New life for Jack Tar?

Feb. 11, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

The tattered and long under-utilized former Jack Tar Motel in downtown Durham may have a new lease on life. The Colorado development firm that plans a 26-story tower across Parrish Street from the old Jack Tar has the building under contract. 

Austin Lawrence Partners hopes to start construction later this year on the tower, which would have apartments, offices and, on the ground floor, shops and restaurants.

As it happens, the perhaps most valuable commodity the former motel -- once a thriving adjunct to the Washington Duke Hotel, demolished in 1975 -- offers is its parking deck. Its 250 parking spaces will go a long way toward meeting the new structure’s need for 360 spots, hard to come by in a downtown developing a parking shortage as it rebounds.

The plans to update the parking deck, which has seriously deteriorated, and to once again make the Jack Tar a hotel would  be yet another positive development in the core of downtown. The Austin Lawrence plan for the site is far less ambitious than the mixed-use development Roger Perry of East-West Partners once proposed.  Had Perry, who said this week that his firm “never really advanced the ball very far,” undertaken those plans, it would have had a far more transformative effect on downtown.

On the other hand, the Austin Lawrence plans retain a structure that inspires a range of opinions – often strongly held. Many see the building as an eyesore best remembered recently for the futile “We want Oprah” banner that adorned it for many years.

Others see a historic building that is an example of mid-century modernist architecture and a last link to days when downtown hotels were beehives of activity. Pictures of people lounging on its rooftop pool deck in the 1950s evoke images of “Mad Men” elegance.

The architectural era it represents “is the new frontier, and we definitely care about it,” Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham, told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz.

These pages welcomed the Perry plan as having so much potential to drive downtown’s transformation that losing the poorly maintained building was a worthwhile tradeoff. But the prospect of the structure’s being a part of that renaissance while preserving and rebirthing the historic motel is an intriguing development. 

That developers see offering a lower-cost option than most lodging development recently completed, underway or planned is another attractive point.

The developers seek city and county incentives of nearly $8 million over 15 years to help finance the $17 million project.  County commissioners seemed favorable to that ask on Monday, although perhaps with some reservations over splitting the incentives evenly between city and county governments.

“When you look at the long-term investment down the road, I just see this being a plus for the community,” commissioners’ Chairman Michael Page said.

We agree, and hope the details can be hammered out to make a once-popular motel a vibrant addition to the downtown scene once again.