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Architect: Strata Solar, Golden Belt a ‘Catalyst’ for East Durham

Utility-scale solar farm developer Strata Solar is moving its headquarters and operations center to what used to be a mill building and adjacent power plant.

For decades, the old mill building pushed out textiles. Today, it’s being transformed, part of a massive effort to bring innovators to the east end of downtown Durham. Utility-scale solar farm developer Strata Solar is moving its headquarters and operations center to what used to be a mill building and adjacent power plant.

Lauren K. Ohnesorge

John Warasila, founding principal of Alliance Architecture, says Wednesday’s announcement, that Strata Solar is moving its headquarters and operations center to an old mill building and adjacent power plant, is validation that the LRC Properties-developed Golden Belt Campus is working. And it’s also a sign of things to come, he says.

The 40-foot mill warehouse looks, from the inside, like a cathedral with its wood decked ceiling, he explains. An old steel beam with massive hooks shows what the structure used to be.

“When we did the demolition – I would say it’s deconstruction – we took out things that were broken and rotted and we saved all the pipes and plumbing we could,” he says. Trusses at the roofline had rotted over the years, but enough was left for his team to model new ones.

“There’s probably a dozen structurally correct heavy timber trusses that we built on site mirroring what’s been in the building originally,” he says.

For Warasila, this project is the culmination of 20 years of experience – a portfolio of work that includes Citrix’s downtown Raleigh outpost and the nearby American Tobacco Campus – which, like Golden Belt, transformed industrial warehouses into a site for modern innovation.

But he, like developers and economic officials in Bull City, envisions something bigger than just Strata. He sees a modern creative cluster, attracting “people that make things creatively.”

That includes Strata, as well as the campus’ other two announced tenants, Asheville-based Hi-Wire Brewing and Virginia app developer WillowTree. And it may soon include “some biotech folks” his team is currently talking to about a possible operation on the campus.

But Warasila is looking past industry. The exterior spaces at the site will be “just as important” as what’s inside the buildings’ walls. He envisions grills for urban picnics, neighborhoods using the courtyards on the weekends, “an urban amenity… not just an office park.”

And he’s hoping for broad economic development appeal as creative companies consider relocation and expansion sites.

“This can really anchor and catalyze the east side of town,” Warasila says. “As Durham shifts to the east a bit, this becomes the node, or the center of that.”

Ted Conner, vice president of economic development and community sustainability at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, says Strata’s pick validates that potential.

“It’s really attracting a broad range of companies,” he says of the campus. “It’s certainly proving that this part of Durham is ready and open for business.”

And a campus like this as an option is important, as the county is seeing an overall uptick in interest from relocating and expanding companies.

While non-disclosure agreements prevent him from releasing specifics, he says 2018 has seen “some high quality visits and we continue to see the high quality visits.”

And downtown “is clearly the hottest area in Durham for real estate,” he adds.

Andre Pettigrew, director of Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says industry interest in clusters such as the Golden Belt could lead to more job-creating startups, too. Already, enterprises and area universities have fueled technology and life science entrepreneurship at places such as the American Tobacco Campus and Durham Innovation District, he says. Strata could help do that for cleantech in Durham.

“We’re creating an entrepreneurial environment that is, in fact, manufacturing new ideas and new companies,” he says.

Warasila sees many parallels between Golden Belt and American Tobacco Campus – where, at the beginning, the vision was hard to articulate.

“It wasn’t a sure thing… and look at it now,” he says. “If you’re lucky, you have the chance to work on something or be part of something that’s bigger… If everyone pitches in, it can be bigger than what we’re envisioning – it can be a catalyzing, transformative project for that whole side of town.” 

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