Durham News

County backs incentives for downtown's Jack Tar Motel

The Durham County Commissioners have given the go-ahead for officials to negotiate an incentive package for what Chairman Michael Page called a “transformative project” for downtown.

The renovation of the Jack Tar Motel on Corcoran Street would be part of a project that includes a 26-story mixed-use high-rise across the street at the former Woolworth site and a vacant lot at the intersection of Corcoran and Main streets.

Colorado-based Austin Lawrence Partners has the Jack Tar property under contract. Greg Hills, the founder and president of Austin Lawrence, which specializes in historic preservation and typically looks for projects in areas in need of revitalization, is a Duke graduate.

Austin Lawrence is seeking $6 million in present-day dollars in incentives from the city and county for renovating the motel, including its interior 250-space parking deck, and the city has asked the county for a 50-50 split.

The incentives would be paid out over a 15-year period, and the developer has asked for an inflation adjustment, so the actual outlay would be $8 million, split evenly between the city and county. The city has not yet voted on the incentives.

The renovation would retain the turquoise-and-gray checkered facade of the building, which preservationists see as a prime example of mid-century modern architecture. The structure, which faces CCB Plaza, is also known as the Oprah building because of the big “We want Oprah” sign that hung in the windows for many years, inviting the talk show host to visit Durham.

The 250 spaces in the parking deck would be a key to gaining the 360 parking spaces needed to pulling off all of Austin Lawrence’s plans.

The proposed 26-story tower across the street is to include residential and office space, as well as retail space and restaurants on the ground floor. It would be the tallest building in downtown.

The board voted unanimously at its meeting Monday to proceed with negotiations for the incentives.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who had expressed some reservations about the 50-50 split with the city when the proposal was first brought to the board, said Monday that after meeting with county staff members and representatives from the developer, her qualms had been satisfied.

“I feel that this is an unbelievably critical project for our city center,” Reckhow said.

Commissioner Wendy Jacobs compared the project to the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the impact it could have on downtown.

Jacobs also urged county staff to make sure sure the proper “checks and balances” are in place to make sure the project comes off as envisioned.

Page noted that the area of these projects is not a lively part of downtown now, which he hopes will change with their completion.

“I think this is really going to bring life to that part of the community,” Page said.

Interim County Manager Lee Worsley said the county also will urge the developer to seek historic-preservation tax credits for the motel site, which could lower the cost of the incentive package.

Austin Lawrence plans to break ground on the high-rise in June and expects that project to be complete in summer 2016.

Goad: 919-536-8549