To this observer, there've been two periods of downtown Durham's revitalization in the past decade:
American Tobacco, and everything thereafter.
The "everything thereafter" tag is meant in no way to minimize the accomplishments of locations like West Village, Golden Belt, the Durham Performing Arts Center, and of new businesses in and around the loop; far from it. Rather, as we'll talk about later on the top-20 list, the debate around American Tobacco was relatively singular, and its impact as a mind-changer unmatched.
But the rest of downtown's changes are nothing to shrug at.
Even as a relative newcomer to the Bull City, I'm amazed at the changes I've seen in and around downtown just since the mid-2000s.
In 2004, downtown was a fairly dead place, day or night, especially if you weren't bound for city or county offices, or for the occasional office space outpost in the Hill Building or Durham Centre. Few food options and no nightlife options obtained, while the one-way traffic on Main St. and Chapel Hill St. made driving through downtown a job for the hardy.
By the end of the decade, the city center still has its very quiet times -- but it's a picture that's undergoing a change. New restaurants, bars and nightspots have combined with new start-up retail options to bring more life than downtown's seen in years.
Of course, in many ways this is a back-to-the-future moment for the Bull City's downtown, which a couple of generations ago had a reputation as the city of amazing shops, and whose downtown featured department stores like Belk, Sears, the Baldwin and more. It was the heart of retail not just for Durhamites, but for residents in surrounding towns, too, who'd travel to Durham for its downtown shops.
Then the first-ring suburban shopping centers arrived: Lakewood, Forest Hills, Wellon Village, and Northgate. They brought with them "modern" 1950s/1960s supermarkets, convenient and plentiful parking, and -- in the case of Northgate -- eventually indoor shopping along with homes for those downtown department stores.
Durham worked to strike back, with its urban revitalization committees seizing on the fashionable idea that you needed to bring big parking spaces and pedestrian/auto isolation to downtowns, just like you did in suburban strip malls.
Thus was born the Downtown Loop, taking buildings and much of the street grid to preserve downtown's core for walkable retail. At the same time, industrial and factory traffic was pushed to use the Loop, bypassing the city center itself in an effort to make downtown more attractive by bringing less traffic through.
(Ironically, 2009 marked the passing of Everett Robinson, the celebrated Duke Law professor and military jurist, and member of a long-established Durham family. Robinson was a key member of the committee that helped to press for the Downtown Loop concept -- and, if you talked with him in his later years, he remained a passionate defender of the vision and work that went into trying to save Durham's core in the 1960s and 1970s.)
Those first-ring shopping centers would later see themselves struggle as second-ring centers, from Willowdaile to Regency Plaza to other peripheral points opened up. And for downtown, it was lights-out to retail activity.
In the late 1980s, the first signs of interest in downtown Durham began to perk up. The first wave of downtown redevelopment took place from a mix of sources.
The first approach: modernize downtown, a spirit that led to the Carolina Theater's salvation and rehabilitation as well as the renovation of Durham's old Morris St. city hall into the Durham Arts Council's permanent home -- but a wave of tear-down and build up, too.
Several buildings were lost on the north side of the Morgan St. end of the Loop to build the Durham Centre, initially the home of Durham-based People's Security life insurance, later absorbed into Monumental Life. A block south, more buildings were lost to build the Omni Hotel (now Marriott) and the Civic Center (since 2009 called the Convention Center.)
It was a spurt of late-80s optimism, the addition of more height and massing to the skyline. Yet in classic 80s fashion, both builds emphasized a more car-oriented development style, and didn't add much in the way of pedestrian interest to downtown.
A few voices became clarion calls for preserving downtown's historic structures, and looking to make downtown a walkable, urban community, a concept being floated here and in other cities even as the 1970s-80s idea of cities as tired and unwelcoming was still in its heyday.
In the early 1990s, downtown property owners formed Downtown Durham Inc. to attempt to focus public sector interest on developing and redeveloping the city's core. (To hear tell, DDI's first annual meeting could be held around a table, versus the draw of hundreds DDI sees today to events.)
The closure of industrial facilities like the late-80s shutdown of the American Tobacco facility on Blackwell and the 1990s fading of the Liggett & Myers facility created an opportunity: large, vacant structures with beautiful brick edifices, waiting for the kind of re-investment that had taken place in the early 80s, when Clay Hamner and Terry Sanford Jr. redeveloped some warehouses into the Brightleaf Square shopping center.
