Public sees, critiques plans for Liberty Warehouse

Jan. 23, 2014 @ 09:28 PM

The public got its first official look at a Chapel Hill-based developer’s plans for redeveloping historic Liberty Warehouse during a presentation and question-and-answer session at the Durham County Library on Thursday.

Residents raised questions about everything from the aesthetic design of portions of the proposed building, to the nature of retail that will go in the project, to its impact on popular food trucks and the nearby entertainment district on Rigsbee Avenue.

Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham, along with Roger Perry and Bryson Powell, representing East West Partners, the Chapel Hill company that wants to develop the Durham Central Park site, gave opening presentations.

Preservation Durham originally wanted to save the historic tobacco warehouse, but after several attempts, the organization’s board realized it had a choice between being obstructionist or making the best of the situation, Hillis said.

Because the demolition of most of Liberty Warehouse is imminent, Preservation Durham wanted to ensure the development fit the historic design of the neighborhood, and that important features of the building would be incorporated in the plan. The organization reached an agreement with the developers to preserve historic signs and other features.

East West Partners wants to demolish most of the historic tobacco auction warehouse located between Foster Street and Rigsbee Avenue and build 246 apartments, ground-floor retail shops, a parking deck and several interior courtyards. The developer also wants to maintain the existing southernmost brick wall, as well as existing signs and recycle building materials. According to a timeline released Thursday, the developers want to begin building in September this year for an early 2016 opening.

East West Partners is under contract to buy Liberty Warehouse from Durham-based Greenfire Development by April.

The building will be pulled apart “brick by brick and plank by plank,” with as much re-use as possible, Powell said in his presentation. The developers are considering moving the historic “Liberty Drive In” and other signs now on the Rigsbee side to the Corporation Street side, Powell said. Historic signs inside the building also will be saved.

The apartments will be as high as five stories. To prevent the structure from looking like a giant wall, the building will include a “green roof” on the Foster Street side, and two courtyards facing Rigsbee.     

The George Watts Hill Pavilion for the Arts, also known as the foundry, sits adjacent to the southernmost wall, and will remain. The plans call for a 15-foot cut in the wall to give the new building more continuity with the structure. Liberty Arts, a nonprofit metal sculpture organization, uses the pavilion for public demonstrations and sculpture casting.

Cassandra Gooding, a past president of Liberty Arts, asked the developers how construction might affect access to the foundry. She asked to be kept in the loop so that artists with the organization could continue conducting pours at the foundry. Liberty Arts and other non-profit groups were forced to leave the warehouse after a part of the roof collapsed in May 2011.

The proposed redevelopment sparked wide ranging opinions Thursday, many of them posted on Preservation Durham’s Facebook page, Hillis said.

Leslie Frost, a downtown resident, took issue with the look of the building.

“It looks like a building that would be in a suburban area,” she said. “I would like to ask you to do more to retain the historic nature of our downtown in a new design.”

Others lauded the design. Suzanne Clark said she finds the Rigsbee Avenue side of the warehouse daunting, and walks on the sidewalk across from it. The proposed plan with its courtyards is a vast improvement, she said.

“I welcome the plan wholeheartedly,” Clark said.

Another audience member stressed the importance of small local retailers to downtown Durham, and expressed concern about the kinds of retail the project might attract.

“I’d hate to see a Starbucks come in and compete with Cocoa Cinnamon,” she said.

Perry replied that the developers are reaching out to local retailers and restaurant owners. “This is not a location where national retailers go,” he said.

Central Park has several food truck rodeos every year, and another resident asked how the development would affect food trucks. Powell said developers are open to discussion.  “They’re a real distinctive aspect of Durham Central Park,” Powell said.

Another speaker asked whether the developers had discussed the look of the Rigsbee Avenue side with businesses like Motorco and Fullsteam Brewery in the Rigsbee entertainment district.

Perry said the developers “have visited that issue a lot…. I promise you we’re going to have a serious look at that.”