Standing beneath Liberty Warehouse’s familiar yellow-and-black marquee, the only sound is the hum of passing traffic and the snare drum clap of a skateboard on concrete.
It seems a humble funeral dirge for Liberty Warehouse, Durham’s last standing tobacco auction warehouse. Barring the unexpected, Liberty will be gone by the end of spring. Chapel Hill-based builder East West Partners is preparing to build a 320,000-square-foot mixed-use complex on the edge of Durham Central Park. It is estimated to be complete by early 2016.
At a community meeting last week, organizers of Preservation Durham—once the dilapidated building’s last public defenders—all but read Liberty’s eulogy. “Demolition of this building is, at this point, a reality,” said Wendy Hillis, executive director of the group.
Before developers rolled out their site plan for the property, Hillis urged roughly 150 or so Durham residents—some of them doggedly hoping to save the downtown landmark—to embrace the future.
“We could either be obstructive,” she said. “Or we could make the best out of an imminent situation.”
In 2006, Durham-based Greenfire Development bought Liberty with hopes to redevelop it. In 2010, it requested local landmark status for the building, which City Council granted. Such status restricts the improvements that can be made to a building’s structure, but it also gives property owners a 50 percent tax break.
Liberty’s history is still evident inside where wooden placards with numbers mark the rows where tobacco vendors sold their wares from 1940 to 1984. Signs for Pepsi, 7UP and various local banks, which had offices inside, are painted on the walls. Numbers are scrawled on the wall—the math of tobacco buyers and sellers. A scale reads “No Springs Honest Weight.”
Since its closing as a tobacco warehouse, Liberty had been used as a space for local artists and nonprofits, such as the Scrap Exchange, but it’s been largely vacant since May 2011. That’s when heavy rains caved in part of the roof, which is still demolished in parts. Earlier this fall, the sound of water—drip, drip, drip—slapped into buckets that had been placed around the building.
In 2011 and 2012, city officials threatened to fine Greenfire $500 a day for demolition by neglect, but eventually let the company off the hook. It did have to pay $29,000 in deferred taxes to the city and county.
Then last May, Durham City Council removed the historical designation—surprisingly with the support of Preservation Durham. The Council move cleared the way for East West Partners to demolish the structure and rebuild on the land.
The upscale Triangle developers behind the Woodcroft subdivision in South Durham and what they call the “urban village” of East 54 in Chapel Hill say the new Liberty will include 246 one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, 24,000 square feet of retail space and a 391-space parking deck at its center. At its tallest, the building will stand five stories, with multiple courtyards.
The apartments are meant for couples or single tenants, “urbanites” seeking a place within walking distance of downtown, according to Roger Perry, president of East West Partners.
East West Partners submitted its site plan to city officials this month; demolition should begin in May. Construction is set for September.
Hillis said Preservation Durham is focused on negotiating construction that reflects the neighborhood’s historical charm, rather than attempting to block the building’s demolition altogether.
The group negotiated with city leaders last year to settle the dispute over Liberty’s future. Perry said the complex will keep Liberty’s fading signage while retaining all but a swath at the center of the brick wall facing Central Park. Builders say the wall will be trimmed to “mesh” with the new development.
“We’re going to do everything that we possibly can to honor that memorandum of understanding,” Perry said last week. “That’s what’s important: preserving the memory of the building,” he added. “It’s not necessarily preserving the building.”
Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown, who voted to remove the building’s landmark status last year, said the builder has the money and expertise to remake Liberty.
“I think that there’s more sentimental value there than real estate value,” Brown said. “It was a shack. It was a tin shack. There was absolutely no way of getting around that. It’s a declarative truth.”
Not everyone would agree. Many of those in attendance last week indicated opposition to the proposed redevelopment, chafing at the slick renderings proffered by Perry and company.
“I moved here because I didn’t want to live in a place like Woodcroft,” said one woman, who did not identify herself. “I love the Liberty Warehouse. I would probably give a finger to save it.”
Another woman said the developer’s proposed Rigsbee Street façade looks more like Raleigh’s ultra-commercial Glenwood South area than downtown Durham’s gritty northside.
Another attendee complimented the look of the planned structure, to be made mostly of glass and masonry, but worried about the building’s height. One man implored Perry to offer affordably priced apartments.
Mary Anne McDonald, a downtown Durham resident, called on Perry to guarantee that only Durham businesses would fill the structure’s retail portion on Foster Street, which is roughly a block away from numerous local enterprises, including Fullsteam brewery, Motorco, Cocoa Cinnamon and Geer Street Garden.
“I’d hate to see a Starbucks come in and compete with Cocoa Cinnamon,” McDonald said. “That’d be a disaster.”
Perry made no guarantees, but he argued that chains won’t locate in the new Liberty, which offers relatively limited retail space. Perry said commercial tenants will offer a bowling alley, music and bars—something “hip” and “cool” to fit the neighborhood.
“I don’t think I’m going to like it,” Perry joked. “But I think there are natives here who are going to like it.”
Like it or not, the old Liberty Warehouse is dead.
“That ship has sailed,” Hillis said. “We are where we are.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The last days of liberty warehouse”
Contact staff writer Billy Ball email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_k_ball.—>