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The Big Pickle, and its sour surroundings

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It has 17 floors and almost as many nicknames. The Green Weenie. The Big Pickle. A trophy of suburban sprawl. A monument to all the things gone awry in Durham's planning process over the last two decades.

Simultaneously hailed as "a sign of economic progress" and decried as "a high-rise freak" at the time of its proposing, University Tower has loomed over the junction of U.S. 15-501 Business and Bypass since the first girders rose in 1986. It has withstood regional ridicule for its pointy-top design and local blame for the demise of the Bull City's downtown business district, from where it culled many tenants.

The monster glass tower embodies a common tale, the plot line of which loosely defines how most things get built in the Triangle.

Here's how it goes: Developer sees a possibility to make money building something. Drafts a plan, runs it through the keepers of the rules at City Hall. Touts the benefits of economic development, whichever argument is most effective: Jobs! Sales-tax income! Affordable housing! Road improvements!

One key scene in this drama is where the profiteers act offended, preferably publicly, at the accusations of neighbors who object, labeling them NIMBYs or BANANAs or whatever acronym du jour will bring the most empathy from the decision-makers.

Generally, the ending is the same: The developer gets the go-ahead, pockets the profits and plows them into the next project. Citizens learn to navigate around the leavings that form their new landscape, or move away in disgust.

Sometimes, they organize more effectively the next time business interests threaten their ways of life. Sometimes, they join the planning board or run for city council, vowing to help other citizens have a say in their communities' destinies.

When the plan for University Tower surfaced in 1985, it kicked off a Durham-wide debate that raged for 18 months. At the time, Treyburn was luring its first industrial tenant and downtown redevelopment was yet unneeded. Across the street from the 5-acre site that eventually erupted into an ungainly skyscraper, Durham's South Square Mall was a robust retail center, where state-of-the-art Beta video recorders were all the rage and a half-gallon of milk sold for 88 cents.

The Weenie's creator, Dallas developer Tommy Stone, caught the Durham City Council completely off-guard with his proposal to put a 17-story tower on the outskirts of town. They begged him to consider moving his project just a few miles to downtown, offered him incentives like city-funded parking. He defended his proposal with "market research," claiming prospective tenants he surveyed preferred the easy highway access and attractive surroundings at South Square. Local business leaders backed him with letters of support proclaiming the need for "Class A" office space everywhere, while residents in nearby neighborhoods packed public hearings to protest the traffic, the obstructed horizon and the overall inappropriateness of the Pickle.

But council members had no legal grounds to say no, since the zoning allowed office space and there were no restrictions on building height. That barn door, they shut as soon as the horse left. In enacting limits preventing further skyscrapers, they ensured, ironically, that the Green Weenie would loom forever solo over the southwestern suburbs.

Right after it opened for business in April 1987, Stone sold the 182,000-square-foot-building. After a series of owners, foreclosures, and an ever-changing variety of prominent tenants, the building landed in the hands of local developer and Duke football star Anthony Dilweg last December, for the nice round price of $20 million.

Over the Weenie's nearly 20-year history, strip malls and restaurants have filled in what little green spaces were left around the perimeter of its marble-decked entrance. The interchange between U.S. 15-501 Business and Bypass has been reconfigured to ease traffic flows and enable more commercial and retail development.

Paul Norby, Durham's former planning director, calls University Tower emblematic of the planning principles of the 1970s and '80s. Those tenets dictated separating buildings by their uses, designing convenient vehicle access and parking, with some nice vegetation thrown in as a buffer. These days, Norby says, planners have begun a slow shift toward a more integrated and proactive approach, envisioning what their communities should look like and then selecting projects that fit the plan, instead of vice versa.

"We've realized we were creating places people wanted to move away from," says Norby, who's now in Forsyth County.

If Norby's right, it's good news for citizens who want a say in their community's growth patterns. But so far, the news stays the same in Durham. Over the last year, workers in University Tower's law firms and mortgage brokerages have watched another milestone in Durham's development history unfold outside their windows: the demise of South Square Mall. Wrenched out of business by competition from a newer, bigger, more expensive mall even further in the suburbs--approved amid the same sturm und drang of profiteering and protests that begot the Pickle--the old mall was demolished last month after closing in September. Seeing it coming, and dreading what the commercial real-estate market might dictate, more than 100 community members and volunteer architects brainstormed ideas, proposing a pedestrian-friendly mix of homes and shops, a school, and other neighborhood-friendly projects that would ease the strip-mall overload along Fordham Boulevard and complement a planned commuter rail station. But in December, City Council members moved the rail station to accommodate the developer. And last month, they turned aside all the community input and approved what the profiteers claimed the market wanted: 52 acres of "big-box" retail.

Jennifer Strom is a staff writer for The Independent.

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