The Oh Shit factor has arrived.

When I interviewed Greg Hills of Austin Lawrence Partners in July about his plans for the City Center Project in downtown Durham, he noted that developers have to prepare themselves for the unexpected, often inevitable entanglements that emerge during a project: mold, asbestos, soil issues, structural problems, even human bones.

Well, Oh Shit.

ALP East’s City Center Projecta 27-story tower, the renovation of the Jack Tar motel and the rehabilitation of five buildings along Main and Parrish streetshas hit a snag.

ALP purchased five buildings at 118-122 W. Main St. and 113-117 W. Parrish St., from Greenfire Development, and had planned to brace the facades while the interiors were rebuilt. Then ALP would repair the facades using original and replica materials.

But structural engineering tests show the brick on the facades is so degraded that it poses a serious public safety hazard.

“The brickwork has cracked and deteriorated due to weather, fire and neglect,” Danny Speight of Speight, Marshall & Francis engineering told the Historic Preservation Commission on Tuesday morning. “It’s hard to come and tell you there are problems with this. But the brick’s falling apart. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in 30 years in this business.”

To brace the facades during construction and renovation “carries a significant risk the facades will crack or collapse,” an engineering report stated. To reduce the risk of killing or injuring passersby, contractors would have to drill 800 to 1,000 holesanchor pointsin the brick. Then the bracing would have to extend toward the street, blocking sidewalks and a lane of traffic on Parrish and Mainfor almost two years. Yes, two years.

All this unpleasant news was the lead-up to ALP East’s appearance before the Historic Preservation Commission.

Instead of bracing the facades, ALP now wants to dismantle them, store them off-site and then determine what is salvageable. Then, with city planning oversight, it can rebuild the facades, using old and replica materialprovided there is enough brick.

The HPC and City Council had already approved the company’s plans to brace the facades and replace windows, storefronts and other elements in compliance with historic guidelines.

Complicating matters, ALP East has to act on its demolition permit by Jan. 1 in order to qualify for $1.6 million of its $7.9 million in city-county tax incentives. But the HPC, which could have continued the case, doesn’t meet again until Jan. 6.

Oh shit.

For the next 90 minutes, the HPC discussed the essence of preservation: What is worth saving? What are we saving? An image, a building, a memory?

“My feeling is that these facades have been identified as something that’s very important to keep,” said HPC chairman Joe Fitzsimons. “It’s a slippery slope to say they’re beyond repair.”

“This is a demolition,” added HPC member Jennifer Martin Mitchell. “Taking out five downtown buildings is huge. I want to be sure we exhaust every possibility here.”

Hills noted that in Aspen, where ALP is headquartered, it’s important that “at least part of the structure was there 100 years ago.

“How important is that connection to the past? Is that good enough for Durham?” Hills asked. “It’s been our intent all along to keep those connected to the past in a 21st century way.”

In addition to the risk of unstable buildings, the case also presents substantial financial and public policy risks.

The company, which is putting at least $70 million into the entire City Center project, has to trust that the city’s protocol for rebuilding under these new circumstances is achievable.

And the city has to trust the ALP will rebuild the facades as has been approved in its proposal, even though it’s uncertain if any brick can be saved. And what those facades could look like is unknown until that has been assessed.

“We have a couple of examples in Durham of saving old stuff and putting new stuff around it,” Mitchell said. “As a preservationist, it’s too disturbing to think about.”

“We have to provide [evidence] to you that we’ll carefully take down and salvage what can,” Hills said. “We’re saying we will satisfy the rebuild.”

There is some concern that the Green Wall and its associated building on West Parrish Street is unsound. City Planner Lisa Miller said that a previous engineering report showed that high winds from the right direction could knock down the wall. In 2011, Greenfire erected a chain-link fence, but later removed it because that type of fencing was not allowed under Downtown Design District zoning.

The Historic Preservation Commission eventually approved ALP East’s proposal, by a 4–1 vote (two members were absent, and there are two vacancies), but with several conditions.

ALP East must submit for staff approval:

• protocols and procedures for deconstructing the facades.

• the location of where materials will be kept for salvaging

• the method of deconstruction

• the method of determining what can be salvaged

• credentials of the salvaging subcontractor

• adequate architectural documentation for restoration of the facades

• staff verification that ALP has followed the protocols

• replacement of the brick to match the original size, color and texture

Concerned that the HPC was acting too hastily, Mitchell voted against approval. But her aggravation seemed to transcend the immediate situation.

Greenfire Development previously owned the five buildingsand several others, including Liberty Warehouse. Greenfire has attributed its neglect of the buildings to the 2008 recession, during which financing, especially for risky projects, was difficult, if not impossible to come by.

However, many Durham preservationists still feel embittered by Greenfire’sand the city’slack of responsiveness to the disintegrating historic buildings.

“It’s unfortunate that this has been allowed to happen,” Mitchell said. “These buildings have been sitting here for years and years.”

The Greystone apartment project has left the building.

Lomax Properties of Greensboro and Horvath Associates, based in Durham, withdrew their proposal for a 140-unit apartment complex at 518 Morehead Ave., in the Morehead Hill Historic District.

Keith Downing of Horvath told the HPC that it plans to resubmit a redesigned plan next year.

Since Lomax and Horvath proposed the project in August, city planning staff, the HPC and neighbors have consistently objected to its mass, scale and height. At four- and five-stories, the apartment buildings would dwarf the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.

Over the past six months, the developer has submitted several iterations of its proposal, and asked the HPC for two continuances. But the bulk of the project has never changed.

“We have worked with Greystone and given them feedback,” said Melanie Eberhart, who lives on Shepherd Street. “We suggested they take a different approach. I haven’t seen any change. They’ve made cosmetic changes to their proposal, but it doesn’t indicate serious intent in working within the guidelines.”

Many Morehead Hill residents said they understand the land, currently a 3.6-acre meadow, on the southwest edge of downtownis optimal for development, just not the Greystone project.

“We would like to reiterate that we welcome development,” said Susan Pochapsky, who lives near the Greystone Inn on Vickers Avenue. “We know the space should not be wasted; it should be used. But it should improve our investments not decrease them.”

Lomax Properties has argued that since the nine-story J.J. Henderson apartment tower is across Duke Street, Greystone would fit in with the area. However, Henderson Towers, owned by the Durham Housing Authority, is not within the historic district.

“If we relax the border, the historic designation will be meaningless,” Pochapsky said. “And it will be relaxed again and again. A border was drawn where it was drawn. What’s on the other side of the border is meaningless.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Downtown Durham’s risky buildings.”