Greenfire wants Liberty Warehouse decision in council’s hands

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 04:59 PM

Greenfire Development is moving to put a key decision about the fate of downtown’s Liberty Warehouse in the hands of the City Council, by asking it to remove the local “landmark” tag members applied to the building two years ago.

The company has paired that move to a decision to drop its application to Durham’s appointed Historic Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the Rigsbee Street complex.

The fate of the building, a former tobacco auction warehouse that’s the last of its type in Durham, has been up in the air since it suffered a partial roof collapse in the spring of 2011.

Removing the landmark tag would erase the preservation commission’s authority over demolition, city/county planner Lisa Miller said.

But the preservation commission can still offer the elected council non-binding advice on whether the building should remain a landmark. And Miller and her colleagues in the City/County Planning Department are urging it to oppose removal.

Greenfire argues that repairing the roof “cannot be done” in a way that “maintains the historic integrity of the structure.”

But planners say repairs would be unlikely to affect the look of the warehouse’s exterior, which is what the landmark designation was supposed to protect.

Moreover, “the property is in this condition because the property owner has not taken steps” to repair it, planners argued in a briefing memo for the preservation commission’s upcoming Tuesday meeting.

Greenfire’s withdrawn demolition application sought permission to knock down the southern half of Liberty Warehouse, the part most directly affected by the roof cave-in during a May 2011 storm.

The company – before the recession one of the key players in the downtown real estate and development scene – has previously said it wants to erect 160 apartments on the site.

Its managing partner, Paul Smith, told preservation commission members in December that in seeking permission for the demolition, he wanted to offer members some detail on the company’s construction plans.

There was no definitive word Thursday on whether that’s still in the offing. Smith couldn’t be reached for comment. Miller said she “would guess” the previously promised detail will “not be part of the presentation on Tuesday.”

Durham’s local-landmark program capitalizes on a state law that allows communities to give the owners of historic properties a half-price break on their property taxes, in return for giving a preservation commission sign-off authority on any changes to the properties’ exterior.

The Liberty Warehouse’s designation as a local landmark came at Greenfire’s request and was approved by the City Council on a split, 4-3 vote.

Preservationists favored the move because the warehouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as an artifact of the days when tobacco was king of the local economy.

The dissenting council members in 2011 – Diane Catotti, Cora Cole-McFadden and new state Sen. Mike Woodard – disagreed for a variety of reasons.

Catotti by then had emerged as a critic of the landmark program’s costs. Woodard – who left the council at the end of 2012 – argued that Greenfire had “done very little” to preserve the building and made it clear he questioned the rationale for preserving it.