Capitol Broadcasting embarks on its expansion of American Tobacco

Capitol Broadcasting is beginning to formulate what it will do with University Ford site – which will become the third expansion of the American Tobacco Campus.
Capitol Broadcasting is beginning to formulate what it will do with University Ford site – which will become the third expansion of the American Tobacco Campus. The News & Observer

Capitol Broadcasting Co. embarked on the first steps of its plans for the expansion of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham on Wednesday, holding its first public conversations about the possibilities for the adjacent University Ford property.

CBC held several meetings on Wednesday, with more scheduled for Thursday, with residents and officials in Durham to hear feedback about any potential development of the University Ford site that the company purchased for nearly $30 million last year.

The meetings were brokered by national architecture firm HKS and the real estate firm Hines and focused primarily on how the site would interact with the community and the rest of downtown.

Mark Stanford, an associate with CBC’s real estate arm, said the company wanted to hold public forums because of the city and county’s investments in the original American Tobacco project, which transformed downtown Durham’s trajectory in the early 2000s.

He noted that the company’s options for the site are still wide-open, and that the project is still in its earliest days.

“We are formulating ideas, for sure, and we did pay a significant amount of money for the property, so there has to be an economic return,” he said. “But we are still formulating what the (property) could be – and that takes hearing from the community and doing a lot of research for what the community needs.”

In an hour-long meeting attended by residents and business owners it was clear that many believe the 11-acre site could be a transformative project for downtown, but also one that would need broad cooperation to succeed.

“This is a private-sector-led project, so this (meeting) isn’t something that has to be done – but it’s being done because we have civic-minded people (at CBC),” said Randall Morton, a principal at HKS. “But (CBC) only controls certain pieces of property. In order for that property to succeed and other properties to succeed, you do (meetings) like this to build political will, and try to get a lot of groundswell support, so you can get the right people at the table.”

Connecting North and South

While plans for what the auto dealership site will become are still up in the air, whether it turns into offices, condos or an entertainment complex, designers were adamant that it must better connect downtown with the American Tobacco district. The two are notably separated by railroad tracks.

But those in attendance also noted that the development should make attempts to connect better with Southside, which is notably separated from downtown by N.C. Highway 147.

“Something you have to be aware of is how much an obstacle 147 has been from a socioeconomic standpoint ... Once you go past the highway, you start to notice Durham changes,” said Tobias Rose, owner of the downtown creative agency Kompleks Creative. “In thinking about the future and how Durham grows, this might be an opportunity (to address that).”

Others said they felt American Tobacco had become, in their experience, isolated from the burgeoning downtown core. One self-described millennial noted that he and his friends don’t hang out at American Tobacco, rather they go to Main Street or Rigsbee Avenue.

The architects said they would be exploring conversations with relevant partners about how to bridge the barrier created by the railroad and were looking forward to completely transforming Willard Street into a destination area – with those in the crowd pitching ideas varying from a pedestrian bridge over the railroad to bringing in a grocery store to give downtown residents fewer reasons to leave.

Another Attraction

In their presentation, the architects from HKS lamented the fact that most people who come to either a Durham Bulls game or a show at the Durham Performing Arts Center don’t linger in the area long. The new property should have an attraction that could keep people around for an hour or more before or after a show or game, they said.

“The way that the ballpark is an attraction and the DPAC is an attraction, something over here will probably be an attraction,” Morton said.

Morton, whose firm has worked on many sports-related projects, asked the crowd what they would like to see, to which he received suggestions such as an amphitheater, a movie theater and a sports complex.

Going Vertical

During the conversation, many oblique references were made to the 27-story One City Center that is under construction, with many in the crowd casting negative tones toward the tower.

But others noted that a taller building could create a chance for Durham to build an iconic landmark – one that could dominate a driver’s view entering downtown from Highway 147.

The architects repeatedly said that the project will require density, which in turn will require the project to have some upward ambition.

“A little taller is absolutely the future,” Morton said. “There aren’t very many buildings, I’ll say, in prime locations that are short anymore.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes