Durham will start over — again — on redeveloping its former police headquarters.
On Tuesday, City Council members roundly dismissed two proposals for the mid-century building and 4-acre site that formerly housed the Durham Police Department (and its large parking lot).
“This is the last great piece of land we own in the downtown footprint,” Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton said. “I have no problem going back to the drawing board.”
He called both proposals the developers had prepared “DOA.”
“I think we need to start at the drawing board again. It’s a different council. We have different priorities,” Mayor Elaine O’Neal agreed. “I think this is a case where we can have it all.”
A deal fell through in 2021
The building at 505 W. Chapel Hill St. was constructed in the late 1950s for Home Security Life Insurance Co. It served as police headquarters for two and a half decades, beginning in 1992.
Durham spent $71.3 million to build a new headquarters at 602 E. Main St., which the police department and 911 center moved into in 2018.
The four-acre parcel containing the vacated building was quickly deemed surplus property.
The City Council picked The Fallon Co., a Boston development firm, upon staff’s recommendation after first soliciting pitches for the site in 2019, The News & Observer reported. Three other companies had submitted proposals, including commercial developer Akridge, which offered $2 million more, but was thought to lack Fallon’s connections and expertise.
The Fallon Co. pulled out of its contract in May 2021, citing COVID-19 as forcing them to reevaluate the need for office space and saying the former building would cost a lot more than expected to renovate.
The city again solicited bids in the fall, aiming to fulfill five objectives:
- Provide 80 permanent affordable housing units for those making up to 60% of the area median income.
- Make the city money on the sale and future tax revenue.
- Deliver a mixed-use project of at least 250,000 square feet with significant commercial space.
- Preserve the existing building, designed in the 1950s by architect Milton Small.
- Have a “signature design and activated street-level experience.”
It identified two teams of developers, led by commercial real estate developers Akridge and Ancora. Both companies partnered with an affordable residential developer: Akridge with DHIC; Ancora with Winn Companies.
Akridge proposed two residential buildings with 415 apartments: the market rate units in a high-rise, the affordable units in a smaller building next-door. They also envisioned a large commercial building with ground-floor retail, a public art gallery and offices in the former police station, surrounding a spacious green courtyard accessible from all the surrounding streets.
Ancora envisioned a large office and lab building, a mid-rise residential structure containing 293 apartments, an acre of open space along Chapel Hill Street, and a cafe and child-care center on the ground floor of the police building.
Neither Akridge’s nor Ancora’s proposals would have made the city any significant money, according to Elizabeth Packer, a consultant who has been advising on the project.
An appraiser valued the site last year at $15 million, though the city’s restrictions lowered that to $8.4 million, they estimated.
Now, the council appears ready to reevaluate its priorities for the site.
“A lot of times, we can’t have all of those things at once and expect it not to cost much either,” said Council member Jillian Johnson.
Middleton said the prior deal falling through may have been a blessing in disguise, as this was a huge architectural branding opportunity for the city.
“We have the water tower and the smokestack of course and the bull of course and CCB Plaza,” he said. “I’d much rather get this right than get it quick.”
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting voiced frustration at the lack of progress.
“This property is an ideal location for affordable housing. Needless to say, we were deeply disappointed when the first plan fell through,” said Rick Larson, who attends the church across the street. “The need just gets more urgent every day.”
“We thought we had success when we found developers who were willing to bid on the project,” said Marcia McNally, of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit. “We were really disappointed when the first procurement process imploded. We liked the team quite a bit.”
Should mid-century modern building be preserved?
The council was split on whether to preserve the police headquarters building.
“It would be great if we could, but the amount of money we would lose on preserving this, it doesn’t feel responsible to me,” Johnson said.
O’Neal recalled it was a three-minute walk from where she grew up.
“I am not for preserving that building for lots of reasons and part of it is neighborhood reasons from way back,” she said.
Council member Leo William said he was not at all interested, while Council member Javiera Caballero said she was fully in support.
George Smart, executive director of North Carolina Modernists, said the building was on par with CCB Plaza’s Unscripted Hotel, which a private developer renovated and reopened five years ago.
“It’s really one of the finest examples of mid-century modern that exists in downtown,” Smart said of the police headquarters building. “It will be the crown jewel of that block when completed.”
The council unanimously agreed affordable housing should remain the No. 1 priority for the project.
The matter is on the agenda for the next City Council meeting, scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m.
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