Triangle Transit and City of Durham following well-worn path towards a vacant lot at Duke and West Chapel Hill
Triangle Transit held a "Public Information Session" on Tuesday night regarding the Graybar building - my guess would be that ~15 members of the public showed up over the two hour period, a group matched by ~10 people from TT, 2 code enforcement officers from NIS, one city council member, and one city planner.
This was not set up as an opportunity to solicit ideas for the preservation of the building, as the small room was ringed by boards outlining the historic insignificance of the building, the derelict condition of the roof that makes the building 'unsafe', a site plan showing the entire NCRR-Duke-West Chapel Hill triangle land covered with surface parking, among others. The posture was clearly that the demolition of the building was a fait accompli, and there really wasn't anything to be done about that.
The story, as gathered from several folks:
1) TT acquired the building from the city for use as part of the eventual station site. They own the building, and Cherokee Investment Partners has a five year option on the land as master developer to provide infrastructure and the like. Cherokee has ~3 years left on this option, but no particular plan to do anything imminently.
2) TT is not in a hurry to demolish the building. However, after ?20 years? of sitting empty, most of it under city ownership while being allowed to deteriorate, NIS has decided to now cite the building as unsafe, giving TT the option to repair, demolish, or be fined and sued if NIS demolishes the building for them.
3) Wib Gulley, counsel for TT, states that TT has no authority to spend public funds for the repair of the building, as it is not part of their plan for the station site. I could not get a clear sense of whose requirements these are, but it seemed to be Federal and state. They do not intend to be sued, so they will demolish the building.
4) There is no plan to do anything with the site right now, and it will likely be seeded with grass, or a garden-next-to-the-tracks will be planted. The city-approved site plan shows the entire site filled with a surface parking lot. TT's hopes are pinned on the Senate and local approval of a 0.5 cent sales tax and the STAC transit plan to allow them to, ~3 years or more from now, build rail transit.
My over-riding concern, based on 50 years of Durham history, is that we will demolish this building on the basis of dreams, and end up with yet-another weedy lot that someone like me has to call and pester someone to mow for the next 30 years. We will, yet again, squander a historic resource for nothing.
My major points to TT:
1) Explore partnership with a private developer to redevelop the building, and eventually integrate the building into the station site. The condition of this building is no worse than anything any local developers have taken on. The 'unsafe' thing is a silly 'scare' argument, in my opinion, wielded as a cudgel by the city when they want to disarm the opposition. ("Why do you hate the children that will be inevitably crushed by falling buildings....?") Unless it is going to fall on the sidewalk, we are talking about the safety of trespassers. Secure the building.
2) If a parking lot is somehow a required element right now (which I'm not sure I understand, since there is no station,) it is, by TT's admission, undersized. This will not improve if someone manages to eventually build underground parking, an extremely costly endeavor, since they plan to build a station on the site if the train dream comes to fruition.
3) The proffered notion that someone is going to build a $$$ million dollar 15-story building or buildings on the site is just silly. It is by nature a low-rise development site, highly constrained by its shape and small size. There is no way the space, parking, and $ work out to build something large on this site, unless you knock down Duke Memorial or BB Olive's building to build a giant parking deck, or Greenfire wants to share space in a massive parking deck wrapping the NC Mutual building.
4) Just because the building isn't listed on the National Register doesn't mean that it isn't historic. We cannot afford to lose yet another of our few remaining historic commercial buildings in Durham. It is possible to designate this building and for a private developer to get tax credits on it.
5) Creating a giant vacant lot here is utterly inconsistent with the goals of TT. Creating a more desolate streetscape between the Brightleaf district and Durham Station is not going to promote pedestrian activity/ridership. Yet another moat of surface parking/empty lot will further separate the Brightleaf district from Durham Station, American Tobacco, and all other points south and southwest. The notion that this important gateway into Durham would be 'anchored' by an empty lot/parking lot is depressingly retro.
6) I support rail transit. But it isn't reality right now; it is a hope. The known, budgeted future for this site, if the building is demolished is a vacant lot. That is the only real choice in front of us: vacant historic building or empty lot.
The two major things that need to happen to save this building are:
1) the city needs to be convinced to hold off from demolition / civil suit against TTA to remove the immediate impetus for demolition.
2) TTA needs to be convinced that the building can be an integral part of their long-term plan for the site.
I'll do my best on these, but I need your help. Landscape architects, contractors, architects, developers et al - if you feel like to can contribute to an alternative vision for this site, please let me, TT, and the City know about it. Wib Gulley said he was willing to listen to alternatives where someone would redevelop the building. It is possible to get the city to hold off if there is a plan in place. It's a long-shot, to be sure; but I'd argue that it's not any more of a long shot than rail transit in the Triangle, and we're faced with the strong chance of a lose-lose proposition: no train, no building.