Left-to-right, 122, 120, and 118 West Main St., 07.24.08
In disappointing but not-very-surprising news, Greenfire has applied to the planning department to demolish three buildings in the downtown historic district: 118, 120, and 122 West Main St. This action would remove 50% of the buildings from this block face, and leave only one relatively-intact historic structure on this side of the street.
I asked Mike Lemanski about this at the public meeting to discuss our public subsidy of Greenfire's development plans, because the historic structures on the renderings clearly disappear. He gave me a refreshingly honest, if vague, answer: "That would be a fair assumption." Carl Webb gave a more defensive, meandering, and less forthright response about looking at "[their] track record".
The fact is that there has been a concerted effort to tear down these buildings for years now, because the ambitions of a varied group of downtown players who believe that something that meets their criteria for impressiveness needs to sit on the northeast corner of West Main and Corcoran Streets.
In fact, the fight to save these buildings directly resulted in my decision to start this website, two years ago this week. I retroactively published an op-ed column I wrote for the Herald-Sun in January 2006 on this site much later, which you can read here. That column earned the ire of the city and my former colleagues at Preservation Durham alike for its criticism of the city's involvement in the push to tear down some of our few remaining downtown historic structures, supposedly protected by local historic district status.
This was the point at which I lost patience with NIS, then still part of Housing and Community Development, an organization I had politely pled my case to many times, despite the persistently deaf ears those arguments fell upon.
It seemed back then that we could at least hope that the Historic Preservation Commission and our local historic districts could act as a bulwark, albeit a leaky one, against the (seemingly) inexorable tide of demolition in this town. Unfortunately a bristling group of later-NIS folks appearing in front of the Historic Preservation Commission and denying the authority of the HPC to stop the demolition of 120 W. Main back in 2006 resulted in just such a shift in power becoming reality. One of several loopholes in the city's preservation ordinance is the ability to tear down unsafe structures without delay. The point is to be able to avert a public health calamity posed by a building that will imminently collapse. Unfortunately, this loophole is like red meat to a demolition-focused department. When the city attorney confirmed that the HPC could not delay the demolition of 'unsafe' structures, NIS simply proceeded, and proceeds, to deem structures they want to demolish as unsafe. This has had much larger ramifications for the loss of historic structures in Durham. But, 2.5 years ago they argued such about 120 West Main and pushed to demolish it immediately because of the imminent threat it posed to the public.
Somehow, that structural instability was averted by a Greenfire purchase, or perhaps a coat of magic green paint, as NIS hasn't been heard from since on these buildings.
The desire to clear out this block for something Impressive dates back further, to the case made to tear down the Woolworth's structure, the last remnant of the truly impressive Geer Building that once stood on the corner. I was less informed about things-Durham back in 1999-2000, but the building, transferred to the city from Woolworth's for $1, came down in a hazy indictment of 'toxic mold' and asbestos - while there was clearly a desire to build something Important to replace it.
Enter Greenfire, which has shown renderings of their proposed tower, which I'll dub the Pickle on Parrish. (Have your own alliterative fun with "Corcoran" and "Woolworth".) But really, I don't have anything against the architecture per se (not that it's anything more than a gauzy rendering at this point) - simply the notion that it is somehow so important to build something outsized on this block that we must demolish historic structures to accommodate it.
In a politically savvy move, by allying this structure with the Parrish Street museum-without-walls concept, denying this structure can be framed, if convenient, as counter to the celebration of 'Black Wall Street.' But really, tearing down history to enshrine history? Does this make any sense?
If there's anything I hope to have accomplished with this website, in the 2 years I've been doing it (as of this week) it's to hopefully have put the loss of these structures in perspective for people in the community. They aren't just a couple of buildings, but a set of structures built immediately after the big fire of 1914. 122 is the Pritchard-Bright Building, clothing retailers, and longtime Eckerd's drugstore. 120 is the Pollard Building, longtime Silver's five and dime store. 118 was the Straus-Rosenberg building, later Roscoe-Griffin and VanStraaten's clothing store. They are the the meager remnants of our once-very-urban and bustling downtown. We don't have a lot left of the historic fabric of Durham.
Local historic districts were ostensibly created to protect these fragile resources. Unfortunately, their weak protections (a maximum 365 day delay) have been further diluted by the city. It isn't even clear whether Greenfire needs the approval of the historic commission to proceed, as NIS has previous used the Big Ol' Rubber Stamp that says 'unsafe' on the buildings.
And really, given the fact that Greenfire has asked for the public's help in funding this development and others, one has to ask if we, as a city, are going to not only take an entirely spineless role in protecting our historic resources, but also take an active role in subsidizing their destruction through public financing?
These buildings will come before the Historic Preservation Commission on August 5th - I'm not convinced that the HPC can actually avert their demolition, but make your voice heard, and attend the hearing if you can. Don't be surprised if Greenfire chooses to delay a cycle or two, though.
118, 120, and 122 West Main, looking west, early 1920s.
(Courtesy Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection