Roof issues collapse plans for Liberty Warehouse tour

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 07:38 PM

A preservation group wanted to tour the Liberty Warehouse, the city’s remaining former tobacco auction warehouse, before its planned demolition.

But Preservation Durham won’t make the building a stop on a tour of some of the city’s historic tobacco buildings because of more damage to the roof during recent storms, said Wendy Hillis, the group’s executive director, on Monday.

“In the interest of safety, (they are taking) a more conservative approach,” said Josh Parker, the group’s board president.

Liberty Warehouse is slated to be demolished in favor of a new apartment complex with first-floor shops and an interior parking deck. The project developer, Chapel Hill-based East West Partners, is expected to finalize the building’s purchase from Greenfire Development in the next several days, according to company President Roger Perry.

“There’s a couple of issues that have to be tied up” before the sale is finished, Perry said, including an agreement with the city for stabilization of walls that they plan to keep in the new design.

Regarding the tour, Perry said the condition of the Liberty Warehouse roof has continued to deteriorate and it’s unsafe to go inside.

“The roof continues to cave in,” he said.

In May of 2011, a portion of the building’s roof collapsed during heavy rains, displacing tenants and resulting in the building’s condemnation.

After Greenfire repaired part of the building, the condemnation was lifted for that section 613 Rigsbee Ave..

The other part, at 611 Rigsbee, was found by the Durham City-County Planning Department to be in a state of “demolition by neglect,” and the owner was given a deadline to make repairs.

But because Greenfire moved to have the building’s local historic landmark status removed, Lisa Miller, a senior planner with Durham City-County Planning, said that put a stay on the demolition-by-neglect proceedings.

“Once the landmark status was removed, it takes the historic preservation piece, and any ordinances related to that, out of the picture,” Miller said.

She said a hole remains along the division between the two buildings. The condemnation of the portion of the warehouse that wasn’t repaired is on hold, said Faith Gardner of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services department.

“There’s a much bigger project in the works … beyond just making those repairs,” she said.

Hillis said Preservation Durham had backed the removal of the local landmark status, facing an expected unanimous decision by the Durham City Council to approve the status’ removal and after reaching agreement with East West Partners on certain terms for the redevelopment.

On Monday, Hillis said she still had concerns that not all of the agreement terms have been met. One was for the use of “contextual materials and forms” in the building’s design.

“When you look at the buildings around there, they’re simple and blocky,” she said. “And the design (we’ve) gotten; it’s just some random, multi-family thing that could go anywhere.”

She also had concerns for preservation of the brick portions of a wall along Rigsbee. She said she’s seen plans in which the wall wasn’t preserved, and another in which signs from it were incorporated elsewhere. She said she’d heard that the developer now plans to preserve a portion of the wall, without fully incorporating it into the structure.

“It’s just a freestanding wall which, as far as we’re concerned, means that it can be demolished in the future,” she said. “That’s not really integrating with the design.”

Bryson Powell, a partner with East West Partners, said that the firm intends to revise the plans to include about 140 feet of brick wall along Rigsbee to create a public, indoor-outdoor courtyard with landscaping and a memorial. He also said they have increased the amount of brick materials used in the building.

“It’s difficult because (we’re) trying to achieve the look of an old brick warehouse that is so common in downtown Durham,” he said. “But also make it a livable and efficient building is very difficult and so we think we’ve done a good job of that.”

Perry said he feels the firm has been a good partner with Preservation Durham.

“We’ve been very willing partners; we’ve done everything we said we’re going to do,” he said. “We didn’t have to do any of it. We’ve done that in good faith. They wanted to jump into the architecture of the building, which I don’t consider that they have that mandate nor the expertise to do that.”