Colorado developers Greg and Jane Hills, who bought the former downtown Woolworth’s site in November, plan to fill it with stores, offices and luxury apartments rising 26 stories tall.
That’s nine stories taller than the 17-story Hill, or SunTrust, building just across Corcoran Street, which has been the apex of the city skyline since 1937. The combination raised some concern when company officials briefed Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission about the project earlier this month.
“It’s something we told them to think about,” said commission Chairwoman Heather Wagner. “It will alter the skyline.”
It may alter more than that. Greg Hills said the company has “worked hard” to ensure an “appropriate” relationship between its planned 21st-century tower and the art deco icon. He also sees the project as altering the city center in general.
“There are lots of signs of significant vitality in Durham and all around the (downtown) core,” he said last week, but the core “needs a little more of a transformational building push to ... become as nice as West Village, American Tobacco or whatever.
“Some retail, some office and a fair amount of upscale, urban apartments is what’s called for downtown,” Hills said.
Hills said he doesn’t have drawings he’s ready to make public, but the structure he and his wife and business partner, Jane Hills, have in mind has a five-story “base,” incorporating several historic storefronts on Main and Parrish streets, supporting a tower stepped well back from the base’s edge.
The first five stories’ footprint would be about 25,000 square feet; that of the tower, about 9,000, according to Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Bill Kalkhof.
“The Hills have done a very, very good job of making sure the tower doesn’t overwhelm the (Hill) building,” Kalkhof said. “We need to respect the Hill Building and make sure it’s still a prominent structure in our downtown.”
Banker John Sprunt Hill commissioned his namesake building for his Durham Bank and Trust, later Central Carolina Bank, which SunTrust absorbed in 2006. Principal architect was the Shreve, Lamb and Harmon firm of New York, which had designed the Empire State Building.
Originally, the Hill Building had a 16-story hotel for a next-door neighbor on Corcoran Street, but since the hotel’s demolition in 1975 the bank has stood alone at the highest point of downtown. The hotel site is now CCB Plaza.
Greg and Jane Hills’ company, Austin Lawrence Partners, bought the now-vacant Woolworth’s site and four adjoining buildings – one of them a burned-out shell – from Greenfire Development for $3 million. Greenfire, the Durham firm that bought more than 30 properties in and around downtown between 2003 and 2007, had plans for a nine-story office building at the 0.8-acre tract, but could not follow through.
Greenfire still has a limited partnership in the Hills’ venture.
Former Preservation Commission Chairman Dan Ellison, himself an attorney and a downtown property owner, said he has not seen the Hills’ plans, but, “It sounds like it’s very sensitive to what this site has and sensitive to a lot of the issues we would want in a tall, large building.
“But it should also be making us think,” Ellison said. “If this 26-story building gets built, that creates some forward momentum (for) other tall buildings in the downtown area.
“This may be the tip of an iceberg, and how we as a community deal with that going forward is probably more important than how we deal with this one particular project right now.”
With downtown Durham being “prime, really prime real estate,” economics can trump preservation and other quality-of-life interests, Ellison said. That raises a question of what is worth preserving in “a world that does demand change,” he said.
“If strict historic-preservation laws had existed 100 years, ago, we’d have a farmhouse where the (downtown) Post Office is,” he said. “It really opens up a lot more questions.”