost certainly the major reason for Greenfire and Perry to want Liberty’s label removed.

The 2011 decision to make the warehouse a landmark split the council 4-3, with some critics opposing the loss of revenue and others questioning both the historic value and condition of the building. The warehouse has since suffered a partial roof collapse.

The preservation commission’s role in overseeing downtown redevelopment has also come under question in recent months, with Mayor Bill Bell speaking up to say he thinks the city’s elected leaders should control policy in that area.

Bell’s comments and supporting statements from Councilman Eugene Brown followed the commission’s move to delay hearings on an apartment project at West Village that subsequently fell through.

Both men supported the Liberty Warehouse landmark designation in 2011.