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Liggett Group considers developing old tobacco buildings

Just last spring, plans for a massive redevelopment of the American Tobacco campus had the city's leaders forecasting the revival of downtown Durham and lining up to back the project with aiding infrastructure. Now, the Liggett Group is quietly considering designs to convert eight downtown buildings into a mixture of shops, offices and apartments-an 835,000 square foot development rivaling American Tobacco's in size.

Liggett, the major cigarette manufacturer that completed its relocation from the Bull City to Mebane, N.C., last year, has hired architect Edwin Belk for the project, said CEO Ron Bernstein.

Belk-the creative force that transformed old tobacco and mill edifices into what are now Brightleaf Square, Erwin Square and West Village-has already created a preliminary master plan for the campus, outlining potential uses for each of the buildings.

The development could provide a much-needed link between the Brightleaf area and the city's civic arts district, said Bill Kalkof, who directs the local nonprofit group Downtown Durham, Inc.

Mayor Nick Tennyson agreed. "The Liggett property could provide a tremendous connection for our activity centers." he said. "The redevelopment could put a bridge in there that could be very helpful."

Belk's plan calls for the following:

  • The research building on Main Street would provide laboratory space;

  • The old headquarters on Main Street would be refurbished for office space;

  • The Cobb and O'Brien warehouses directly south of West Village would become primarily residential, with perhaps some light retail space;

  • The two old factory buildings, as well as the "Old Factory building" would house offices.

In contention is the fate of the Walker building, a warehouse located between Brightleaf and the struggling central business district. The city and state have planned that the site be used as a multimodal transport hub, linking bus, Amtrak and light rail lines.

Liggett has earmarked the Walker building for parking, a provision that often proves a hurdle for downtown development. "We've had preliminary discussions with [city and state officials]," Bernstein said. "It's important to us that whatever the ultimate use is or final design, it's consistent with the type of development that we're trying to put there."

Bernstein has been careful not to state the obvious: that a transport hub, and the accompanying activity and noise, may turn off nearby tenants.

Though the property is Liggett's, the city has the authority to seize the site under the law of imminent domain, though Tennyson said that was the least favorable option.

No potential tenants have been solicited about leasing space-Bernstein stressed the plans are at a very preliminary stage. The University was the first tenant to sign onto the American Tobacco project, but Tallman Trask, the University's Executive Vice President, said he had not been contacted about the Liggett project.

The issue of city support for the project has also not been addressed. Infrastructural support for development is not unusual-the city council has already pledged $37 million to help furnish the American Tobacco project with adequate parking. And though Bernstein has not yet approached city officials with any requests, Tennyson said that if the Liggett investment was large enough and the timing was right, public aid was a strong possibility.

"If there is a private investment proponent that meets the same test as American Tobacco, then I would certainly expect we would support that-I know I would," said Tennyson. "Of course, that's a big 'if.'"

The Liggett Group is now faced with three options: sell the property, develop the property jointly or sell the property for development by another company. Kalkof said his organization currently has a database of 16 developers who have expressed interest in the buildings.

"They're in a great location, the properties are in good shape, and the type of space is hot," Kalkof said. The newly fashionable market could drive Liggett to redevelop the property itself, he added.

Downtown development is thriving because of the growth of the Triangle's high-tech sector along with journeying professionals from the Northwest and Northeast who are comfortable living in an urban environment.

"They just like the look and feel of old buildings-hardwood floors, soaring ceilings," Kalkof said. "They think it's a great alternative to the typical office building."

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