Downtown Durham’s newest hotel, with rooftop pool, prepares for big splash

If it wasn’t for the growing need for parking downtown, the old Jack Tar Motor Lodge wouldn’t be re-opening Wednesday as a swanky, mid-century modern hotel.

It wasn’t even an active hotel when Jane and Greg Hills, who run Austin Lawrence Partners, first began looking around Durham 10 years ago for real estate opportunities.

At that time, the Hills, who were planning what would become the 27-story One City Center, were searching for additional property to provide parking for their planned tower, looking mainly at empty parking lots.

But the circa-1962 building across the street caught the couple’s eye.

And in 2014, the firm bought the building, with its four-level parking garage, for $5 million and started a $24 million renovation.

“I was very attracted to this building because of its architecture,” Jane Hills said. “I love, love mid-century modern. This building to me is really, very special. I kept walking around the block and around the block ... thinking I have got to have this place.”

Now the building, whose interior decor matches its mid-century architecture, is set to become the first outpost of Dream Hotel Group’s new Unscripted Hotel line – featuring 74 rooms, a rooftop pool, coffee shop and space for planned restaurants, such as Pour Taproom, the Jack Tar Diner and Neomonde Mediterranean Deli.

Activating the plaza

One reason the Hills decided to partner with Dream Hotel Group, rather than established brands such as Marriott or Westin, was because of the hotel group’s commitment to hosting community events.

Jane Hills stressed that the Unscripted Hotel, where rooms will cost around $160 a night, is aimed just as much at the average Durham resident as it is to business travelers – especially since it is located on CCB Plaza, a popular gathering place in downtown.

We want to “really pull Durham into the hotel,” Unscripted General Manager Brian Hansen said. “We are not a hotel just for our guests. We are a hotel for the city and we want people to feel that they can come to us and have a really great unique experience.”

For the Unscripted that means opening up its lobby and rooftop patio to the public in addition to guests. The rooftop patio will regularly host movie nights, live music and pool parties.

The hotel also has a full kitchen and bar, which is open to the public, that services its patio. Fullsteam Brewery is brewing a special hoppy lager for the hotel’s bar.

But the hope is that the hotel, and the forthcoming restaurants, will spill onto the plaza as well, making CCB Plaza a more active space throughout the day. New tables and chairs are in the process of being installed on the hotel’s side of the plaza.

“(Durham) is considered a secondary city and not a primary city,” Hills said. “So many primary cities have those (central plazas) in their cities. ... We feel (Durham) should have that.”

Hotel growth in downtown

The Unscripted Hotel is just the latest in a slew of boutique hotels to open downtown. The city has attracted several since 2015, including the 21C Museum Hotel, The Durham Hotel and the Aloft Hotel.

Downtown has seen a 281 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms available since 2008, going from 189 hotel rooms to 721 with the opening of the Unscripted Hotel.

Despite that large growth, the number of hotels in downtown Durham hasn’t outgrown the city’s demand for them, said Shelly Green, the president and chief executive officer of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I haven’t crunched the numbers lately,” she said in an email, “but when I looked at this and did a benchmark comparison to other cities of similar size ... back in the 2008 or 2009 time period, I estimated that we could use 1,200 hotel rooms downtown.”

“If anything, that number would have increased,” she added.

Jane Hills said that growing competition downtown will push hotels and restaurants to provide better service and work together to thrive.

“Competition is really good and friendly competition is even better,” she said. “For instance, people say to me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of the 21C Hotel or The Durham Hotel or the Marriott or Aloft or any of these other places?’

“I embrace it.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes