DURHAM — New owners of the Liberty Warehouse assured Durham residents last week that they want to create a memorial to the building, even though they intend to tear it almost completely down.
“That’s what’s important, preserving the memory of the place,” said Roger Perry, president of the Chapel Hill firm East West Partners. “It’s not necessarily preserving the building.”
And, Perry and associate Bryson Powell said, they want to replace Durham’s only remaining tobacco-auction house with a mixed-use project that will blend in with the new, hip character of Durham’s former warehouse district just north of downtown.
Their plans – involving recycling most construction materials and preserving part of its south wall – got a mixed reception from about 150 Durham residents who turned out for a meeting with Perry and Powell sponsored by Preservation Durham.
“It doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, meet the standards I would like to see in Durham,” said Leslie Frost of the nearby Old North Durham neighborhood. “I would ask you to do more to retain the historic nature of our downtown.”
Others were more positive, calling the plan “welcome” and a “great improvement” over the 200,000-square-foot brick- and steel-sided shed that has had an uncertain future since its roof caved in during a 2011 rainstorm.
“It was a nice crowd; they were constructive and receptive, and all in all I thought it was a very positive meeting,” Perry said afterward.
Bricks and boards to be reused
In place of the warehouse, just across Foster Street from the Durham Farmers Market and Central Park, East West Partners plans a 320,000-square-foot glass and masonry building for 246 residential apartments and 24,000 square feet of retail space enclosing a 390-space parking deck.
“We’re going to selectively demolish this (existing) building, brick by brick and plank by plank,” and reuse as much as possible, Powell said. That is in keeping with a 2013 agreement East West Partners made with Preservation Durham in exchange for the preservation society’s dropping its opposition to “de-listing” the Liberty as a Local Historic Landmark.
De-listing spared East West a possible year’s delay by a disapproving Historic Preservation Commission. Preservation Durham Director Wendy Hillis said the organization was “not pleased” with the prospect but, finding City Council approval was all but certain, agreed to go along to ensure the developer would “talk about how the design should work in the context of a historic neighborhood.”
Durham’s tobacco market operated from 1871 through 1987, and at its height in the 1950s the Liberty Warehouse – built in 1938 and enlarged in 1948 – was one of more than a dozen auction houses in the city’s “Tobacco Row.”
After 1987, Durham’s auction houses were demolished one by one. Liberty owner Walker Stone, though, changed the building’s functions over to general warehouse operations and leased space at nominal charge to arts groups and other nonprofits. That arrangement continued after Stone sold the building to Greenfire Development in 2006.
Greenfire, a Durham company that bought about 25 properties and renovated several in and around downtown Durham between 2003 and 2007, never announced what it intended to do with the Liberty.
Historic landmark status
The company did apply for, and receive, Local Historic Landmark status and its associated tax breaks in 2010, but the next year, when the roof collapsed, the building was condemned, the tenants were forced out and Greenfire faced heavy fines if it did not make repairs.
After months of partial repairs and negotiations with city authorities and others in Durham, Greenfire sold to East West Partners.
With the Liberty purchase – terms of which have not been disclosed – East West bought into a district already hip and happening with the presence of the Farmers Market, two new condominium projects and a booming restaurant-nightclub scene.
Besides “fair and reasonable profits,” Perry said their goal to “create something that is in the best interest of the community and serves the community well both from an economic and aesthetic standpoint.”
The new Liberty retains most of its current brick southern wall – a moot point, since the wall is half owned by the city, Hillis said – with its “Durham Central Park” logo and metal-sculpture casting pavilion. But plans are to relocate some of the vintage exterior signs to different parts of the building, such as re-setting “Liberty Warehouse Drive-In” from the northeast corner to the parking garage entrance on Foster Street.
A market study, Powell said, found that to be financially viable their project needed “a heavy residential component” to serve downtown’s evolution into “a 24-hour city.”
“Given the nature of the area ... the vibe, we knew we had to have some retail geared toward entertainment,” Powell said, adding that their anchor retailer is to be a 15,000-square foot eating and drinking establishment with bowling, an arcade “and other fun sort of drinking-game type of things.”
“We think this fits perfectly into what’s going on in Central Park,” he said, getting a bit of laughter and a comment that a bowling alley was not really in keeping with what went on at the tobacco auctions.
Actually, tobacco auctions were an entertainment venue themselves – not only for the auctioneers’ distinctive, rhythmic chants. In a tobacco town, market season was the time everyone had money and the street musicians, medicine hucksters and other enterprising souls frequented the Tobacco Row sidewalks to earn what they could of the flowing cash.
“We want to create really unique and cool public memorial to not only the building but to the tobacco auction business in Durham,” Powell said. “It’s something that’s missing.”