Bit by bit, brick by brick, the last vestige of Durham’s one-time Tobacco Row is coming down.
Most of the monumental brick wall on the building’s south side is coming down, opening a view toward downtown for planned apartments.
Preserving the wall was part of an agreement between developer East West Partners and Preservation Durham, but East West has a practical reason for taking most of the wall down, according to Bryson Powell, development director at the Chapel Hill company that bought the warehouse in April: it’s in danger of falling down on its own.
Years of neglected maintenance and the collapse of a section of roof in 2011 led to water seeping into the wall’s mortar and cracking it with seasonal freezing and thawing, he said. That means “significant safety and stability issues.”
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Under those conditions, “preserving” the wall meant that “at the end of the day, we were going to be basically making a new wall,” he said.
That part of the wall with the Durham Central Park logo, which backs the pavilion housing a city-owned sculpture casting foundry, will remain – with reinforcement. The rest of the wall’s demise has evoked various reactions.
Preservation Durham Director Wendy Hillis had no comment on the wall’s demise, but Pete Katz, a former member of that organization’s committee on historic structures, was somewhat dismayed.
“I don’t know how a lot of people are going to feel about the wall,” he said. “I think it’s kind of iconic.”
Opening the view will “presumably” increase the value of south-side apartments, Katz said. Powell said “key stakeholders” in the project thought more glass on that side would be better than a “cavernous blank wall.”
Durham Central Park board Chairwoman Lee Ann Tilley, on the other hand, likes the new look.
Saving the Rigsbee Street facade as the developers are doing is important, she said. But the south wall is “this blank space that really doesn’t contribute to the park,” she said; there was no good reason to “hold that wall sacred.”
East West plans to put a low “art wall” for displays of various sorts along the park side, using some of the old wall’s bricks, and a curving walkway between Foster Street and Rigsbee Avenue to suit a city requirement for pedestrian access across the property.
All in all, Tilley said, the new design “really interacts more with the park space,” Tilley said. “That really worked into our long range plan.”
On another hand, the wall’s condition has left Liberty Arts, the nonprofit that rents the George Watts Hill Pavilion For the Arts from the city, wondering about the future of the pavilion and the foundry
“There are a lot of things that are affecting the foundry right now,” said Liberty Arts President Jackie MacLeod. “Even though the actual part of the wall that we are attached to is not supposed to come down ... the whole wall is pretty crumbly.”
The thought is to install special-made brackets, she said, “With the hope of holding the wall we are attached to up. ‘Hope’ is the pivotal word here.”
Powell said East West is “shooting to have demoliton done by mid-October,” and to start new “vertical” construction a few months later. Renderings show the new structure standing two stories taller than the old south wall, its exterior primarily brick and glass.
“It seems like we could have done something with that building ...that would have been a lot better than just putting something there like we’re putting all over the place” in Durham’s apartment boom, Katz said. “It’s hard to do anything but sigh.”
Tilley has a different point of view.
“This is all about building the neighborhood,” she said, and residents moving in fulfills the original 1990s vision for revitalizing the old tobacco-auction district.
“It means more cars, more people – but that’s what she wanted,” Tilley said.