Developer, designer and builder Jordan Durham’s firm D+P Real Estate specializes in small, but complex projects, especially those involving sustainable design, urban infill, adaptive reuse and affordable housing.
A Providence resident, Durham’s recent projects include the conversion of a former masonry building into residential and commercial lofts, the redevelopment of the Orange Street building that now houses The Congress Tavern and construction of The Box Office, a 12,000-square-foot building made of shipping containers on the West Side of Providence. He is also currently working on the redevelopment of three multi-family houses in Providence as part of the federal Neighborhood Stabilization program.
In December, Durham and partner Peter Gill Case bought 143 Westminster St., a 15,000-square-foot building in Providence’s Financial District and took a few minutes to talk about it and the state of downtown.
PBN: What is the history of 143 Westminster St. and how has it changed over the years?
DURHAM: Most notably the property was formerly the home of Ming Garden, which was one of the longest-standing Chinese food restaurants in downtown Providence. In the 1960s, a young local architect named Morris Nathanson was awarded his first project to redesign the interior of the restaurant, which was just 25 feet wide by 200 feet deep, and spanned all the way from Kennedy Plaza back to Westminster Street. Ming Garden became a Providence institution. Nathanson went on to become a world-renowned interior designer. Coincidentally, Nathanson also had a hand in developing the original concept for Dunkin’ Donuts, which now occupies half of the ground floor of the building on Westminster Street.
PBN: What made you interested in buying the building?
DURHAM: When I first looked at the property, I was actually thinking it might be a good opportunity for a residential conversion. The apartment market in downtown is currently very strong, and I am always on the lookout for another mixed use rehab project downtown which might include residential units over retail or restaurant space. After some due diligence though, it became clear that 143 Westminster St.’s investment fundamentals were considerably stronger without undergoing such an extensive project. Although I think of myself primarily as a developer, the fact is that development is going to be the last sector of real estate to recover, and we are still a long way away from that point. The best real estate investment opportunities right now are in existing buildings, not gut renovations or new construction.
PBN: What are your plans for improving the building and when do you expect to complete them?
DURHAM: Over the course of 2012 we plan to do some renovations to the elevator lobbies and common areas, but we don’t have any significant upgrades planned just yet. We do have a couple of small, vacant office suites on the third floor of the building, and we are going to focus on making improvements that will increase the marketability of those spaces. We are evaluating the possibility of a wellness concept for that vacancy, building upon and supporting our existing medical tenant base.
PBN: Recent forecasts for the downtown Providence commercial real estate market have been mixed, citing decent levels of activity but still some significant vacancies. What makes you confident in the long-term future of the neighborhood?
DURHAM: I believe there is an enormous amount of momentum underway in the revitalization of downtown Providence – and there is still a lot of potential opportunity. There is no shortage of properties that can be bought at significantly below replacement cost and, at the same time across the country, people are increasingly rejecting the cookie-cutter, suburban model in favor of a more authentic urban experience. We are more and more seeing companies choose to locate in the urban core to attract the young talented work force that demands a vibrant city culture like we are building in downtown Providence. In my view, this trend will drive appreciation in Providence over the coming decade.
PBN: On the other side of the financial district, you redeveloped the former Ritz Camera building. What are the main differences, opportunities and challenges between the Weybosset side of the neighborhood and Westminster side?
DURHAM: I actually think of them as being part of the same neighborhood. The Congress Tavern, which is now in the old Ritz Camera space on Orange Street, is just two blocks away. The biggest difference is the prominence of the specific locations. Orange Street is a little off the beaten path; the space was never suited towards a national retail franchise – evidenced by Ritz abandoning the building in 2009. The Congress succeeds in that location by word of mouth – it doesn’t rely on foot traffic. On the other hand, 40,000 people go through Kennedy Plaza every day, and our neighbors are CVS and Bank of America. In my view, Westminster Street and especially Kennedy Plaza are really two of the best addresses for commercial property in Providence.