Preservation board wants warehouse to remain a landmark

Feb. 05, 2013 @ 06:30 PM

City officials should vote down Greenfire Development’s request to strip the Liberty Warehouse of its status as a local landmark, Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission says.

The commission’s non-binding advice to the City Council passed on an 8-0 vote. No one from Greenfire appeared at Tuesday morning’s hearing to explain or justify the application.

Skipping the hearing didn’t earn the company points with at least one member of the commission, lawyer David Neill.

“If they do not appear and do not present any evidence for their request, my decision point becomes very simple,” Neill said. “People who petition bodies for relief and don’t appear tend to lose.”

Tuesday’s vote set the stage for a City Council decision sometime in March.

Removing the landmark designation the council put on the property at Greenfire’s request in 2010 will cost the company a half-price break on its property taxes for the warehouse.

But it will also eliminate the preservation commission’s ability to review plans that would change the exterior of the Rigsbee Street complex, including any that call for demolition.

Greenfire has indicated it would like to demolish at least the south half of the former tobacco auction house and place 160 apartments on the site.

The building’s status as a landmark would enable the commission to block demolition for up to a year.

Greenfire’s request isn’t cost-free for the company, as state law will force it to write the city and county a check giving back the tax discounts it received in 2011 and 2012, city/county planner Lisa Miller said.

The company has argued that the damage from a partial roof collapse in 2011 made it impossible to repair the building in a way that preserves its historical authenticity.

But city/county planners and Tuesday the preservation commission said the authenticity rules don’t apply to the trusses and columns that support the roof.

“If there were a new roof structure with new supports and new trusses, it’s not something we would regulate anyway,” said Heather Wagner, the commission’s chairwoman. “So I don’t feel their request is warranted.”

The council’s 2010 decision to label Liberty Warehouse a landmark came on a split vote. It only passed 4-3, with dissenting members questioning the costs of the landmark program, the building’s historical value and whether Greenfire had invested much in its maintenance.

Post-collapse, former tenants argued that the company had skimped on maintenance. But a Greenfire-hired engineering firm attributed the collapse to design faults with the roof.