City officials are expected to release a report this week on whether a gutted building at 120 W. Main St. in downtown Durham should remain without a roof, or if it needs to be bolstered to prevent it from crumbling. The two-story structure has been topless since a fire destroyed it nearly 10 years ago. It is now home to pigeons, crows, climbing vines and trees.
Greenfire Development, which owns the building, has long-term plans to build a $65 million multistory office tower on the site once it secures a tenant. But city inspectors have long argued that without a roof, the walls are unstable and pose a public safety risk, explained Rick Hester, assistant director for the city's Neighborhood Improvement Services department.
"We're not going to let it just sit there, burned-out," Hester said.
Greenfire bought the fire-scorched building between Main and Parrish streets in 2006. The company has been in a dispute with the city over what should happen to the building ever since. City engineers wanted to demolish the building or for Greenfire to immediately repair it. Greenfire signed two agreements to fix the building but both expired without any action, Hester said.
Last year, a Greenfire-commissioned engineer from Kimley-Horn and Associates—also one of Greenfire's tenants—wrote a brief letter stating the building was sound, but based only on a visual inspection. The city pursued an independent evaluation for $13,500, Hester said.
Greenfire representatives met with city staffers Tuesday to review the engineer's report, which wasn't released publicly after the meeting. Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell said the report could potentially be "investigatory evidence" in the city's review process and couldn't be immediately released.
News of the report this week further intensifies scrutiny of the company and its 25-plus properties around downtown. In April, the city condemned one side of the Greenfire-owned Liberty Warehouse in downtown's Central Park district after inspectors received complaints of a leaky roof and rotted wooden beams. Inspectors were considering whether to make emergency repairs to the roof when they learned part of it collapsed during heavy rains May 14. After the incident, the city condemned the entire building. Dozens of tenants of the two-acre warehouse were displaced, including nonprofits The Scrap Exchange and the Liberty Arts Foundry.
Some former tenants of the Liberty Warehouse, who had received discounted rent in the ailing building, say the company didn't do enough to prevent the roof collapse and preserve the historic former tobacco auction house. Last week, city inspectors also received complaints about leaking roofs at two other Greenfire-owned warehouses beside the historic Durham Athletic Park in the 600 block of Foster Street. City inspectors haven't finished investigating those reports.
"We have water leaks. That's the constant battle with dilapidated buildings," Greenfire Managing Partner Mike Lemanski said when informed of the report. He emphasized that nearly all of Greenfire's buildings were in various states of disrepair when the developer acquired them, and all but four have been fixed.
While Greenfire waits for its engineers to evaluate the damage and necessary repairs for Liberty Warehouse, the city has also launched a separate investigation into whether Greenfire contributed to the destruction of the building through its own neglect.
The city will hold a public meeting June 16 to gather evidence in the Liberty Warehouse case, with a ruling due June 30, said Durham Planning Director Steve Medlin. The situation as a whole jeopardizes the site's designation as a historic landmark and any related incentives that would cut its property tax bill in half.
Lemanski said he sympathizes with the anger and frustration of Liberty tenants who were displaced, but that Greenfire has not neglected its investments. Overall, Lemanski said, he hears public support for the company—not criticism—from city leaders and from other small-business owners who have benefited from low-rent spaces Greenfire offers downtown.
"We recognize that there's a grieving process that's going on, that people have a right to their feelings," Lemanski said. "But the vast majority of what we're hearing is support for the work we've done."
Still, in light of the Liberty fiasco, Greenfire's directors are rethinking whether they should be offering nonprofit tenants below-market rents in aging spaces that haven't been completely rehabilitated.
"We thought we had a way to keep some of those groups in place, and it's not worked in the way we thought it might work," said Greenfire partner Carl Webb.
With at least 1 million square feet of retail, office, warehouse and residential space in downtown, Greenfire has substantial influence over the future look and feel of downtown Durham, and whether it prospers. Perhaps more than ever, citizens are counting on the company's past success at redeveloping small projects such as the mixed-use Kress building and Baldwin Lofts, and they want to see progress.
Lemanski knows that. "We're doing development in a fishbowl," he said. "Everything we do is in the city center."
Public confidence in the company could hinge on how Greenfire repairs the Liberty Warehouse and whether construction begins soon on the SunTrust building at 111 Corcoran St., where the company's vision of an upscale hotel has been years in the making.
Construction must begin by July 31 for Greenfire to secure the $4.2 million in financing and incentives the city has committed down the road.
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