Liberty Warehouse: Heading for a Fall

Liberty Warehouse 06.07.08. Photo copyright Gary Kueber.

The Durham City Council will decide to remove the landmark status from the Liberty Warehouse - the last standing auction warehouse in Durham - on May 20th, 2013 (next Monday.) I think it's a foregone conclusion that the status will be revoked. Perversely, the reasons have very little to do with the historical significance of the structure.

Tobacco auctions were an integral part of Durham's social, cultural, and economic heritage. It's a heritage that we do an abysmal job of recognizing and celebrating. Yes, it's tobacco, but that's just a shoddy excuse to be lazy about history. The Duke Homestead folks do yeoman's work in recognizing the auctions and harvest tradition every year, but it's hardly integrated into our near-daily celebration of Durham's awesomeness. As I've pointed out before, we have farmer's markets, a near obsession with locally sourced produce, and the product thereof - well, that's become Durham's new identity. It's not a stretch to tie these to our traditional harvest festival.

There were once many warehouses where auctions occurred - the entire area from Morgan Street to West Corporation that we now consider Durham 'Central Park' was covered with these immense structures, dotted with skylights to illuminate bundles of tobacco being sold by rock-star auctioneers featured in national TV ads for Lucky Strike and Chesterfield during the 1950s. Musicians and merchants gathered outside to hawk other wares and to draw farmers with wads of cash southward towards the "exciting stores" of Main Street.

You won't hear much about this on May 20th. I doubt most of the folks involved in the push to tear down the structure have taken the time to learn much about it. You may hear a throwaway line about putting up a wall of photos in a new structure to take the place of the Liberty.  Because that's supposed to be an adequate replacement. Consider it the thrown bone.

I don't harp on the above because I think the whole Liberty Warehouse (no. 3) has an economically viable path towards rehabilitation. I harp on the above because I think the importance of the building to Durham's history is being given short shrift in what should be a difficult decision. There are compelling reasons why Liberty has very little viable future as an intact structure (or re-intact if the roof were permanently fixed, at least.)

The unfortunate fact is that most of the building is quite ugly, and very poorly suited to the kind of adaptive reuse that has driven projects like Golden Belt, AT, West Village, Brightleaf, etc. It's mostly a giant shed with skylights - it has one attractive facade, on Rigsbee, and that likely would be saved. Federal and State historic tax credits have made work on the projects I just cited economically viable. But they compel the would-be developer to keep the structure very close to intact - and close to its original architecture. When this aligns with a present-day economic use, such as at Golden Belt, with big windows, beautiful brick, good column spacing, etc., things work very well. When the original was a giant shed - that's difficult to turn into apartments, etc.

The other complication with the development of the property is that the floorplate (the size of one floor of the structure) is ~200,000 square feet. That's huge, and, again, severely hampers the ability to repurpose the structure as-is. (Unless Costco or Target are going to move there, which I doubt.) The kind of small office/retail/apartment uses that have economic viability right now do not work well, as only a thin veneer of spaces would have an exterior wall - even if you could cut in some windows. Everyone else would be buried in the middle of a vast space.

200,000 sf is also massive for any kind of history museum, even if a museum could get funding in this day and age. That's a dicey proposition in a good economic climate. Today, our fledgling history museum is a bootstrapped endeavor in a little former-bus- waiting-room, and our state historic sites (like Duke Homestead) are threatened constantly with more budget cuts.

Combine the above with the decay / collapse of the building, and you also lose the wait-and-see option. Buildings want to decay over time, and Liberty has definitely decayed. I don't know the status of any repairs to the roof done by Greenfire, but I'm sure it's not a long-term solution.

This is the conundrum - the economic future / development prospect for the building is very bleak. It's an essential part of our history. What do we do?

I personally think the most feasible outcome that tries to address the concerns is to preserve part of the warehouse. If I had my druthers, we'd preserve the eastern 1/2-1/3 of the warehouse and build a new facade on Foster (and part of Corporation and the park.) I'm not a huge fan of preserving terrible streetscape design, and the existing Foster streetscape is just ugly.

