The Road to Durham's Future

On a still-sunny afternoon at Brightleaf Square, the chatter of drinking buddies spills from Satisfaction Restaurant and Bar. The ethereal tones of Radiohead descend upon shoppers at Milennium Music, and elegant china clinks at Brightleaf 905.

A few blocks past the Liggett & Myers bridge, Main Street takes you into the heart of Durham's central business district. There, an array of storefronts, some with worn brick and broken windows, others neat and bright, stand in the shade of maples. The visual grace distracts from the aural accompaniment of the scene: the swish of cars as they slowly cruise by, and silence.

In the silence, there are questions: Will the success of Brightleaf Square and its sister developments ever reach Durham's core? Will the city's reputation for crime strangle growth in its downtown? In a region where mega-stores reign and corporate campuses extend upon the fertile grounds of the Research Triangle Park, can downtown Durham come into its own once again?

Mayor Nick Tennyson thinks it can. "[Downtown development] is on the verge of breaking loose," he says. "There are some major projects that I think will be underway over the next 12 months that will completely change the impression people have about downtown investment."

First, some history: The drive to revitalize Durham's downtown, once the hub of both the South's tobacco industry as well as the seat of black enterprise, began picking up steam in the early 1980s. An importer named Richard Morgan bought some old tobacco warehouses just outside downtown and began the process of renovating them into a mix of shops, bars and restaurants.

A few years later, the city got itself into the business. Tens of millions of public dollars were poured into redevelopment efforts, and the result was the jewel of downtown--a sparkling plaza bordered by the Durham Civic Center, the Omni Durham Hotel, the Durham Arts Council, the People's Security Building and the Carolina Theatre.

But by 1990, taxpayers were tired of footing the bill for the Bull City's revitalization. In that year, a crucial bond referendum failed, private sector hesitance followed, and downtown development foundered.

The Players

If you are a neglectful downtown property owner or a local company ready to expand--if you want to sell or buy or lease a property inside the Downtown Loop--the man you will talk to eventually is Bill Kalkhof, the president of Downtown Durham, Inc., a nonprofit group intent on promoting downtown growth.

Kalkhof wears a tan on the athletic build that lingers from his days as a minor league shortstop, and on this rainy day in April, he has reason to be particularly enthusiastic. The owners of West Village--former Duke basketball players Christian Laettner and Brian Davis, and Fuqua grad Tom Niemann--have announced their plans to expand from the tony apartment complexes they converted from Liggett warehouses just across the street from Brightleaf. They want to build brownstone townhouses on an adjacent parking lot; the city is slated to use the same lot as part of its future transit hub. Both sides cling to their own plans, with Niemann vowing that the partners will not release the land for anything short of a public taking.

All of which makes Kalkhof one happy guy. "This is a fairly decent report card on how far we've come," he says with a tongue well-practiced in singing the city's virtues. "It's a problem to be solved, yes, but it's a very good problem. Seven years ago, someone would have looked at that piece of dirt and said, OWhat am I gonna do with that?' Now you've got two very good competing interests."

Kalkhof's organization spawned from an assignment a Fuqua professor gave his students: find ways to promote downtown. They suggested a booster group. Duke's senior vice president John Burness lent a hand, as did Durham Mayor Pro Tem Howard Clement, and the result was Downtown Durham, Inc.

Since then, the group has worked with legislators, private investors and property owners, and Kalkof estimates that between 1994 and 1999, almost $200 million in private investment was on the ground or being built. "I want to build a community where my son will want to live someday," Kalkof says. "And frankly, I think we're getting there."

If the city's core is "getting there," it is doing so one building at a time. There are successes: Take the offices of Kontek, an unassuming brick building tucked behind East Chapel Hill Street. The structure was bought by 42-year old architect Frank Konhaus and now testifies to sleek urban design--original art hangs on the mustard and burgundy walls that frame the modular workspace, and slouchy blue chairs hang out in the lobby. Or take West Main Street Deli, just opened by New Jersey native Orlando Lomonto in a building that once held a bank. Then there's The Edge, a hip nightclub transformed from an old furniture store by two young Raleigh developers who invested $800,000 in the renovation.

And old buildings may not be the only Durham entity revived: the nonprofit Durham Central Park is working to convert five acres of field near the old Durham Athletic Park into a garden dotted with pavilions, and DDI is working to tame traffic on the Loop by convincing North Carolina's Department of Transportation to convert it into a two-lane road.

Complex hopes

Pay your $6.50 in return for a field-level seat at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and along with your Miller Lite on tap, funnel cakes and Dippin' Dots (the Ice Cream of the Future), you can get a generous view of Durham and its skyline, including a fenced-off gathering of aging brick buildings to the west: the American Tobacco complex.

Back in 1992, Durham came within a hair's breadth of losing its beloved Bulls. After Durham voters rejected the 1990 bond referendum to continue redeveloping downtown--and to help build a new baseball stadium--Bulls owner Jim Goodmon made plans to move his team to the rural outskirts of Wake County.

Durham leaders ended up crafting a successful last-ditch effort to keep the Bulls in Durham. But what was lost was perhaps more important: a plan to redevelop the American Tobacco Complex. With supportive public money gone, the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo nixed plans to lease space in the old warehouses, and the city was dealt a reeling blow.