Also spurring interest: the very controversial decision by City officials to essentially ignore a failed referendum to build a new ballpark for the Durham Bulls; the certificates-of-participation deal cost some leaders their seats, but as we've noted here in the past, it also kept the Bulls in Durham and became the impetus for future development.
A few years after the ballpark opened, team owner Capitol Broadcasting opened the Diamond View I office building in the outfield.
It was CBC's entrance into real estate -- and as we'll talk about further up the list, galvanized their purchase and rehab of the neighboring American Tobacco factory into today's office and dining campus.
That investment, in turn, helped to galvanize much of the remainder of downtown renewal that happened in the 2000s.
Among the highlights:
- The completion of West Village's first two phases, even as its third phase looks likely to come under the aegis of some other developer. West Village added hundreds of apartment units, office space, and restaurant and retail space to help re-connect the western and eastern halves of downtown;
- The Durham Performing Arts Center, which has helped draw locals and tourists alike to downtown, many for the first time, while helping to change visitors' image of what Durham is and can be;
- Golden Belt, the successful (if slightly outside "downtown proper") arts and residential campus on the east side of downtown;
- Greenfire's redevelopment of the Baldwin, Kress and Rogers Alley complexes, now housing a couple dozen apartments and condos, along with restaurants like Revolution and Dos Perros -- even as their more ambitious plans for the Hill (SunTrust) Building, a new office mid-rise, and other redevelopment await the turning of economic tides and tenant-leases;
- Residential activity on downtown's north side, from Trinity Lofts to Mangum 506, and smaller rehab projects in-between, including the emerging activity center along Geer St.;
- The creation of Durham Central Park, home to the Durham Famers Market, a popular new skate park, and bisected by the North-South Greenway;
- Renovation at Brightleaf Square, creating a new courtyard space, and seeing new restaurants like Alivia's, Piazza Italia, Parker and Otis and others set up shop;
- The renovation and availability of new retail pads downtown, leading to new businesses like Toast, Beyu Caffe, Rue Cler, Piedmont, The Pinhook, The Republic and others opening their doors along what had once been deserted streets;
- A reinvigorated role for the arts, from galleries and art spaces (some of which had existed before the decade began) to new arrivals like RedMASS and the Bull City Arts Collaborative, to monthly Third Friday events to draw interest in and around.
Central to much of the renewed interest in the city's center, and not to be underestimated: the long and at-times painful renovation of downtown streets, reconnecting Main and Chapel Hill as two-way streets, and re-aligning Corcoran Street through the heart of downtown to create the CCB Plaza, adding useful public spaces.
Utility improvements and new sidewalks along with lighting, street trees, benches and other amenities also helped to make the downtown have a spruced-up feel that continued the investment from American Tobacco northward to and through the city center. And street level retail and businesses have, slowly but surely, and very organically, began to follow.
That organic growth is important, and has come entirely from locally-owned businesses, not from chains. I mean, you don't see any Jimmy Johns or Krispy Kremes in downtown Durham.
Towards the end of the decade, those arriving local businesses have also turned up the notch of competitiveness from some of the first 1990s/2000s re-entrants. They've been better capitalized, with stronger business plans, and stronger execution -- something likely to cause displacement over time with some of those first-wave businesses, some of which (like the nightclub Ringside) also battled with disruption from the street and sidewalk renovations.
Still, the overall effects have been obvious, in the quantitative and qualitative senses alike.
In 1993, downtown real estate had a total tax base valuation of $124 million. By 2004, that number had risen to $269 million -- a staggering rise in 12 years, and a valuation that came before projects like West Village's Phase II and the like came online.
And by 2008's revaluation, that number had soared again, to $493 million in taxable value.
That's an almost four-fold rise in the taxable value of downtown over that time period, and a near-doubling in three years. (By comparison, the total county tax base increased from $12.6 billion in FY05 to $18.7 billion after the 2008 revaluation.)
From the qualitative sense -- well, even if there's plenty of lonely moments downtown, especially in the interstitial spaces between pockets of development, it's no longer a dead no man's zone.
On a recent night, I ended up walking from the eastern side of Parrish Street to the Hill Building. Five years ago -- two years ago -- I might have been the only person walking.
This time around, on reaching Mangum, the lights from the DPAC were shining bright, showing off hundreds of patrons waiting to see a show. And on the sidewalks around me were groups of theatergoers and visitors, bunched in threes and fours, walking from Dos Perros or Rue Cler or Revolution down the street, towards the theater, or towards other businesses in downtown.
You don't see that every night, and downtown has a long way to go to get to its full potential.
But there's no doubt that the transformation is well in hand.