Looking south from Main Street in downtown Durham, alongside the handsome buildings of the American Tobacco campus on one side and the dignified North Carolina Mutual Insurance building on the other, you can see some big visual mistakes. In the middle distance sits one of them, the depressing gray bulk of the J.J. Henderson senior housing building. It and the dreary apartment block on East Main Street are the closest things Durham has to a high-rise apartment buildings downtown, and they are enough to make even the most die-hard, smart-growth, urban-infill-preaching downtown lover pause for a moment of uncertainty. Equally ugly is the defunct Heart of Durham motel, occupying a prime 3.24 acre site at the corner of Chapel Hill and Pettigrew streets, next to the N.C. Mutual Insurance building and directly across the street from the Amtrak station. Formerly the Downtowner, and home to the Four Flames restaurant, it was a nice enough place in its day–but that day passed many years ago. After a long descent into seediness, the motel closed to business in 1994, although it has remained in constant use as a quiet place to drink a little malt liquor or cheap wine, a spot to trade sex for substances and vice versa, and as a squat for homeless transients. (The razor wire topping the fence was no impediment once the chain-link below it was cut open.) The site has languished on the market. On top of the hefty asking price of $1 million, the new owner would bear the considerable costs of demolition. Despite the best efforts of the city’s economic development people and Downtown Durham Inc., only a couple of potential buyers have ever surfaced, and both deals fell through.

But now there is a new possibility for that site, and it is one that is going to force Durham to come to grips with what it wants to be.

Architects Robert L. Wilson of The Wilson Organization in Stamford, Conn., and L.E. Tuckett of Durham are proposing building two tall towers of condominiums and a cluster of townhouses there for a total of 456 residential units and 12,000 square feet of retail space. At first glance, this proposal seems the very image of smart growth–revitalizing a desolate chunk of the urban core and placing several hundred residents immediately adjacent to the new transit station planned for Pettigrew Street and within a few minutes walk of existing and planned businesses, cultural venues, schools and churches. Residents at Ashton Place, as the project has been dubbed, would have such easy pedestrian access to so many places, and such convenient access to public transportation, that conceivably many of them could leave their cars parked for days at a time, or even do without them altogether.

There are, however, a number of worrisome issues. What assurances are there that this would be a fine building, not another ugly slab-sided concrete box like J.J. Henderson, or (nearly as bad) a mediocre concoction like the blue-glass People’s Security building on the other side of downtown? Are there in fact enough people who want a mortgage for a flat in a tower block next to the bus station? What happens if the project fails? But aside from considering the possible inappropriateness of building twin towers anywhere at all just now, the first questions to be answered are: Does Durham want to be a place of tall buildings and if so, just how tall?

An old battle in Raleigh
The same question echoes around the Triangle. In Chapel Hill, they’ve answered it for the time being: 90 feet–eight or nine stories–is as tall as a building can go, and the areas and conditions under which that height can be reached are carefully restricted by zoning district and setback requirements. But even in Chapel Hill, which is notoriously strict about development, there is always the possibility of getting an exception to the rules by applying for a variance or a special-use permit.

In Raleigh, quarrels over the height issue have gone from simmer to raging boil and back again for years. The location of the fight moves from the dour, towering First Union building on Fayetteville Street Mall, which casts shadows over the three-story state Capitol to its north; to the infamous Coker Towers; to Glenwood South and the office palaces of West Raleigh, but the combatants and the arguments remain much the same. Again and again, small-area plans are made with height limitations–and then the citizen input process is subverted when officials grant exceptions and variances.

Positions in Raleigh have become so polarized that respectful discussion and enlightened compromise have been rare. All or nothing stances have been taken up: Any tall building is an honor and boon to the city, and should be allowed wherever a developer wants to put one. Or, anything taller than six stories is an affront to nearby buildings and pedestrians and an attack on the surrounding neighborhoods–and should be disallowed. Neighborhood activists tend to view developers as devils incarnate, while developers (and their cohorts in government) often dismiss others’ legitimate concerns while throwing up smoke screens about progress and economic development to obscure their profit motives.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with making a profit. But when that is the driving force of a development, it tends to cause problems. A developer working on spec wants to maximize return on investment, and do it in the shortest possible time. Unlike the corporation or institution building to project its self-image into its hometown and the world, or a designer driven by aesthetic goals, the speculative developer has no incentive to make anything great–the project just needs to be good enough to get by, make the bucks and enhance his reputation for business success. Thus you get spectacularly inappropriate proposals like the so-called Coker Towers project.