But, amidst a plethora of opinions, how do we decide the 'right answer' on something like that? This is a complication for preservation-minded folks. If we advocate to preserve the whole thing, we're seen as crazy and unreasonable. If we begin to compromise, there's nothing to guide the decision of what is a reasonable compromise other than opinion and leverage. There's no consensus that some portion of the interior, or some quantity of the structure is 'okay' to demolish, because it's more or less important.

This is why we have a Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) - to help decide these matters. A citizen board with experience have to come to a consensus opinion about modifications to a landmark structure, or to "contributing structures" in a local historic district. This commission's power is limited - they can't prevent anyone from tearing down a landmark, or a contributing structure. They can delay them for a year. Yet nothing in their power permits them to disallow the demolition of the Liberty warehouse.

But they can guide the design of a new structure in a local district / that incorporates part of a landmark. And that's what the city council vote on 5/20 is really about. It's another round in the current spat between city council and one of its appointed boards. The city does not want the HPC telling Roger Perry (the Liberty developer-du-jour) what he can or cannot build.

And this is really a recapitulation of Durham's chronic low self-esteem problem. Despite the great strides we've made in pride-of-place, we still act like a desperate tween with a oh-my-god-I-could-die crush that considers his/her world near-over when the object of desire doesn't text back in 10 seconds. So with the breathless mention of Roger Perry - developer of Meadowmont - we hurl ourselves in his general direction for fear that he may not choose to develop something downtown.

Nothing against Roger - I don't know him at all. But, wearing only my developer hat for a moment, we hate delays and boards and approvals. Developers are always going to resist more process and time. Delays kill deals, a fact that preservation-only hat-wearers often seem to forget or misunderstand. It isn't only - or likely even mostly - about a hatred for preservation on the part of these developers, or of the HPC, or planners, etc. There is real money at stake, and people on the private sector side are charging us by the hour. Bank and equity commitments expire. The market shifts. I.e., when opportunity is presented, the leisurely developer is not rewarded.

The trouble right now is that our city council, and our downtown booster groups, are seeing only the latter. I'm glad they care about development, since it keeps me fed, but from the city's perspective, there is plenty of developer interest in downtown. There's no need to prostrate ourself before one developer or project in particular if it involves subjugating our other values. The city certainly owes developers a timely, predictable, and fair process. It also behooves us to present developers with good customer service. Antagonism or bureacratic ineptitude don't further our local economy.

But we can provide these and also strongly articulate that our history matters. Clearly, preservation matters, since it's driven all of our current economic success. (A fact that seems lost on many.) And we, as citizens of Durham, deserve to have a process that articulates that value in the context of development decisions, whether made by the city or the private sector.

And my concern in this rush to remove the landmark designation is that we're seeking to avoid that process - because it is seen as an impediment to the developer, and to the expeditious redevelopment of the Liberty Warehouse. It is in the city's best interest to make a careful decision here - once Liberty is gone, it is gone forever, and the last vestige of the tobacco auction market is gone forever. That's a very big deal, and not one we should take lightly because of the frustrations of a few out-of-town developers and the join-in-the-chorus by DDI. I'm sure the HPC's process can be improved, and that process is underway. But if the city is seeking to do an end-around because the process may be contentious - well, there's good reason to argue over the fate of history as important as the last tobacco auction warehouse.


Here are some photos of what will be lost if Liberty Warehouse is torn

I live near Liberty Warehouse and walk by it almost daily. A few
months ago I noticed that the big doors were open. I poked my head in
and called, but there was no one there. So out of curiosity I
wandered in and, wow! I expected to find that the remnants of the
tobacco business had been torn out decades ago, but instead, it was
all amazingly well preserved. It looks like when the warehouse
stopped functioning, they simply shut the doors and left almost
everything in place -- the old ads and murals, the tobacco scale, the
farmers' hotel, the banks that financed the deals, etc. It's an
unintentional museum to Durham's mid-century.

