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.”