Council takes landmark label off warehouse

May. 20, 2013 @ 09:59 PM

Reversing the decision it made in 2011, the City Council voted 6-0 on Monday night to take Rigsbee Avenue’s Liberty Warehouse off Durham’s list of local historic landmarks.

The decision followed a public hearing that saw spokespeople for a local nonprofit, Preservation Durham, support the decision following negotiations with the would-be redeveloper of the site.

But leaders of a city/county advisory board, the Historic Preservation Commission, stood by the panel’s advice to retain the landmark label.

“To remove the designation while the structure still meets the criteria would undermine the landmark program as a whole,” commission Chairwoman Heather Wagner told council members.

Her view found no support on council.

Mayor Bill Bell explained that he supported listing the former tobacco warehouse as a landmark in 2011 mainly because he thought at the time that was the best way to help owner Greenfire Development “get something done on that site.”

Now, delisting the property appears the better move because Greenfire is poised to sell the building to Chapel Hill developer Roger Perry, he argued.

“As we all know, economics changed,” Bell said. “[Greenfire] were not the only ones hurt by the downturn, and things didn’t go according to plan.”

Perry wants to redevelop the property to include about 250 dwellings and 50,000 square feet of business space. He said the current building, or most of it, is “non-salvageable.”

Preservation Durham’s support for the move came after Perry met with its leaders and promised them basically what he’d already said publicly he’d do, namely to incorporate the brick façades on the southern and eastern sides of the existing warehouse into what he ends up building.

He also pledged to memorialize via an exhibit or museum space both the Liberty Warehouse building and the tobacco-auction business it once served.

The two sides also agreed to “continued dialogue” as planning for the redevelopment unfolds. Greenfire officials made identical commitments in the event Perry and his firm, East West Partners, drop out of the project.

Preservation Durham’s executive director, Wendy Hillis, relayed word of the agreement to supporters on Monday. She told them that while it was “not our first choice,” it was “the only viable” way to save as much of the building as possible given “the political landscape” on the council.

The 2011 move to declare the building a local landmark had been controversial, passing the council on a 4-3 vote.

Then-dissenters Diane Catotti and Cora Cole-McFadden remain in office and made it clear on Monday they hadn’t changed their minds.

Bell and Councilman Eugene Brown did switch votes, for the reasons Bell outlined.

The remaining councilmen present Monday, Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt, joined them in voting to de-list the building. In formally weighing in on the issue for the first time, both said they’d long known the warehouse to be in poor shape.

Moffitt said he studied it for Greenfire when the company sought the landmark designation and could see that the warehouse “was already in decay.”

The leaks that eventually brought down part of its roof were regularly flooding tenants like Liberty Arts and The Scrap Exchange that have since moved to the Golden Belt complex, he said.

Schewel said the economics were “a very legitimate reason” to act, but said the debate has pointed up the need to re-establish a meeting of the minds with the Historic Preservation Commission.

The council had to weigh in because “there isn’t full community confidence” in the process that gives the commission a say when owners or developers seek to make changes to city-designated landmarks, he said.

That comment provoked disagreement from Bell.

“This is not an indictment of the historic preservation side,” he told Schewel and the preservation commission members present. “We’ve got a process. We’re following the process. It’s open and transparent. We’ve heard, we’ve listened and it’s up to the council to make a decision. You serve a valuable part, but that doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree.”

The local-landmark label entitles a building owner to a half-price break on property taxes in return for allowing the commission a say over changes to its exterior. But designations and de-listings are decided by the council, with the preservation commission by law only playing an advisory role.