Spending thirty minutes in the building taught me more about Durham's
tobacco past than anything else I've done in over a decade of living
in this town.

Whatever happens to the building, whatever *can* happen with the
building, I sincerely hope that the historic portions are preserved.

Thanks Gary, for a really informative and wide angled view. I hope all involved take the time to read it.

Kitty Free - thank you so much for sharing those amazing photos! My mom said she and my Dad used to bring visitors to Durham through Liberty Warehouse to see the live auctions when they were happening back in the '70's. Now I can picture a bit of what they would have seen - thank you!

This is the most thoughtful and well-reasoned article I have read on the subject of the Liberty Warehouse. I do hope the Powers that Be will listen to it.


The Old North Durham Neighborhood Association  Board has been having some informal conversations about this on its list serve.  Here's a version of what I wrote in response to a member who said that the building is a wreck and should be torn down:
Historic Landmark status is not just about making money for developers.  To declare something a "landmark" in 2011, and then to rescind its landmark status two years later, without even the pretext of an historical basis, is to make a mockery of the entire process. Durham should not behave like a banana republic doling out economic favors to crony capitalists.  For better or worse, Greenfire chose to make the Liberty Warehouse a "landmark," and they ought to be asked to live with the consequences of their own actions, at least to some degree. 
The building obviously has some problems which Gary has outlined.  So I believe the Council should insist that the developers come back with a detailed plan for how they wish to redevelop the site.  If, and only if, the plan itself, with committed elements, is good should the Council then remove the historic landmark status.  Right now,  the Council is being asked to buy a pig in a poke.  We have no real idea what kind of  redevelopment will occur there if the landmark status is removed. (A Kroger perhaps, to match the Harris-Teeter going up at 9th St. and Erwin Rd.?).   I know, I know, that's not what they say they're going to put there, but we have no assurances.
The Council should tell the developers: "Come back when you have a fully-developed plan that you're willing to commit to. Then we'll act on your request."  If they are serious, there's no reason they can't do this.

I personally have always envisioned this structure's ideal adaptive use as a shell for some sort of amenity space, like Borough Market or Spitalfields Market in London, or the Grande Hall at La Villette in Paris. Something like this would add immeasurable value to Central Park, the neighborhood, and Durham as a whole (and would save what should be unquestionably regarded as a historic structure). But that would take planning, foresight, and money, and nothing pays the bills these days like cookie-cutter rental housing. The 'path of least resistance'/'race to the bottom' mentality seems to be a common theme these days.

I agree that the Liberty warehouse should not be an all or none proposition. The entire facade is not worth saving but the historic east facade and portions of the interior described by Kitty Free, above are. I could envision a glass roofed open commercial area incorporating the tobacco auction elements Kitty describes with contemporary commercial activities such as restaurants, stores, and offices- kind of an authentic Southpoint Mall, as opposed to the ersatz authenticity of Southpoint.

One more comment that speaks to Gary's last couple paragraphs: I would extend his argument that historic structures matter, to that quality design of cities matters, and that preserving history is one element of that.
I see a lot of press touting how important the growth of Durham's "creative class" is, and how unique Durham is, which is all true, and fine. But most of the recent development (built and proposed) I have seen is from the generic, could-be-anywhere mold. There seems to be a disconnect between how we perceive our 'market', or what we want our market to be (creative, forward-thinking, discriminating, unique), and the market the developers seem to be seeing (generic students, 'young professionals').
Until everybody gets on the same page and makes clear that the Durham market expects better-designed development- planners, architects, elected leaders, booster groups, neighborhoods, and eventually the people writing the checks- we will continue to see development outcomes that we don't love, and that do not represent Durham. And that will bring us closer and closer to looking like everywhere else, which is the exact opposite of what we want, whether we are "creative class" folks or not.