But last year Goodmon--the man who has shaped the Bulls into a first-class minor league operation--unveiled grand plans to renovate the complex into a mix of shops, apartments and offices with entertainment options.

At the time, Tennyson proclaimed that "This could literally be the project that moves Durham from being in people's minds analogous to the closed tobacco factory and changes it into being a city with a thriving downtown with an economic heartbeat."

Other observers still agree that the complex is key. "If they could get American Tobacco off the ground, I think that the momentum would really help," says Michael Williams, vice president of Karnes Research, a Raleigh firm that tracks Triangle property markets.

But since Duke's early commitment to occupy 125,000 square feet of the complex, Capitol Broadcasting, Goodmon's Raleigh company, has fruitlessly searched for a second major tenant.

Still, Capitol is committed to the project, says Peter Anlyan, who heads up real estate at Capitol.

"Every time I meet somebody on the street or in a meeting, there's talk about this as one of the linchpins for the downtown renaissance," he says. "We are not real estate developers, but we'll get it done our way."

One other project may spur downtown development towards the "critical mass" Williams says is needed for revitalization: the renovation of eight Liggett buildings that serve as the natural barrier between the Brightleaf area and the city's heart. And with Liggett Chief Executive Officer Ron Bernstein, another proven businessman, at the helm, there is hope for that barrier to become a bridge.

Cheerleaders and skeptics

For all those whose pulses quicken at the mention of downtown's revival, there are skeptics as well.

Francis Jackson owns a convenience store grandly called "FJ's Emporium" directly across from the city's central bus stop on Morris Street. The place has more class than your average Stop 'n' Go: Classical music complements the aroma of a French roast, and a mahogany mantle holds bottles of merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

"In the past nine years, I've seen 100 businesses go in and out of downtown Durham, and I stopped counting last year," says Jackson, who unsuccessfully ran for city council in 1999. "They come and they go, they come and they go--there's a tremendous turnover rate."

Jackson maintains that crime--specifically, the increased presence of gang violence--is holding private investment back. "I was robbed in person once, I've had my car broken into countless times," he recalls.

Indeed, the month of April saw four shootings in nearby northeast-central Durham, at least one of those being gang-related. At the bus stop across the street from FJ's Emporium, a sign prohibits gang-related symbols and gestures, and both Kalkhof and the analyst Williams say the perception of Durham as a crime-riddled city is holding growth back.

Michael Peterson, a former mayoral candidate and a Chronicle columnist, has been one of the city's most outspoken critics of downtown development plans. He lists gang violence and the city's financial woes as the main reasons why redevelopment will choke.

"For years now, they've wanted to redevelop the American Tobacco site and for years they've been saying any day now, any day now. Guess what? Nothing's gonna happen," he says. "All the cheerleaders say OThe emperor's got clothes, the emperor's got clothes. But anybody can see that he's naked, and it's ugly. Take a drive downtown and you'll see."

Peterson blasts plans by Durham County commissioners to build a "human services campus" on East Main Street with welfare offices, a mental health clinic and public housing. "As soon as you put that downtown, you've crushed any hope that you'll have any private investment," he says.

County commissioner Rev. Philip Cousin defends the decision. "When I think of retail development downtown, I think of how it was when I was a child. I don't see that happening now," he says. "All the development that is downtown is essentially determined to become a human services hub. That seems to be the direction in which Durham is moving."

Cousin's characterization of downtown's lack of commerce is common. But Tennyson says that this perception does not match reality. "There has been a rising number of redeveloped properties that haven't been visible, so the impression [isn't] as positive as it could be," he says.

Battle with the 'burbs

If Durham's downtown has felt the crushing force of one thing, it has been the expansive growth of the area's suburbs. The city continues to grow outward: In the late 1990s, a residential building boom hit southern Durham, and the Streets of Southpoint--a commercial and residential complex designed to look like downtown in its heyday--is currently being built off Interstate 40. "The general trend toward suburbs makes it difficult for cities," says Greg Bethea, of Durham's office for economic development, which was created three years ago partly in response to DDI pressure.

Williams, the market analyst, agrees. "The suburban markets are much stronger than the downtown markets," he explains. And with all the industry that has settled just next door in Research Triangle Park, he says, downtown may not see benefits move into the city's core. "High-tech companies don't necessarily gain much from being in higher-density, multi-floor buildings--they like to be in business parks that can expand space in nearby buildings for expansion, and often in downtown you don't have that."

Still, the nationwide trend toward suburbia may be waning. In 1998, a study published by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers proclaimed that shoppers were tiring of traditional suburban malls, and in recent years, downtowns in Baltimore and Asheville have experienced impressive revivals.

Kalkhof sees Asheville as a model for Durham: "Instead of trying to replicate the malls, they took the strong arts community and took it downtown, and that's what we want to do."

In the eyes of Tennyson and Kalkhof, the downtown of the future will be one in which residents can live in apartments and party at busy nightspots, where local artisans can sell their wares and businesses will thrive.

For now, there is a spotty mixture of business successes and failures, a determined set of entrepreneurs, a host of city leaders solidly behind the idea of downtown development and a nonprofit group acting as tireless advocate. There is also a confusing street pattern, restricting building codes, increasing gang violence and an economic slowdown.

And there is this: the still-unanswered question of downtown Durham's future.


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