Located a half-mile stroll down Main Street from East Campus, the distinct brick buildings of Brightleaf Square house relics of Durham’s early tobacco industry, which propelled the city to prominence in the early 20th century. While the area continues to display its industrial roots, planned changes could affect its historic district, now home to some of Durham’s cuisine, culture and retail.
According to plans filed in December with the Durham County Planning Department, two buildings just outside the Brightleaf District — 800 and 806 West Main Street — will be removed and replaced by a seven-story retail and restaurant space with an attached parking garage.
The white brick building at 806 West Main Street is considered a relic of old Durham, but many today remember the building as home to Saint James Seafood, a restaurant that closed for good in October after a series of reopenings and closures. 800 West Main Street, a red brick building built in the 1920s, was later remodeled to hold Torero’s Mexican restaurant. According to the plans, both are slated for demolition.
While Asana Partners, the developer of 800 and 806 West Main Street’s replacement buildings, hopes that its developments in the Brightleaf District will “energize the properties and highlight the eclectic mix of local, regional, and national operators,” local advocates for the preservation of historical buildings are upset about the upcoming changes.
Chris Laws, the executive director of Preservation Durham, works to uphold the nonprofit’s mission of protecting Durham’s historic assets and stories. While the blocks surrounding the 800 block are designated as part of historic districts, Laws noted that the 800 block itself is not.
If the block was a part of the historic district, the Durham Historic Preservation Commission could delay demolition for up to 365 days to allow the property owner and community time to “explore options for the structure other than demolition and to document the resource prior to demolition.” Developers would also be required to receive approval from the City of Durham before making any changes to the building’s exterior.
Asana Partners has yet to file for a demolition permit for 800 and 806 West Main Street.
As the public awaits the changes to the buildings at 806 and 800 West Main Street, other developments in Brightleaf have already begun. In 2021, Asana Partners announced several additions to the district, including new businesses like One Medical and BioLabs North Carolina. The district is already home to new restaurants, such as Emmy Squared Pizza and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
Laws wished that the design process of the buildings integrated more community input to design buildings “more congruent” with surrounding buildings. He pointed to the art deco building style of the district, which he feels is “rapidly disappearing from our landscape.”
“The design of the building does not fit in with the historic character of the surrounding historic districts,” Laws said. “This is something that's really going to stick out like a sore thumb.”
“I just don't think the design fits yet — it's not Durham. It's anywhere USA,” Laws added.
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Kerria Weaver is a second-year master’s student in the Graduate Liberal Studies program and an associate news editor of The Chronicle’s 119th volume.