When the renovation of the Carmichael Building in downtown Durham is completed early next month, it will represent the latest example of how the relics of the city’s economic past are being repurposed to fit its vision for the future.
The building is the second former tobacco warehouse in downtown that Longfellow Real Estate Partners has converted into office and lab space, and the Boston-based firm has ambitious plans for what comes next.
Longfellow has partnered with Measurement Inc. to develop a 15-acre site into what it is calling Durham’s Innovation District. The initial master plan for the district, which is just north of West Village and west of the booming area around the Durham Athletic Park, calls for 1 million square feet of lab and office space for life sciences and technology companies, as well as 300,000 square feet of residential.
The idea is to bring together science and technology workers from the private and public sector in an urban setting that is designed to encourage collaboration. While efforts to develop similar districts are underway in other cities across the U.S., the area around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is perhaps the closest example to what Longfellow is trying to create in Durham.
“Downtown Durham reminds us a lot of Cambridge 30 years ago,” said Adam Sichol, one of the five partners who founded Longfellow five years ago.
Four of the company’s partners, including Sichol, previously worked together at Lyme Properties, a company that developed 3 million square feet of life sciences space in Cambridge’s Kendall Square before it was acquired in 2006 by BioMed Realty Trust.
Sichol said downtown Durham, like Cambridge, is filled with old buildings that are ripe to be adapted for different uses. Tobacco warehouses, with their high ceilings and floors capable of handling heavy loads, are ideal shells for lab space and other life sciences uses.
Jessica Brock, a Longfellow managing director who joined the firm earlier this year after more than a decade with Spectrum Properties, said the addition of this type of lab space in an urban setting is what makes the Innovation District unique.
“So much of that until now has been done in Research Triangle Park,” she said.
While Cambridge offers inspiration for what Durham’s Innovation District can become, Sichol said Longfellow’s goal is to create development that is in line with the character of Durham.
“Durham is not Cambridge,” he said. “And we’re not going to change Durham to be Cambridge.”
Longfellow says it has already invested more than $100 million in downtown Durham acquiring and renovating the Carmichael Building and the 51,000-square-foot Research Lab building in West Village, which is also leased by Duke.
The 112,000-square-foot Carmichael building, which once housed Durham County Social Services, will now be home to Duke University’s diabetes and obesity research center as well as its center for human genetics.
The company, which also owns about 200,000 square feet of space in the Imperial Center near RTP, has also secured financing from institutional investors to develop the Innovation District.
“We have all the equity we need to do this project,” Sichol said.
Duke’s ongoing role
The district is expected to be developed in four phases, with the first phase to include three 125,000-square-foot office buildings and a parking deck and public park. Construction of the first two office buildings is expected to begin next year. Longfellow is now working to develop a public-private partnership with the city and county for the 15-acre development.
The development, which will feature ground floor retail space in all its office buildings, has the potential to tie together a number of the pockets of downtown that have seen considerable redevelopment activity in recent years. Its success will likely depend on Longfellow’s ability to attract a diverse group of tenants, including companies that currently do not have a presence in the Triangle.
Among the tenants who will continue to be instrumental going forward is Duke. Over the past decade the university has taken about 300,000 square feet of space throughout downtown, and its appetite for more will help maintain momentum for Longfellow and other developers.
Scott Selig, Duke’s associate vice president for real estate, said the university has long sought to create an environment downtown where its researchers could collaborate more easily with the private sector. The university isn’t able to lease space on its campus to private companies, which makes downtown the natural destination for many of its research efforts.
Selig said what’s happening now in downtown Durham is a testament to how much both the public and private sector now value being in an environment that encourages and enables collaboration.
“It just takes a while to establish that gravitational pull,” Selig said. “I think we’re at that tipping point. I know we’re at that tipping point.”