Council preps for vote on tower, Jack Tar incentives

Apr. 13, 2014 @ 08:10 PM

City Council members say that before they vote on a $4 million business-incentive offer to the would-be developer of a new skyscraper, they want to discuss the developer’s use of a burned-out building on the site.

Plans call for the building’s Main Street and Parrish Street façades to be retained as part of the new “City Center” tower. Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the idea last year.
But council members say they want to make sure the tower’s developer, Austin Lawrence Partners, makes the façades an early priority, for appearance reasons and to make sure their government doesn’t inherit a problem if something unforeseen brings the project to a halt.
“Any project like this, of this size and dimension, we need to think, unfortunately, of the worst-case scenario,” Councilman Eugene Brown. “It’s part of our oversight responsibility.”
The main issue is “when can we expect them to spend money to make these buildings right,” added Councilman Steve Schewel.
The building in question straddles the block and has frontage on both Main and Parrish. A fire gutted it in 2001, and it’s been a headache for city officials ever since.
They’ve faced conflicting pressures from local interest groups, preservationists favoring an effort to restore the building or at least the façade, even as some downtown interests favored demolition.
City code inspectors consider forcing the demolition of the building in 2006, but preservation interests won out. The issue surfaced again in 2009, when officials with the neighboring N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development demanded “immediate visible action to demolish or rebuild this property.”
They said the building’s ramshackle appearance was harming their work to promote business in the area.
But the property by then was in play as a component of a future skyscraper project, so city officials again temporized.
Now, officials have a dual commitment from Austin Lawrence to save and repair the façades.
The company can’t move forward without them, not without going back to the Historic Preservation Commission for a new permit. And the Office of Economic and Workforce Development has written the preservation effort into the incentive package itself, making it one of the thing Austin Lawrence has to do before seeing a dime from the city.
Office Director Kevin Dick said he expects the “initial construction activities” to include moves to shore up the building faces, plus clearing of the fire debris and excavation for underground parking.
But Schewel noted the deal only requires Austin Lawrence to begin construction by July 1, 2015. “Waiting 15 months to start on that is a long time,” he said.
Dick said he’s been figuring the company would obtain its final permits in October. But he said it could be possible to move the incentive-specified “commencement” date for the project into 2014.
Council members scheduled an April 21 public hearing on the incentive offer. A vote normally follows the hearing on the same night.
Schewel said he also wants Austin Lawrence to go over its plans for the façades at the hearing, as their “salvation … is going to be critical to the walkability of the area around the” skyscraper.
“I want to make sure it’s going to be done well,” he said, adding that he’s been disappointed by the results of another façade save, that of the former McPherson Hospital on West Main Street near Duke University.
The developer there is building a new, incentive-backed hotel and retained, per the plans it showed city and county officials beforehand, only the front entrance of the former hospital.
The city incentive package for Austin Lawrence is likely to be matched by another $4 million from the county government. The company plans a 26-story tower, and also will renovate the former Jack Tar Motel, across Parrish Street from the tower site.