Booms of thunder echoed throughout the Chesterfield building.
Those booms got louder and louder as Justin Parker and Daniel Cramer climbed the seven-story brick building’s stairway.
On the fifth floor, a construction worker guided a robot roughly shaped like a stumpy, mechanical brontosaurus. The machine’s extended neck and nose sent thunder claps throughout the building and vibrations through the fifth floor as it poked a line of holes in eight to 10 inches of concrete floors.
The work is part of Wexford Science + Technology’s vision to transform the old Liggett and Myers cigarette plant at 701 W. Main St. into a modern building housing “a knowledge community.”
“What a knowledge community is, is just an opportunity to mix the university’s research with private research and with an entrepreneurs’ innovation space,” said Cramer, senior vice president of development at Wexford, a national real estate development company that specializes in spaces for institutions partnering with universities.
Wexford recently announced that Duke University will lease 100,000 square feet – just over a third of the 284,000 square-foot historic building. BioLab NC will lease 42,000 square feet to create a shared lab space for life sciences companies.
Scott Selig, Duke’s associate vice president of real estate, said university officials are excited to be a part of one of the last major redevelopment projects in downtown Durham. Duke’s space will be a combination of lab and office space for engineering and the school of medicine.
Parker, a senior project manager at Wexford, said BioLab NC is to life sciences what business incubator American Underground is to technology.
The former cigarette factory has been vacant since 1999. Its redevelopment could help activate a key gap between Brightleaf Square and the downtown core.
Wexford bought the building in late 2013 for $7.5 million. The Durham City Council and county commissioners have approved up to $7.2 million in incentives to help turn the abandoned plant into a space for development and research along with offices and shops. The incentive payments will not begin until after the construction is completed, expected in early 2017.
Wexford started the environmental remediation in 2014 and the second phase of interior demolition earlier this year. That work includes punching out windows in the section of the building facing the city’s downtown and carving out an interior space for a six-story atrium that will pull light into the closed building. It takes about week and half to open up each level for the atrium.
The glassed-in atrium will extend from a skylight down to the second floor, which Cramer and Parker described as the living room of the building. The second floor will serve as a gathering spot for tenants to use as meeting space, a place to host TED Talks, and a general place where ideas and skills could collide and office users could collaborate.
From the second floor, a stairway will lead to the first level, which will include a small entry lobby and about 11,000 feet of retail space that will line Main Street. Additional windows, entry points and awnings will be added to the Main Street side of the building.
The first floor will also include about 40 interior parking spots. An additional 40 surface spots will be on the back of the building. Wexler is also building a parking deck and lot with 765 spaces on the corner of Gregson and Pettigrew streets, which is about a block from the Chesterfield.
Cramer said that the retail space “will be primarily food oriented,” he said, since that is important to the building’s tenants.
“So, I think that would be our first focus,” he said.