Could West Village be completed without its superstar visionaries?
That's the question Durham leaders are starting to ask, and some insiders suggest the answer is yes -- even as debt troubles loom over the Durham project.
West Village's mix of offices, apartments and restaurants -- what's completed, anyway -- is an important success story in downtown Durham. But the final phase, which includes converting the mammoth Chesterfield building into an additional 157 apartments, almost 70,000 square feet of offices and ground-floor shops, is unfinished, an expensive drag on the operation.
Progress is being held up by lawsuits facing former Duke University basketball stars Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. Lenders claim the pair has defaulted on at least $4.5 million in loans related to the unfinished portion of the project.
One way out of the fix could be for other investors to settle the debts, essentially buying out Davis and Laettner or at least diminishing their stakes. By removing the roadblock, the project could move ahead.
Such a deal has been discussed. But no decision is imminent, and Davis and Laettner don't seem interested.
In recent interviews, both seem focused on finishing what they started in Durham. Davis says the pair expects to settle the suits out of court, and Laettner seemed interested in moving on to a project in Baltimore.
But while West Village's success started with the celebrity of Davis and Laettner -- whose national championships at Duke helped them get the ears of investors -- the project's coda could feasibly come without them.
And while many other development projects are on the shelf during this credit crunch, one could see West Village coming into play quickly.
The project has become an important connector between the city's re-emerging downtown and the more established Brightleaf Square district. All but a few of West Village's 455 completed apartments are full. About 80 percent of its offices are occupied.
Another batch of apartments probably would succeed with or without Davis or Laettner. If they are edged out, don't expect the pair to stay idle. Both appear to be keeping busy outside the real estate realm.
Davis is helping start a community bank in Durham. He said about $20 million has been committed but was light on the details. The project's genesis comes in part from his experience as a young entrepreneur starting West Village.
"In our early stages, it was very difficult to get people or to get financing, and we've seen that the major banks aren't really financing locally," Davis says. "We've got some favorable attention from some of the investors at this time with the concept."
Laettner, meanwhile, may be looking back to the hard court. After 13 years in the NBA, he retired in 2005. He has been making up lost time with his family in Florida. "I'm a little like a soccer dad now," he says. "I spend a lot of time with the kids, take them to all the appointments and commitments."
As much as he has enjoyed that, he confides, "Ever since I quit, there's something a little lacking in my life."
So he's looking into coaching. He was mum on details, but said he wants to coach at a "higher level," not ruling out college hoops or pro ball.
"I wish I could still be playing," he says. "But the body can't do that anymore."
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