I'm not qualified to address the condition of the structure itself or it's reuse potential. I'll leave that to people like Gary, who are qualified. That said, I think removing the landmark designation at this point is setting a bad precedent, Here is what I told a couple of members of the city council:

So let me get this straight, in 2011 Greenfire asks for the landmark designation to get a tax break. Now they want to sell the building and that designation is interfering with their sale so they want it removed. Are they going to give back the money from the tax break they got for 2 years? Probably not.

Removing the designation would set a terrible precedent. Get a designation for a few years to get a tax break and then get it removed when that designation is more costly than the tax break is worth.

Greenfire took a gamble. They opted for the designation because they felt the value of the designation was worth more than the cost. They didn’t opt for the designation because they thought it was good for the city of Durham. They did it because it was good for Greenfire. Now they find that they placed a losing bet and they want to change the rules. Too bad.

I think you should insist that Greenfire pay the city back any tax break they received under the Landmark designation plus 25% as a prerequisite for removing the designation. Otherwise we are just privatizing the reward and socializing the risk.

Greenfire is a private company engaged in a capitalist venture. They took the reward, they should suffer the risk, not the people of Durham.

The most compelling arguments y'all have listed are the political ones. Specifically, not bowing down to every developer who says he has some money she wants to throw around and not removing the landmark status just because it got difficult. There's not much actually worth saving beyond the idea that it stands as something that Durham built it's wealth around in an earlier development age. It's not a structure that was built to withstand the test of time. I understand that many of the other arguments you are trying to make are 'slippery slope' ones but certainly it makes more sense to use this event to develop better standards for older structures that can actually be reused and let this one go ( I think that's the argument Gary is trying to make?). It was built to facilitate commerce and people making a living. Re-forging that purpose into any redevlopment would seem a better legacy to preserve than just an ugly, moldy, missing-roof building.

Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we preserve parts of Liberty to show off it's historical significance, but tear down enough so that development can happen?

Very well written, with a reasonable tone which allows folks from both sides of the argument to come to the table. Thanks, Gary! That said, I have to agree with Jeff B. above about Greenfire and tax breaks. I hope that if the Council rescinds the designation they do so with the proviso that the unpaid taxes come due immediately. Greenfire has done great things for downtown but this is just plain manipulative.

Just curious, since The Scrap Exchange was the largest tenant of the building, and the one that lost the most space when forced to leave after the roof collapse, has anyone from there weighed in on the issue?

I'll never understand why cities/legislatures/corporations/businesses go to the trouble of instituting specialized committees and then summarily and blithely ignore their recommendations. It happens all the time, in all kinds of bureaucracies, and it's inexplicable.

The Cotton Exchange building in Wilmington is what I think to be a nice example of what could be done with the historic shell of the Liberty Warehouse. There are lots of interior little shops to wander in the Cotton Exchange and yes, some are seem "buried" inside but its fun to wander the maze and explore. Its shameful the Liberty building was allowed to deteriorate for so long. I cant remember who said it but I really think "without our history, we are nothing."

I agree the outside is blah. At least authentic blah has authentic going for it. And, to give the blah more credit, it makes what's inside quite a surprise.

I've never seen the historical part that's in the photos above. The genuineness and freshness of those parts looks charming. It certainly would make a "mall" have character. If some of the building is taken down, I hope those parts aren't, that they're saved and used.

One time the door was open to the ramp just a few doors down from the scrap exchange. I walked up the ramp. There was "nothing" there but a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful structured space, like the big barn at Stagville, but bigger. It took my breath away. I could have stayed there for hours, days, weeks, ... .

I've seen other big spaces, like some of the famous churches in Europe. To me, this space was the most beautiful. What a loss if it's lost! I hope that the owners would hold an open house in that case, so I could see it again before it's gone.

I'm no expert on economics, and that seems to matter more than other things these days, but it seems to me that the warehouse could be made into something attractive (in both senses of the word) that takes advantage of its character.