‘Big day for downtown’

Jul. 01, 2013 @ 05:20 PM

As landmarks go, the SunTrust sign atop the former bank building in the middle of Durham’s downtown is not exactly iconic.

It is, it’s true, a distinctive part of the city’s still-muted skyline, but its lifespan has been relatively short. It went atop the building after SunTrust acquired CCB bank in 2004.

The CCB sign adorned the top of the building for four decades, and to many residents the 17-story tower is still known as the CCB building.

But the sign’s impending removal will no doubt be met with some wistfulness. More important, when the sign comes down it will be a highly visible signal that the long-dormant building is about to spring back to life.

The Louisville, Ky., firm of 21c Museum Hotels began work last week to renovate the historic building – formally, the Hill Building, named for John Sprunt Hill, the Durham business magnate and philanthropist who hired the architects of the Empire State Building in New York to design the headquarters for his Home Savings and Trust Co.

21C will transform the long-time office building into a boutique hotel that also have an art gallery on two public floors, a formula the company has found successful in Louisville as well as Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark.

The company will be asking the Historic Preservation Commission today for a green light on its renovation plans, but the work that commenced last week – and the removal of the sign – doesn’t require commission approval.

The long-awaited work on the Hill Building emphasizes that downtown’s renaissance is continuing. When that building is fully used again, bringing visitors to its 125 hotel rooms and local and visitors alike to its art gallery and restaurant, the area around CCB plaza will be gaining new vitality.

That will be further boosted by what appear finally to be viable development plans for the empty lot and adjoining storefronts on the east side of Corcoran Street.  The residential units in that 26-story mixed-used development and the hotel business at 21c when that project is complete in 2015 will contribute to ongoing efforts to boost what downtown still lacks, a critical mass of 24/7 activity that comes from people living and staying downtown.

Along with news that work was underway at the Hill Building came word that CCB will remain an important downtown presence, shifting the bank branch that has operated on the ground floor to the nearby former home of Rogers Drug Co.  That will put new life into an historic structure that has been mostly vacant since its restoration a few years ago.

All in all, Paul Smith, managing partner for Greenfire, which retains a minority ownership in the Hill Building project, was on target last week when he called it “a big day for downtown.”

Indeed it is.