Bell: Durham skyline shouldn’t be preservation board’s concern

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 07:23 PM

The Historic Preservation Commission may have approved plans for a new downtown skyscraper this week, but its handling of the case nonetheless appears to have bothered two key elected officials.

Mayor Bill Bell and City Councilman Eugene Brown attended Tuesday’s commission hearing and two days later told colleagues they had concerns.

Bell said the hearing illustrated the need for the council to “come together and have a transparent, open discussion of what we’d like to see happen in the city in terms of physical developments.”

The hearing on the proposed 26-story City Center tower at one pointed threatened to veer toward a discussion “about the way projects like this affect the skyline,” Bell said.

But the mayor regards policy issues like that as the province of elected officials. “That’s ultimately a decision the City Council makes,” he said.

Bell added that he’s also concerned about the possible delays in the approval process for major projects.

He picked up on a comment from local architect and developer Scott Harmon, who in a message posted to a couple of email lists that city officials monitor said “everyone was surprised that the project was approved without a continuance.”

Durham’s land-use rules give administrators and the commission up to six months to act on “certificate of appropriateness” applications like the one Colorado-based Austin Lawrence Partners sought for the tower.

If they miss the six-month deadline, the certificate is approved by default. Tuesday’s commission vote came about five weeks after Austin Lawrence submitted its application.

Nonetheless, Bell thought Harmon’s comment merited a reminder to all concerned that the council expects “a timely, expeditious decision process, not taking away from the fact we expect a lot of due diligence to be done.”

Brown backed the mayor’s comments and said he thinks the preservation commission has contributed to the demise of at least one potential downtown redevelopment project.

Inherently, it’s “very difficult for a preservation commission to delve into new construction,” he said.

The issues Bell raised “are salient, and are not only of time but of control,” Brown said.

Tuesday’s commission vote produced a 6-1 approval of the planned tower, the dissent coming from member Andrew Sprouse, who planners say had qualms about the building’s height.

At a planned 296 feet, City Center would just lose out to the 300-foot Durham Centre for the title of downtown’s tallest building.

The project site is across Corcoran Street from the SunTrust tower, a 202-foot structure that dates from 1937.

Austin Lawrence’s plan does have critics. Objections have included its potential to overshadow the SunTrust tower, styling that some consider generic and the likelihood that the apartments placed on the building’s upper floors will cater to the well-to-do.

One critic, landscape planner Marcia McNally, wrote City Manager Tom Bonfield on Thursday to say City Center’s developers are settling when they should instead be demanding “great design.”

“To be relieved that this building as proposed doesn’t look like ‘The Pickle’ isn’t enough,” McNally said, alluding to the city’s tallest building, the South Square area’s 356-foot University Tower.

She added that “word on the street is that the Durham community needs to bury criticism, that we somehow can’t afford to offend the developers because this project is important for Durham.”

Bell appeared familiar with the gist of that criticism as he spoke during Thursday’s council work session.

He made a point of saying that because Durham has become “a place that people want to be,” the council “can be a lot more selective” when it comes to deciding what projects to throw its weight behind.

But the mayor clearly regarded the council as the most appropriate venue for policy debate.

Council members over the years have made it clear they’ll keep a close watch on key redevelopment proposals in and near downtown, to the point a couple times of firing warning shots at advisory boards they thought had stepped out line.

The most notable recipient of such attention has been the Durham Planning Commission, which in 2006 and 2010 voiced qualms about private and public projects in the Rolling Hills area that the council favored.