Special Issues » Casa: Home & Garden

The Urban Village is Born

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"I've leased apartments for many reasons--beautiful architectural features, super location--but here, for the first time, people have told me that they are moving in for philosophical reasons," says Todd Allen, community manager at West Village in downtown Durham's historic tobacco district. He smiles and shrugs. "These are the most fired-up, loyal tenants I've ever met."

A walk through the bustling restoration project at Morgan and North Duke streets verifies Allen's assessment. West Village, the ambitious dream of Blue Devil Ventures, is taking shape. People are snapping up leases almost as quickly as they become available. New residents--grad students to retirees, young families to single professionals--are settling in. Where there was once a ghostly emptiness, an urban village is being born.

And the excitement is no surprise. This ambitious project receives high marks on every level. From its convenient downtown location, within walking distance of shopping and dining, to the gorgeous design of its interior spaces, West Village offers a lifestyle worth coveting. What was once a nearly dead industrial district is achieving an ambiance that is the Triangle's answer to Greenwich Village or the neighborhoods of San Francisco.

The project began almost five years ago, when former Duke basketball stars Brian Davis and Christian Laettner teamed up with fellow Duke graduate Tom Niemann to form Blue Devil Ventures, LLC. The partnership was formed out of a desire to revitalize Durham's decaying downtown. Allen says of the owners, "This is a life dream of theirs. This is their passion. These guys are going to be living here, too."

Over the next few years, with Niemann and Davis acting as managing partners and Laettner as a special limited partner, they acquired five former Liggett & Myers and American Tobacco warehouses. Now they are in the final stages of refurbishing these historic buildings.

Designers like to say that God is in the details. If this is so, then West Village is heavenly. The 243 loft-style apartments have been carefully built around the original timber columns. The intricate brickwork is exposed and featured whenever possible. There are about 45 different floor plans, with none of the one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments exactly alike.

Walking into these apartments, the sophisticated, urban feel is instantly apparent, but this is not hard-edged techno-industrial. With 11- to 18-foot ceilings and the huge timber beams and columns painstakingly preserved, the effect is dramatic, yet soothing.

The apartment walls are painted off-white as a pleasing contrast to the details of brick and wood and to reflect light without creating harsh shadows or glare. Many of the apartments have hallways perfect for displaying artwork or photography. The ground-floor units have walk-out terraces, with sliding doors built on the old loading docks. In the top-floor apartments, skylights add even more light.

Inside the apartments, the feeling of spaciousness is effectively preserved by the use of interior walls that do not reach all the way to the ceilings. To give the rooms privacy, there are frosted glass windows at the top of the partial walls. These create an effect similar to that of rice-paper shoji screens, and can slide open and closed as the mood strikes.

Every detail has been carefully considered. Heart pine, reclaimed from nearby buildings slated for destruction, has been used throughout the apartments, except in the bedrooms. As Duane Marks, the construction manager, notes, the bedroom floors are raised and carpeted to make them more luxurious, and to allow plumbing and other repairs to be made without disturbing the pine floors.

Behind the mellow old brick and ancient timbers, every apartment is wired with six to eight high-speed Internet access and DirectTV connections. Each unit is all-electric with no scrimping. Each resident has a digital heat and air system, individually controlled; a 40-gallon hot water heater, a high-end GE dishwasher; a self-cleaning oven; and an 18-cubit-foot refrigerator with an icemaker.

The kitchens are light and airy, with rock-maple cabinets and beveled gray countertops. Maintenance Manager Lori Folliet points out that the plumbing fixtures have good brass fittings and the venting and duct work are of high quality. "These are the small, invisible things, but they are chosen to last and to be reliable. No corner cutting."

The bathrooms are roomy, tiled and appointed with good-quality fixtures. The bedrooms feature deep, roomy double- and triple-mirrored closets. Other amenities include a laundry room on each floor, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a business center, private parking, top-flight security and beautifully landscaped common areas.

In real estate, the common saying is that the three most important considerations are location, location and location. West Village could not be more convenient. The shops and restaurants of Brightleaf Square are only one block's stroll away. Just a block in the other direction, the old Durham Athletic Park, partly visible from some of the higher floors, offers concerts, sports events, the Farmer's Market and other activities. Duke's East Campus and the new, growing downtown Durham arts district are also just blocks away.

While there is much debate about how to solve the problem of the urban sprawl that is chewing up the Triangle's remaining green spaces, West Village presents one powerful answer. Todd Allen, like every other worker and staff member at West Village, is excited about his part in this project. "You see, it's the ultimate in recycling," he says. "Instead of chopping down more trees, building new roads, making people drive from farther away just to get to work or go out to eat, why not use what you've already got? Why tear up the countryside so you can build an imitation when you can use these gorgeous old buildings in the prettiest part of the city?" EndBlock

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