Council deluged with emails about warehouse

May. 15, 2013 @ 11:40 PM

An email campaign instigated by Preservation Durham has produced dozens of messages to the City Council asking members to uphold a 2011 decision declaring the Liberty Warehouse a local historic landmark.

But the request also sparked the filing of a few dissents, and earlier this week prompted a key city councilman to signal that he’s leaning toward voting to rescind the landmark designation.

Councilman Steve Schewel told at least two of the people who responded to the preservation group’s campaign that his own experience with the building, as a former newspaper publisher whose company stored records there, is that it’s “a wreck,” unlike other buildings downtown that redevelopment efforts have saved.

The warehouse “is in terrible shape” and “I have a very hard time imagining someone coming along to develop it while the [landmark] designation remains,” Schewel said, qualifying his comments by saying he’ll consider other opinions until the council takes its final vote.

That vote is now scheduled for May 20, following a public hearing on the request from current warehouse owner Greenfire Development’s that the city remove the local-landmark label.

Greenfire is poised to sell the Rigsbee Avenue warehouse to Chapel Hill developer Roger Perry, who has said he’d want to retain only the brick façades on its southern and eastern sides in the course of redeveloping the site.

The landmark designation – placed on the building two years ago at Greenfire’s request – gives the owner a half-price property tax break and the city/county Historic Preservation Commission a veto over changes to the exterior of the building.

Preservation Durham is a local nonprofit and advocacy group that isn’t affiliated with the preservation commission. Its executive director, Wendy Hillis, wrote the council late last week to oppose changing the 2011 decision.

Her letter left it unclear whether the group’s opposition is temporary or absolute.

She highlighted the building’s historic value as the last remaining example of the sort of tobacco-auction warehouse that was once common in downtown Durham.

But she also appeared to suggest that the group regards the designation as something that would give the preservation commission leverage in shaping redevelopment around Durham Central Park.

The form letters that supporters of the group have emailed the council similarly straddled the issue, saying the reasons for making it a landmark in the first place are still good and that keeping the label “does not preclude redevelopment in the future.”

Schewel’s reaction to the email campaign inspired a riposte from Hope Valley resident Tad DeBerry.

“Mr. Perry is looking for the easy way into a hot and exciting market; let’s make sure he is required to create something worthy of our great city and its historic legacy,” DeBerry told Schewel. “We’re no longer the ugly stepchild, and we need to begin to act like it.”

The “ugly stepchild” comment picked up on an argument Gary Kueber – a Durham preservationist who’s now CEO of Scientific Properties – made in a posting to the opendurham.org blog.

Kueber said officials act as if the community has a “chronic low self-esteem problem” despite its long string of economic successes. He firmly sided with those arguing for relying on the appointed Historic Preservation Commission, rather than the elected City Council, to take the lead in bargaining with Perry.

But at the same time, Kueber, like Schewel, said Liberty Warehouse isn’t a candidate for full-on preservation in the style of projects like American Tobacco and West Village.

“There are compelling reasons why Liberty has very little viable future as an intact structure,” he said, indicating that he would concentrate on saving the eastern side of the building.

The chief problem, he said, is the warehouse is “mostly a giant shed with skylights” that’s so massive that most tenants of a keep-the-entire-building redevelopment “would be buried in the middle” without a view outside. Moreover, its western, Foster Street side is “just ugly” and an example of “terrible streetscape design.”

The 2011 decision to make the building a landmark was controversial. It passed the council by only a 4-3 vote, with some of the dissenters arguing against the tax break and others questioning the merit of saving the building. Schewel in the subsequent election replaced one of the members who supported granting designation, Farad Ali.

Two of Schewel’s colleagues, Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Eugene Brown, said recently they think the council and not the appointed preservation commission needs to control policy on downtown redevelopment.