For about an hour Monday night, the Durham City Council had been discussing whether to grant $3.9 million in economic incentives for an ambitious, even transformative construction project dubbed the City Center—a new 26-story skyscraper at Main and Corcoran streets, plus renovating the former Jack Tar motel and five buildings on Parrish and Main streets.
With a matching amount from the county, this public-private partnership would help finance an $85 million project that could permanently change the tenor and appearance of downtown Durham.
The city and the developer, Austin-Lawrence Partners East, were nearly to the altar when Mayor Bill Bell objected. He mentioned an important, but really-are-you-bringing-this-up-now, point: whether the return for the city in property taxes should be measured in dollars or a percentage, the former being a surer bet.
And so for what must have seemed like an eternity to Greg Hill, a principal of Austin-Lawrence, who had brought his family from Aspen, Colo., for the meeting, Bell, the city attorney’s office and the council veered into arcane constitutional law territory. Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden even suggested delaying the vote until Thursday’s work session.
This, after, Hill had invested $5 million and more than six months clearing the high hurdles of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission, which both recommended approval.
The 26-story, 424,000 square foot skyscraper would be built on the vacant lot at Main and Corcoran streets, a de facto park abutting the “green wall”, even though the city doesn’t own the property. In addition to underground parking, the tower would feature retail on the street level, office space above—55,000 square feet of it already spoken for by Duke University—and 20 floors of apartments, 133 units in all.
(For comparison, the future Museum Hotel across Corcoran street and the “pickle” on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard are 17 stories.)
“It’s designed to bring energy to that part of town,” Hill told City Council, “people during the day and a nightlife.”
In addition, the developer would save the facades of three dilapidated eyesores and build anew at 119 W. Parrish St. (the structure that burned several years ago) and 113 W. Parrish, plus three more at 118, 120 and 122 W. Main St. These would be come retail spaces.
And the final touch would be renovating the former Jack Tar motel, aka the Oprah Building, into a 74-room hotel with a pool, plus a rooftop bar/lounge that would be open to the public. Retail space would be on the street level, plus a parking garage that could hold 260 cars.
“At first, I wasn’t sure about that building, what to do with it. Over time, I fell in love with it,” Hill said, adding that he is meeting with the owners of Blue Coffee Cafe about a future "diner" concept. “These post-war modern buildings are an important part of history. We want to preserve it.”
“I love this project,” Gray Brooks, owner of Pizzeria Toro (still closed after a fire, it is due to reopen in June), told Council. “We need vibrant retail downtown. One of my problems with downtown Durham is there is too much office space [on the street level]. I do love attorneys, but my wife and I aren’t going to stop by and browse case files.”
Downtown Durham, Inc., the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce all spoke in favor of the project. Shelly Greene of the CVB noted that even with all the hotel rooms being built in Durham—Museum Hotel at Main and Corcoran and Hotel Durham on East Chapel Hill Street near the post office, the city could still be shy of the projected 1,200 rooms it needs.
The City Center also would offer Class A office space, which Durham lacks.
Foundation work on the tower would begin in 2014, with the fall of 2016 as the target date for completion.
Meanwhile, the blighted buildings would also undergo renovation and new construction.
Construction on the Jack Tar would begin next January.
The nearly $4 million would be paid over 15 years, but not until after the project is completed and the city deems it has met all the contractual requirements. The net revenue for the city would total an estimated $4.3 million. The city also included stipulations in the contract requiring the developer to award a percentage of contracts to Durham businesses and to encourage retail tenants to hire local residents at a living wage.
“If we don’t build up we’ll make Durham more expensive to live in," Councilman Steve Schewel said. "I was skeptical but we’re incentivizing the right things. I’m definitely supportive.”
It was nearly 9 o’clock and the vibe in Council chambers was turning if not tense, then uncomfortable. Although dissatisfied with the answers he was getting from the city’s legal staff, Bell agreed to put the incentive package to a vote. It passed 6–1, with Bell dissenting.
Hill, his family and project supporters filed into the hallway outside the Chambers, hugging, smiling and shaking hands.
After the meeting, walking down Parrish Street, nearly empty except for a panhandler, you could almost envision the skyscraper with its patchwork of lights, looming overhead. You could nearly see the crowds on the sidewalk. And if you tried hard enough, you could even hear the sound of glasses clinking and water splashing in a hotel pool.