Durham historic commission backs 'City Center' tower

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

— Preservationists gave their seal of approval Tuesday to a proposed 26-story building that, according to its designer, will turn “lights on” in downtown Durham.

“You have the (Durham Bulls) ball field, you have the arts,” said architect Michael Noda. “What you need is a warm bed and lights on ... an inner city that has people living, working and playing there.”

Dubbed “City Center,” the building is designed, Noda said, to include about 21,000 square feet of street-level retail space; interior parking on floors two and three; 62,000 square feet of office space on floors three, four and five; and a stepped-back tower accommodating 130 to 134 residential apartments.

Austin Lawrence Partners of Vail, Colo., is developing the project. The company announced its plan in November, after buying a vacant lot and four buildings in the block between Main and Parrish streets, inside Durham’s National Register historic central business district. Construction that significantly alters the district’s historic appearance requires a “certificate of appropriateness” from the city-county Historic Preservation Commission.

The certificate won approval by a 5-1 vote Tuesday. Commissioner Andrew Sprouse objected to the height, which would tower over the 17-story Hill Building that stands across Corcoran Street from the City Center site and has dominated the Durham skyline since 1937.

Commissioner David Neill, though, invoked the spirit of banker John Sprunt Hill, who commissioned his namesake structure during the Great Depression.

“If Mr. Hill were considering a new tower he wanted to build, I don’t think the height would be what he would want to limit,” Neill said. “He would have gone as high as he possibly could.”

Preservation commissioners voted after almost two hours of presentation and comment by the designers, Austin Lawrence Partners President Greg Hills and several Durham citizens.

“If you can’t build tall buildings in our city center, then where can you build them?” said Scott Harmon, an architect and downtown real estate developer, and self-described “defender of preservation in downtown.”

City Center, Harmon said, is “the right thing to do. It is a waste of our resources to not build tall on the available sites we have in our city center. It’s smart growth, it’s sustainable, it will help us create the city that we want.”

Harmon and others complimented Austin Lawrence Partners and its associates for inviting Durham residents to comment on their project.

The Coloradans have Durham connections. Greg Hills, who founded the company, is a Duke University graduate and a member of a university task force on entrepreneurial studies. His wife, Jane, is the company’s executive vice president and a member of Duke’s Athletics Leadership board. Their son is also a Duke graduate and their daughter is currently enrolled there.

Noda is a principal in Oz Architecture of Denver, the project’s principal architect. DHM Design of Raleigh and Kimley-Horn design consultants of Durham also are involved in the project.

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

Austin Lawrence Partners has yet to submit a site plan for the $40 million project.

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

Wise: 919-641-5895

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