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Changes coming to Brightleaf district

The art deco, white brick building at 806 W. Main St. is many things: an emblem of resilience, a tribute to old Durham, and now, perhaps, a symbol of radical change.

Known most recently as the home of the seafood restaurant St. James, the historic building could soon be torn down, according to plans on file with the planning department, and replaced with a seven-story retail and restaurant space with an attached parking garage.

Local preservationists are unhappy about that possibility, but they lack leverage to do anything about it. 

And the developer of the replacement building, Charlotte-based Asana Partners, appears uninterested in listening to the complaints or in changing their plans.

“If we had been brought to the table earlier in the process, we could’ve incorporated elements of at least the facade in the new design,” said Chris Laws, the executive director of Preservation Durham, a nonprofit whose mission is to “protect Durham’s historic assets (and stories) through education, advocacy, and action.”

Asana Partners, meanwhile, has little to say about the project. After repeated attempts to reach the company, their communications representative, Julie C. Ducworth, responded to an email stating that, “Asana’s plans are not finalized at this time.” 

The most recent plans for the block, filed with the local planning department in December, call for a complete removal of 806 W. Main and the neighboring building at 800 W. Main St., a red brick building originally built in the 1920’s that was remodeled in the 1990s to hold Torero’s Mexican restaurant. Asana has not yet filed for a demolition permit.  

The building at 806 W. Main St. opened in 1948, originally housing a Plymouth dealership. In 1983 it was converted to the restaurant Fishmonger’s. In October of 2017, Matt Kelly, the popular Durham chef of Vin Rouge, Mother & Sons Trattoria and the new owner of Nana’s, opened St. James Seafood. 

Then disaster struck. Around the block on April 10, 2019, the natural gas line right outside of the coffee shop Kaffeinate was breached, causing a collapse of 115 N. Duke St. and a fire. The incident killed two and injured dozens more. A crater was left where the Duke Street building had stood  and the accident also damaged 15 other buildings, including 806 W. Main St. 

In January 2020, St. James reopened, only to close its doors once again due to the pandemic. In February of 2022, St. James reopened once again. 

That complicated history figures into the desire by preservationists to save some aspects of the building. 

A cooperative effort between preservationists and developers, Laws said, could have resulted in “a tribute to Durham’s past while acknowledging the need for Durham to grow.” Instead, the building will be torn down and replaced with seven-story retail and restaurant space with a garage attached.

Laws understands that Asana needed to expand its geographical footprint.

“I get that you need to get a return on your investment. I get that they are a for-profit business. But there are ways to integrate historic buildings into the design that respect the historic fabric into the community that you’re building in.”

Meanwhile, the buildings at 808 and 800 W. Main Street sit empty, waiting. St. James Restaurant closed for good in October when the restaurant’s lease was not renewed. . Next door, a sign on the window at 800 W. Main explains in English and Spanish Torero’s planned relocation “soon” to the West Village development down the road. On the building’s side is a colorful mural featuring two outstretched arms, one white and one brown, in a handshake. 

Bernadine Vandergrift works at James Joyce, an Irish pub one block away at 912 W. Main St. While she doesn’t believe the development will impact the pub’s business after being open for 25 years, she is still disappointed in the changes occurring downtown. 

“I think it’s really sad that they’re tearing down so much history just to bring in new stuff,” she says, “I’m not saying that new stuff is bad, but there’s empty space for new stuff. Why do you have to tear down our history to make new stuff?

Fasil Tesfaye, the owner of Goorsha, an Ethiopian restaurant at 910 W Main St., is excited about the prospect of West Main Street becoming a destination again. Many businesses have closed in the area since the accident and since Asana Partners acquired area properties. St. James and Toreros sit ghostly empty. While some stores are opening up in Brightleaf Square, most of the storefronts are empty, sporting decals with “Coming Soon!” across the front. 

The buildings at 806 and 800 W Main St. are ghost towns. Behind them sits an empty black and white checkered lot littered with old tires and empty beer cans. 

“The whole area has been a little bit depressed,” he says. “Yes, it is a historic place, but if no one is coming to appreciate it, it loses its value.” 

Still, he says it is difficult to find employees that can live in the area with the lack of affordable housing. “It is kind of a double-edged sword,” he describes, “You want the development, but it depends on what specific development comes and what it brings us.”

The Brightleaf property was sold in December of 2019 to Asana Partners for $39 million. The 5.3 acre purchase includes Brightleaf Square, recently opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, the building that previously housed Parker and Otis, and the property that previously was home to St. James and Torero’s, a Mexican restaurant that has since moved. 

The redevelopment of Brightleaf Square has  begun, with the opening of One Medical and the announcement of new businesses like Emmy Squared Pizza and BioLabs North Carolina. 

Unlike 806 W. Main St, Brightleaf Square is in a local historic district, due to its history as a tobacco warehouse. The City Council defines a historic district as “an area of special significance in terms of its history, prehistory, architecture, and/or culture that possesses integrity of design, setting, materials, feeling, and association.” Asana Partners has to get approval from the City of Durham for any changes made to the exterior of the Brightleaf building. 

The buildings at 806 and 800 W. Main St. have no legal form of protection. The new construction will sit in the middle of old tobacco warehouses and across the street from the Durham School of the Arts. Its planned height and sleek design disrupts a street with iconic Durham businesses like James Joyce, Devine’s, and The Federal. 

Asana Partners was a sponsor of Preservation Durham until 2021. The company’s website boasts of a “deep commitment to transparency, integrity, and accountability.

Now Asana Partners’ proposed plan is set to alter the entrance to Downtown Durham. Yet  they haven’t returned any of Laws’ calls or emails..

 “I tried so hard,” he said, “short of physically traveling to Charlotte and visiting their office.”

Above (from top): 806 and 800 W. Main St. will be torn down to make way for a seven-story retail space; the current streetscape along West Main Street; site plans on file with the Durham City-County Planning Department; popular St. James Restaurant closed in October. Photos by Claire Kraemer and Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Claire Kraemer