Durham seeks comments Tuesday on proposed 26-story tower

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 1, 2013 

— The prospect of a 26-story building in the heart of downtown comes up for comment on two occasions Tuesday.

In the morning, the “City Center” project goes before the city-county Historic Preservation Commission to request a “Certificate of Appropriateness” for building in the historic central business district.

In the afternoon, the project goes before the general public for comment and questions at an open house sponsored by the downtown Partners Against Crime organization.

Austin Lawrence Partners of Vail, Colo., announced its plan for the tower in November, after buying a vacant lot and four buildings in the block between Main and Parrish streets. The project would stand across Corcoran Street from the 17-story Hill Building, which has been the peak of Durham’s downtown skyline since 1937.

Plans call for the tower to include 25,000 square feet of ground floor retail; 70,000 square feet of offices; and 133 luxury apartments on the upper 21 stories. Austin Lawrence President Greg Hills said Duke University is planning to take about 50,000 square feet of the tower’s office space.

Hills said he expects the apartments will appeal to people used to urban living in larger cities such as Boston and San Francisco.

“We think that there’s a market niche where people would really like an upscale, urban experience that you’re not getting in Durham right now,” Hills said. “Most of the buildings that are being built are four-story buildings that are appealing to students or grad students. That’s not our niche.”

Hills said his company has worked hard to ensure an “appropriate” relationship between its building and the neighboring art deco icon, which is being converted into a luxury hotel.

Plans are to incorporate several historic building facades into the project’s lower levels, which are to house retail, office and parking space.

Hills founded Austin Lawrence Partners with his wife, Jane, and the couple has Durham connections. Greg Hills is a Duke graduate and a member of a university task force on entrepreneurial studies; Jane is a member of Duke’s Athletics Leadership board; their son is also a Duke graduate and their daughter is currently enrolled there.

Austin Lawrence’s downtown property includes the former Woolworth’s site. The firm bought the land and buildings for $3 million from local Greenfire Development, which at one time planned a nine-story office building there, but was unable to arrange financing.

Hills said the cost of building the tower would be about $40 million. Although he’s been in conversation with lenders, Hills said those commitments won’t take place until the project clears the necessary hurdles with Durham officials.

“We need to get it approved first,” he said. “ ... We do have good interest from some significant lenders.”

Hills said the earliest the building might break ground would be June 2014, with completion in the summer of 2016.

The Preservation Commission meeting is open to the public as spectators. It will be in the Committee Room on the second floor of City Hall, and begins at 8:30 a.m.

The open house is in the Carrack Modern Gallery, 111 W. Parrish St., and begins at 6 p.m.

Staff writer David Bracken contributed.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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