American Tobacco Project A Possibility

American Tobacco Project A Possibility

As previously announced, Capitol Broadcasting has been contemplating taking on another project in Durham, NC: to renovate the old American Tobacco Building and continue its efforts to help revitalize downtown Durham. Adjacent to two other successful ventures, The Durham Bulls Athletic Park and Diamondview Office Building, this project would continue the company’s comittment to the Durham community. But, as the News and Observer reports, this needs to be a comprehensive, private/public effort in order to be successful.

Story from the News and Observer Web Site: February 24, 2000


New vista for Durham

Backers of a concept advanced by Capitol Broadcasting Co. hope the American Tobacco complex will become a center of activity.

By J. ANDREW CURLISS,
News and Observer
Staff Writer


Staff Photo by John Rottet

DURHAM — A 16-acre industrial ghost town known by its majestic Lucky Strike smokestack looms over downtown Durham once again as its potential salvation.

Twice before, plans to revive the shuttered American Tobacco buildings with modern offices, shops and apartments have raised hopes, then failed. But this time might be different. “It can be done, but it will take a bit,” said Joe Hakan, an architect who looked at the property 10 years ago but now is focused on building up downtown Raleigh. His company owns City Market. “If this gets done, it will be a great thing. And Jim Goodmon is one of the few people who can make it work.”

After having engineers climb all over the site for months, Goodmon’s Capitol Broadcasting Co. is set to make a proposal to transform the vacant brick structures into an urban office park across from the Durham Bulls baseball park. Goodmon, who owns the Bulls, already has built an office building overlooking the ballpark’s right field and is at work on plans for a matching building just beyond the left-field fence.

In its early stages, the American Tobacco proposal is slated to be a $80 million project, mostly offices, a few shops and perhaps a restaurant. By comparison, the 20-story Carolina Power & Light office tower that is hoped to be a major boost for downtown Raleigh is a $50 million to $60 million project. Down the road, developers hope for more offices, shops, restaurants, a hotel and apartments in what could be a $200 million project, one of the largest of its kind in the state. The key is $30 million to $45 million in public financing, mostly for parking. City and county elected officials will have to consider any plans, but there appears to be the political will to get it done.

Plans are taking shape to transform the American Tobacco complex in Durham into offices, shops, restaurants and living space. The cost of the first part of the project is estimated at $80 million, and would create more office space than anything else. The city and county will consider a plan to build parking decks in the area before developers will build.

Also working in downtown’s favor are the crowding and traffic that are making the fringes of the Triangle less attractive to businesses and commuters. Proponents say developing downtown is the answer to urban sprawl. If the project works, cars and people would head downtown again, against the rush-hour jams. Some people would live there. Many others would eat and shop there. It would spur new development in the city’s core, boosters say, and would create new jobs where they are needed. And it would tie directly into the proposed regional rail line. “We hear quite often about the concern of sprawl,” City Manager Lamont Ewell said Wednesday. “If American Tobacco were to take place, you’d see 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs and 1 million square feet of office and other space in downtown that would otherwise be in a suburban area. What it does is redirect all of that back into downtown.”

The public will be asked to build at least one parking deck — and perhaps three decks — near the project. The reason is clear, officials said. Parking is expensive to build downtown, where space is tight.

Capitol Broadcasting officials say they can’t afford to renovate the factory and build the decks while keeping rents low enough to attract tenants. The public must fill that gap, officials said. Separately, Capitol officials have applied for state and federal tax credits that would pay for 40 percent of the renovation. It could be months before that outcome is known.

By the end of next month, city and county elected officials should have a finished proposal before them that would include the expected parking needs. Ewell said the parking plan will have limits: Taxpayers will not be asked to build any decks unless there are solid commitments from tenants to move in, and tax and parking revenues from the project will be dedicated to pay off any debt. Ewell said he is doing calculations to see how close property and sales taxes generated by the project will come to paying off the debt on any parking decks, which could cost $45 million. “We want to use all of the revenues off of the new development for that,” he said. “We want to be as close as humanly possible to having those revenues pay for it all.”

If the elected leaders approve, Capitol Broadcasting officials will then begin a months-long process to work out other details with the city and county. And they could go ahead and begin early renovations. When it’s all final, a second vote to approve the project would be needed from the City Council and county Board of Commissioners.

“It’s going to be important for people to make their voices heard to the elected officials that we need to do this deal,” said Bill Kalkhof, who heads the downtown advocacy group Downtown Durham Inc. “We haven’t built a parking deck downtown in 20 years. And it’s a lot like extending water and sewer and curb and gutters to match development on the fringes of town. We’ll have to provide a similar infrastructure downtown. In this case, it’s parking decks.” Said Mayor Nick Tennyson: “We’re nearing the point where we will quantify how serious we are about the downtown development aspect of smart growth. We’ll see what people really want to do.”

Back to the future?

For now, the focus is also on what could become of the red-brick complex, which once employed thousands who churned out billions of cigarettes. It closed in 1987. “When American Tobacco was alive, it produced good jobs that were nearby for Durham residents,” Tennyson said. “I think we have the chance to see that again. To see jobs there. It’s just that those jobs will be different and reflective of this century — just as those old jobs were reflective of the century before.”

Plans submitted to the state show a wide main entrance off Willard Street on the south side of the complex, close to where people walk into the Bulls stadium. It will lead to a grassy areas with fountains and entrances to the offices. A parking deck, carved into the side of 11 tobacco warehouses, is shown on the west side. On the east, what are now large factories would become offices. On the north side, the historic “Old Bull” building, the first tobacco warehouse on the site, could become a hotel or apartment building. Two other buildings nearby could end up the same way. The huge brick smokestack and nearby water tower — both painted with the black and red logo of Lucky Strike cigarettes — would stay.

Beyond that, officials of Capitol Broadcasting will not say what they have planned. Part of it is that different scenarios are being looked at, said Mike Hill, who is leading the project for Capitol. One team, for example, is studying whether a hotel could go in. Another is looking at the same buildings as apartments. In all, more than 20 people are studying all the options — from asbestos removal to attracting tenants, he said. “We’ve just got a lot of work going on,” Hill said. “And nothing is really to the point that it’s all final.”

News and Observer staff writer J. ANDREW CURLISS
can be reached at 956-2405 or acurliss@nando.com

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