Colorado developer buys portfolio of downtown Durham properties

Colo. developer paid $3M for old Woolworth site, other buildings

dbracken@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2012 

A Colorado developer has acquired a portfolio of properties in downtown Durham from Greenfire Development.

Aspen-based Austin Lawrence Partners paid $3 million for the former Woolworth site on West Parrish Street as well as the vacant buildings at 118, 120 and 122 W. Main St., according to property records. The sale also included the building at 113 W. Parrish.

Austin Lawrence plans to construct a mix of office, residential and retail on the Woolworth site, which is bounded by Parrish, Corcoran and Main streets, said Greg Hills, the company’s president. He said the firm would rehabilitate the storefronts on West Main and West Parrish and demolish the fire-damaged building that now sits on the Woolworth site.

“We totally believe the table’s been set for just this last piece of Durham to be revitalized and transformed,” Hills said.

The deal is the latest sign of activity in Durham’s core, where Durham-based Greenfire has struggled to redevelop the property that it accumulated last decade. Greenfire retained a small ownership stake in the deal and is now one of several limited partners.

Greenfire partner Paul Smith said the company is excited to see the project move forward and return some capital to its investors.

Greenfire recently struck a similar deal with 21c, a Louisville, Ky.-based developer, to turn the Hill Building, which is across Corcoran Street from the Woolworth site, into a boutique hotel. 21c is buying the 17-story building, also called the SunTrust Tower, and Greenfire is keeping a minority stake.

Hills said the deal with Greenfire came together after a friend took him on a tour of downtown Durham. His firm specializes in historic preservation, and typically looks for projects in areas in need of revitalization.

“It’s just sort of right in our wheelhouse to do something like this,” he said.

Hills and his wife and business partner, Jane, have deep ties to Duke University. Greg Hills attended Duke, and the couple’s son graduated from the school earlier this year. The Hills’ daughter is a sophomore at Duke, and Jane Hills sits on Duke’s Athletic Leadership Board.

Greg Hills said the plan is to redevelop all of the land and properties at the same time, a project that is likely to cost in the $50 million range. Work likely won’t begin until the first half of 2014.

Financing for the project is expected to come from Austin Lawrence investors as well as private equity investors in New York.

Over the next year Hills said the firm will work with the Durham Historic Preservation Commission, the Parrish Street community and other local officials on a redevelopment plan. Although the Woolworth site will contain a mix of uses, Hills said the majority of the square footage in the building is likely to be taken up by residential.

Greenfire acquired the Woolworth site in 2006, and hoped to build at least 75,000 square feet of offices, shops and a small museum on the site.

Bill Kalkof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., said the city’s downtown master plan has always envisioned high-density development on the corners where 21c and Austin Lawrence will develop their projects.

“Main Street inside the city center has flourished with an empty Woolworth’s lot and, for all intents and purposes, an empty SunTrust tower,” he said. “One can only imagine the street level activity when 21c comes online and the Hills build their project.”

Bracken: 919-829-4548

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