In the myriad ways that a building's façade can show its age, the massive green wall is doing so. The paint is peeling away. After close to 90 years of enduring weather, the exterior masonry of the building at 120 W. Main St. in downtown Durham has begun to chip. Ten years ago, a fire gutted its insides. So it wasn't surprising when last year, amid a debate over whether the building posed a threat to public safety, it was cordoned off behind a chain-link fence, along with the adjoining green space.
The fence was removed in early May without explanation. But despite appearances, it wasn't because the crumbling, now-defunct nightclub no longer presents a hazard to public safety. Engineering reports commissioned by the city indicate otherwise. And it's not because the owner of the property, Greenfire Development, has made significant strides in the construction of the building's replacement, a long-planned $65 million multistory office tower.
City officials now acknowledge that the chain-link fence which enclosed the lot adjacent to the building was erected in violation of city code. The city's Unified Development Ordinance prohibits the use of chain-link fencing within the Downtown Design District.
It's unclear whether Greenfire officials were aware of the language of the ordinance prior to placing the fence, or whether the company had to comply with it.
Contacted by the Indy last week, Senior Planner Lisa Miller, the planning department official who informed Greenfire of the violation, indicated that occasionally the city makes exceptions to the ordinance. "The only chain-link fences that are allowed downtown are for temporary construction purposes," she said. Because a year had passed with no construction activity, the fence could no longer be considered temporary, said Miller.
In a clarifying email statement sent days later, Planning Director Steve Medlin stated that no such exception exists. City code "prohibits chain-link fences within design districts, regardless of whether a permanent or temporary installation."
What is clear, however, is that neighboring downtown business owners were aware of the ordinance. Medlin says that his office, which enforces code violations, received multiple complaints about the Greenfire fence from other downtown property owners. Greenfire officials did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Upon verifying the claims, department officials notified Greenfire of the violation shortly after the first of May. The company subsequently removed the fence.
For the already beleaguered Greenfire, this is the latest in a long line of the company's stumbles. Dozens of tenants were displaced last April after the Liberty Warehouse in downtown Durham's Central Park district was condemned by the city. Heavy rains and a leaky ceiling caused a section of the roof to collapse. A year later, the company has yet to repair the hole.
Earlier this month, Greenfire was cited by the planning department for blowing through an agreed-upon deadline to submit plans to rectify the construction deficiencies that led to the warehouse roof's failure.
Greenfire owns an estimated 1 million square feet of real estate in downtown Durham, thus intertwining its future and the future of the city's center.
Most Durham City Council members told the Indy they're confident that Greenfire can deliver on the promised construction projects. But that confidence has its limits, says at-large member Diane Catotti. "Greenfire and its numerous holdings are a challenge," she says. "We would like to see forward progress. We would like to see it yesterday."
As for 120 W. Main St., the company's plan was twofold, according to Rick Hester, assistant director of the city's Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services. With the fence in place, the adjacent empty lot would be used as a staging area for another of Greenfire's long-delayed construction projects. The conversion of the SunTrust building at 111 Corcoran St. into an upscale hotel was supposed to have started in July 2011.
But the fence also served as a safety buffer. The two-story building, which continues through the parcel at 117 W. Parrish St., has been without a roof since a fire gutted it nearly a decade ago. Greenfire purchased the building in 2006 and has been at odds with the city over it ever since.
City inspectors have argued that the exterior walls of the building are unstable. A May 2011 evaluation of the building's structural integrity confirms as much. Commissioned by the city, a report by engineers from Raleigh-based Ross Linden Engineers PC concludes that the exterior walls of the building "are not adequate to support the maximum wind loads as prescribed by the North Carolina Building Code."
In other words, the state mandates that the exterior walls of the structure should be able to endure a certain level of wind strength, and the walls of the fire-ravaged club don't meet it. "Naturally, we're concerned because it's a safety issue," Hester says, adding that the walls pose a public hazard only in instances of extreme weather. Still, via an agreement with the city, Greenfire officials are required to place a safety barrier around the building's entrances and other vulnerable sections.
In lieu of a chain-link fence, the company has other options, including but not limited to bracing the exterior walls with planks, says Medlin. A meeting between city and Greenfire officials to discuss next steps is scheduled for this week.