DURHAM — The new owners of the Liberty Warehouse say they want to honor the history of the building, even though they plan to demolish it.
“That’s what’s important, preserving the memory of the place,” said Roger Perry, president of the Chapel Hill firm East West Partners. “It’s not necessarily preserving the building.”
And, Perry and associate Bryson Powell said, they want to replace Durham’s only remaining tobacco-auction house with a mixed-use project that will blend in with the new, hip character of Durham’s former warehouse district just north of downtown.
Their plans – involving recycling most construction materials and preserving part of its south wall – got a mixed reception from about 150 Durham residents who turned out for a meeting sponsored by Preservation Durham.
“It doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, meet the standards I would like to see in Durham,” Leslie Frost of the nearby Old North Durham neighborhood, told the developers. “I would ask you to do more to retain the historic nature of our downtown.”
Others were more positive, calling the plan a “great improvement” over the 200,000-square foot brick- and steel-sided shed whose roof caved in during a 2011 rainstorm.
“It was a nice crowd, they were constructive and receptive and all in all I thought it was a very positive meeting,” Perry said afterward.
In place of the warehouse, just across Foster Street from the Durham Farmers’ Market and Central Park, East West Partners plans a 320,000-square foot glass and masonry building for 246 residential apartments and 24,000 square feet of retail space enclosing a 390-space parking deck.
“We’re going to selectively demolish this (existing) building, brick by brick and plank by plank,” and reuse as much as possible, Powell said. That is in keeping with a 2013 agreement East West Partners made with Preservation Durham.
In the agreement, East West pledged to re-use as much original material as possible, preserve some sections of its historic facade and document the building and the auction business in Durham.
Preservation Durham Director Wendy Hillis said the organization was “not pleased” with demolition but, recognizing that City Council approval was all but certain, ceased opposition to ensure the developer would “talk about how the design should work in the context of a historic neighborhood.”
Durham’s tobacco market operated from 1871 through 1987. After the market closed, Durham’s more than a dozen warehouses were demolished one by one until only the Liberty was left.
East West Partners bought the warehouse from Durham’s Greenfire Development last year, with the purchase buying into a district already enlivened by the Farmers’ Market, two new condominium projects and a booming restaurant-nightclub scene.
Besides “fair and reasonable profits,” Perry said their goal is to “create something that is in the best interest of the community and serves the community well both from an economic and aesthetic standpoint.”
The new Liberty design retains most of its current brick southern wall – a moot point, since the wall is half owned by the city, Hillis said – with its “Durham Central Park” logo and metal-sculpture casting pavilion. But plans are to relocate some of the vintage exterior signs to different parts of the building, such as re-setting “Liberty Warehouse Drive-In” from the northeast corner to the parking garage entrance on Foster Street.
“Given the nature of the area ... the vibe, we knew we had to have some retail geared toward entertainment,” Powell said, adding that their anchor retailer is to be a 15,000-square foot eating and drinking establishment with bowling, an arcade “and other fun sort of drinking-game type of things.”
“We think this fits perfectly into what’s going on in Central Park,” he said, getting a bit of laughter and a comment that a bowling alley was not really in keeping with what went on at the tobacco auctions.
Powell used the word “cool” several times in describing what East West Partners has in mind. Retail space will be “really unique and cool,” he said.
“It’ll have a very warehouse-y look. It’ll have concrete floors, there’ll be exposed ceilings, a lot of the really unique, cool signage will be reused. ... some really interesting spaces that we think are very characteristic of what is in Central Park.”
Durham residents gave him some of their ideas of Central Park’s characteristics. Mary Anne McDonaldwho described herself as a downtown resident since 1985, told Perry and Powell to keep the commerce local – no chain restaurants.
“That’s not why people come to this part of town,” she said. “I’d hate to see a Starbucks come in and be competing with folks like Cocoa Cinnamon,” a neighborhood coffee shop.
“We’ll be courting local merchants,” Perry said.
Philip Azar from Trinity Park wanted to know if food trucks would still be welcome around the warehouse
“We don’t want them to go away,” said Powell.
“We want to create really unique and cool public memorial to not only the building but to the tobacco auction business in Durham,” he said. “It’s something that’s missing.”
Perry said their project is unique in one special way.
“It’s the first redevelopment project in downtown Durham that’s not going to ask for city (financial) participation,” he said. “We’re standing on our own.”