Durham’s Liberty Warehouse a ‘landmark’ no more

jwise@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2013 

Durham’s last tobacco auction house is destined for demolition, but the Chapel Hill developers who plan to buy it and build anew intend to honor its history.

“Our commitment to sustainability and preservation of the culture and history of tobacco auctioneering … is significant,” said Roger Perry, president of the East-West Partners firm.

By a 6-0 vote last week, the City Council removed the Liberty’s “Local Historic Landmark” designation, clearing s the way for East-West Partners to redevelop the 2.5-acre site near Durham Central Park into a mixed-use complex of offices, stores and apartments.

Historic preservationists had strongly opposed removing the designation, and the prospect of the warehouse’s destruction. Prior to the council vote, though, Preservation Durham reached an agreement with East-West and the Liberty’s current owner, Greenfire Development, to preserve some of its historic elements.

“Given the circumstances we feel this is the best way to move forward,” said Preservation Durham President Josh Parker. ‘We are confident (East-West) will be a great partner.”

Preservationists had hoped the 200,000-square foot warehouse could be remodeled for commercial and/or residential use with its 1930s and 1940s structure intact. But the building has extensive water damage, which has only worsened since a roof collapse in 2011 forced its tenants to find other quarters.

“The fact of the matter is, the existing conditions of Liberty Warehouse make it … a building that is non-salvageable in terms of significant redevelopment for the community,” Perry said.

Greenfire Development bought the Liberty in 2006, paying $2.5 million, and continued original owner Walker Stone’s practice of housing artists’ studios and nonprofit organizations at nominal rents.

“We made this request for de-listing with some disappointment,” said Greenfire Managing Partner Paul Smith. “After a lot of effort to find some economical use for the building.”

Perry said he expects to close the purchase from Greenfire in late summer. He did not disclose the price. Plans are to retain the brick south wall beside a section of Durham Central Park and the historic brick facade on Rigsbee Avenue.

East-West’s redevelopment will consist of three buildings for mixed office, retail and apartment use, with a parking garage wrapped inside one building. He said he expects the retail use will be eating places and nightspots, in keeping with redevelopment already done in the Foster-Rigsbee corridor.

“We also open the building to create visual and pedestrian pathways through the site, to … remove the fact Liberty Warehouse is very much a barrier at this point,” Perry said. He said he expects the redevelopment will produce about $850,000 a year in new tax revenue for the city and county.

In the agreement with Preservation Durham, Perry, his business partner Bryson Powell and Greenfire Managing Partner Paul Smith committed to:

•  Integrating the existing southern brick wall into the redevelopment plans by preserving the Foundry, Central Park mural and wall, but making strategic penetrations to allow for enhanced public connectivity and programming in Central Park.

•  Incorporating of the northeast brick façade and LIBERTY sign into the redevelopment plans.

•  Reusing old wood from the warehouse within the redevelopment and recycling that which is not reused onsite.

•  Memorializing and documenting the Liberty Warehouse and the tobacco-auction business in Durham, either through an outdoor public exhibit or a dedicated museum space.

•  Using architectural forms and materials that contextually relate to the surrounding area.

•  A continued dialogue with Preservation Durham around the development of Liberty Warehouse that will include regular communication and meetings as the project proceeds toward construction.

•  Should East-West Partners not become involved in the Liberty’s redevelopment, Greenfire Development is committed to these same criteria.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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