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Tower of Power

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Lie down on the lawn at the Corcoran and Main streets and try to imagine a 300-foot, 26-story skyscraper on that spot.

In two years, a grassy half-acre in the center of Durham will be consumed by a tower of concrete and glass. It is part of Austin Lawrence Partners' $70 million City Center project, which includes the skyscraper and the renovation and reconstruction of several buildings on West Main and West Parrish streets.

"We want people to feel good about the tower," says Greg Hills, founder and managing partner of Austin Lawrence, based in Aspen, Colo. He graduated from Duke University in 1977 with a sociology degree. "We're not Raleigh or Charlotte. There's a tipping point at which you lose the funky nature of what Durham is."

The city is flirting with that tipping point. Historically considered a old tobacco town of low-slung warehouses, Durham is transforming, and with no small amount of anxiety: The outcry over the destruction of the historic Liberty Warehouse, the concern over the hundreds of new apartments being built, the angst over the chain stores invading Ninth Street.

But there is equal unease about buildings that have been allowed to decay, such as those Austin Lawrence is rehabbing.

"People have very strong opinions, even block by block," says Gary Kueber, who writes about architecture and development, often critically, at Open Durham. "But Austin Lawrence is doing a decent job. They don't have to save the facades and the Jack Tar. They're doing things more creatively."

Construction on the tower is scheduled to begin in earnest in January, and could be finished in two years.

A two-story underground parking garage will lead to the street-level, which will feature retail stores and restaurants. The next four floors will include office space; Duke University has spoken for 55,000 square feet of it.

The rest of the tower is reserved for 101 apartments and 31 condos with floor-to-ceiling glass. Price ranges for the apartments are $1,495 for a one-bedroom apartment and $3,200–$3,300 for a two-bedroom, plus den.

Condo prices start at $300,000, comparable to other new projects—Church and Main, for example, is charging $489,000 for a two-bedroom. High rollers can buy the tower's penthouse for $1.6 million.

While those prices are clearly out of reach for the middle-class, million-dollar homes are common in the upscale neighborhoods of Forest Hills and Hope Valley. That could explain why 14 of the 31 condos have already been reserved, many of them by Durham residents.

"We thought it would be retirees from the Northeast who would not have sticker shock," Hills says. "We were shocked at how many locals have reserved them. There is a niche for this group of people who want an urban lifestyle."

The high prices (by Durham standards) of most new condos and apartments underscores the fact that downtown is not affordable for middle- and low-income families.

The Southside project, a half-mile from American Tobacco Campus, makes inroads into that market, but the city center is not financially doable for most Durhamites.

"It's a huge issue," not only for the very poor, but middle-class people who work downtown, says Councilman Steve Schewel. "The tower won't solve our problem, but height is important for affordability. With low buildings, there is high demand but limited number of places to live."

The city needs to use its tax incentives to encourage downtown developers to include affordable units in their market-rate projects, Schewel says.

Austin Lawrence received $7.9 million in city and county tax incentives over 15 years, but none of it was for the upscale condos and apartments—only for commercial, parking and motel renovations.

Parrish and Main streets also present economic and design challenges. Vacant buildings have turned portions of those blocks into dead zones. But development has to account for the historic status of Parrish Street, the former African-American financial district. "You have to understand the history of race, the area and what's around it. We fully understand there is a much bigger conversation to have. It's more than our say."

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