Developer Neal Coker, before being stopped by an unprecedented level of neighborhood animosity and organization, had wanted to build 19-story towers on the old Occidental Insurance building site, which faces both Wade Avenue and Oberlin Road. The current building on the site is only four stories, and the adjacent single-family homes are low, ranch-style houses. Leaving aside issues of traffic, impact on neighborhoods and so forth, and thinking of this proposal in strictly visual terms, it was out of scale and out of harmony.

The Battle of Coker Towers was long and acrimonious, despite the clarity of the issues. Less extreme cases may prove even more difficult to resolve. Another conflict is shaping up over a proposed condo building at Boylan Avenue and Johnson Street, just south of Peace Street, and one block over from Glenwood Avenue. Although the small-area plan recommends a maximum of six stories, the city has approved 10 stories for the project. While Coker Towers was clearly too tall, it is not quite as clear whether 10 stories is too tall in a location where on one side are one- and two-story commercial and residential structures, but on the other side there is an existing group of 10- and 14-story apartment buildings right across the street, and a six-story building one block away. What is certain is that it is wasteful and conducive only to mistrust to craft careful plans for growth, and then disregard them, making exceptions more the rule than the rules themselves.

Good questions
For some, skyscrapers are symbols of social dynamism and economic energy, while for others, tall buildings symbolize unfair dominance and hubris, and hog the market, preventing synergy in the built environment. Do big buildings a great a city make, or do they make a city less livable, less humane? You can come up with examples either way. Is tall better than sprawl for preserving the environment–or does packing more people into smaller spaces in town simply allow the rich to take up more space on the edges and exacerbate existing inner-city problems?

Public policy should work to reconcile these opposing viewpoints and encourage healthy growth and excellent buildings while preserving the integrity of established neighborhoods. Currently, the system favors developers who have the time and money to get around zoning and planning requirements. But those regulations should be something the people can depend on, and variances and exceptions should be granted sparingly and with great caution. A balance must be found between change and growth, and preservation and stability, and that is likely to mean both an altered skyline and a lower return on investment over a longer period.

In an atmosphere of creative compromise like that, it is possible that a great building doing good for all and bad to none might soar into the Durham skyline.

As currently conceived, Ashton Place would be 27 stories above grade, with two levels of underground parking. It would top out at 310 feet, making it 58 feet taller than its neighbor, the N.C. Mutual building, and about 30 feet taller than downtown Durham’s other tallest buildings. It would be the tallest thing around, but wouldn’t be unreasonably taller than its neighbors, so it wouldn’t have the same effect as University Tower on U.S. 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill, which shoots up like an oversized pickle and looks ridiculous among the low strip buildings around it. Such a tall building as the proposed Ashton Place would become an instant landmark on the Durham skyline, though, and would radically alter spatial perceptions at its corner. These are not necessarily bad things. Yet many people are upset at the idea of such height. Their anxiety focuses on such points as the long shadows cast by tall buildings, the way such a building might diminish the symbolic power of the cityscape’s other dominant verticals, and the possibility of creating a high-rise slum. Perhaps one underlying issue is that such a tall, dense urban residential building would force those who have steadfastly clung to seeing Durham as a not-too-big town into recognizing it as a city–and a type of city they don’t want it to become.

It’s easy to be anti-sprawl and pro-density in theory, but sometimes more difficult in practice. One of the main tools for achieving density is to build upward, and where the built environment has traditionally been low, any building over five or six stories can seem overbearing and outlandish. Yet density is a function of height for a residential development on a small site. To make transit workable, to vitalize downtowns, to preserve unbuilt-upon open space in a region where the population keeps growing wildly–how dense is dense enough? The 25-units-per-acre limit currently in place for Raleigh’s Occidental (Coker Towers) site? The 45-units-per-acre minimum recommended in the Triangle Transit Authority’s development guidelines for areas within one-quarter mile of its stations? 100? 140? How tall is not too-tall?

Durham: No height cap
One hundred and forty units per acre is what the developers propose for Ashton Place, and that is 40 percent more than the maximum recommended in the new downtown design standard that will take effect in the next few months. It exceeds even the “bonus” number to be allowed in a residential project that includes shops and offices, as this one would. It is nearly triple the 50 residential units per acre currently allowed without a special use permit from the City Council. The 310-foot height, on the other hand, would be acceptable under current zoning–there is no height cap currently in the Central Business District, and there is no restriction on the number of office units per acre. Under the future rules, maximum height would be 300 feet, but the Development Review Board could approve up to 30 feet more.

Durham, whether most of its people knew it or not, has already decided how tall a city it wants–or can stand–to be. Unless the ordinances are changed before the developers of Ashton Place submit their site plans to the city, the only way for the City Council or the Board of Adjustment to control the buildings’ height is to limit the number of dwelling units permitted. According to architect Roy Tuckett, the project has received no assurances from the City that there’s a green light on the density question. “It’s a measured gamble we are taking,” he says.

Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., calls Ashton Place “the epitome of smart growth,” and points out that it has the three most important things in real estate, “location, location, location.” Kalkhof has worked to promote downtown Durham during the time it went from having four residential units to having more than 400. He believes that doubling that number would be a good start toward the kind of residential density downtown needs. Nonetheless he says that “the biggest concern I have is the number of units coming on this untested market all at once.”

Nick Tennyson, executive vice-president of the Home Builders Association of Durham and Orange Counties and Durham’s former mayor, notes that “there are market segments at present that have no way to demonstrate their strength, so maybe they are right and they would sell them that quickly.” But, he adds, “that would be considered a home-run in real-estate circles.”

Let’s assume, just for the moment, that the project gets built and the units all sell–and that Ashton Place turns into an ideal urban neighborhood, not a vertical slum or a high-rise student ghetto. What does it look like? Is it something that makes your heart beat a little faster when it comes into view? Do you point it out to visitors with pride? Do you admire it when you step off the TTA train of the future, or when you are sitting in the Durham Bulls ball park? Do you cast your eyes down before its looming presence, or grin as you tilt your head back to admire its profile against the sky?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Approve now, see later
Ordinarily, architects will tell you more than you want to know about their designs, their materials, the project’s artistic, architectural and historic references. They’ll let you know exactly how the buildings fit into their context, improve the built environment and generally make the world a better place. If they don’t have drawings, they’ll whip one out on the nearest scrap of paper, sketching in the surroundings as well.

That’s not the case here. “I didn’t think it was time yet to create a lot of pretty pictures,” says Bob Wilson. “We haven’t fully designed the building yet.” All that was available for viewing at the time of writing was an elevation drawing of the Chapel Hill Street façade, a floor plan, and a site-plan drawing, which is still being tweaked because the city may need to take a sliver of that site for the transit station next door. The elevation drawing shows groups of three stories stacked slightly offset to the groups above and below, so that the buildings’ corners create notched vertical lines. The façade shows some shallow projections and recessions, so that the buildings’ faces are not flat planes. All the windows are small and identical; each apartment has a small balcony. All sides of the towers would look the same. The site plan shows the 40 townhouses in short rows on the south side of the site, with the tower complex in the middle, and–more like a suburban building than an urban place–a divisive strip of parking between the towers and the sidewalk along Chapel Hill Street.

“We’ll have a good, substantial, quality project, not a tacky piece of crap thrown up for financial gain,” says Tuckett. “It will be a landmark urban space.” Wilson says: “I’m going to try to make these towers as dynamic and forceful and attractive as I can. You need a skyline. If you want your downtown noticed and you want a certain buzz, you need the American Tobacco project, and you need Blue Devil Ventures, and you need something like my project. Our goal is to build a quality project that the city will be proud of.”

But how will it look? “There will be a very powerful façade, with rustication, power, dynamic movement,” says Wilson. “The exposed concrete echoes the spandrels and even the verticals of the Mutual Building.” The frame would be poured concrete, he says, and the façade would be composed of pre-cast concrete panels embedded with brick. Tuckett says that the balconies may be made from glass or glass block.

Neither architect would talk about the building in artistic terms–about it as an object in space, with aesthetic qualities. The design, insofar as it exists, is apparently driven entirely by program and development considerations, and this approach seems unlikely to produce a first-class building of the type a landmark should be.

Tuckett and Wilson hope to submit their site plan to the city next month. It will wend its way through the normal process, then the Durham City Council must hold a public hearing before it votes whether to approve the developers’ request for high density use on the site. It is impossible to say what the result will be, as the City Council was less than impressed with the visuals when it took up the rezoning application for this site. Several council members called the project “ugly.”

The Durham City Council lacks Raleigh’s general enthusiasm for tall buildings, yet, however reluctantly, the council did approve Wilson and Tuckett’s request to rezone the property. The council can only rule on a request as submitted, but by approving the zoning change as requested, without the “D” (for “development plan required”) appended, the council gave away any chance of meaningful public input about the look of whatever is built on that site–whether it is Ashton Place or some other project.

The public input process can be expensive and exasperating, and the horrors of design by committee are well known, but as our towns become cities, and our cities become increasingly urbanized and crowded, we–citizens and officials–need to take greater care that everything is made as beautiful as it can be. It is better to risk a project not being built than to risk building a bad one. It is even better to coax a mediocre project into greatness, and to build something of lasting value to the city and the region. EndBlock

Staff writer Bob Geary contributed to this report.