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January 2007

More Central Park updates

Though it got the splashy headlines on Monday, the DAP/Minor League Baseball discussions aren't the only thing happening in the Central Park area these days:

  • First, Jack Hagel reported in Monday's N&O that Measurement, Inc. has bought the Nu-Tread Tire building at the northwest corner of Foster and Corporation (for 220% of tax value), coming on the heels of Greenfire picking up the Liberty Warehouse complex (where one of the Georges Rousse installations was housed.)
  • At Central Park itself, crews have resumed work on the Farmer's Market pavilion, slated (at last update, at least) to open in April.  I'd just like the construction fencing to "give back" the section of the Downtown Trail that it ate up when the work began!
  • And up at the southeast corner of W. Trinity and Washington, work is well underway on the rehab of the old Cal-Tone Paint building, which is being transformed into the Trinity Lofts condos (priced between $230,000 and $410,000, thank-you-very-much.)  Word from the papers a couple of months back was that half were already pre-sold, and over the last few weeks, the steel sheathing has come down, the Tyvex wrap is going up, and it looks like sewer/water connections are being added into cuts in the buildings' concrete slab floors.

Mayor Meeker, we need you!

In his Monday state-of-the-city address, Raleigh's mayor, Charles Meeker, made an audacious call for a $28 million project to construct a nearly 30-mile greenway trail along the banks of the Neuse River.  And he's willing to call for up to $10 million in bond spending alone to do it.  Greenways and trails are hugely popular in the Triangle; in a bike ride on Wake's portion of the American Tobacco Trail a couple of weeks back, N&O columnist Joe Miller counted "500 or 600" people enjoying the trail with him, for instance.

Here in Durham, where a local non-profit pioneered the American Tobacco Trail effort (dragging state and local officials along every step of the way?)  We have Federal dollars allocated for almost two years now to build the "missing link" of the ATT between NC 54 and Southpoint, via an I-40 pedestrian bridge, yet the project still crawls at a snail's pace (2008... slipped to 2010?!?), even after an online petition got over 2,500 signatures.  The Third Fork Creek project is still out to bid (again), and citizen committees in '05 cut any new greenway funding from that bond issue, save some funds to buy the Duke Beltline. And for a real treat, try taking Durham's "paved" North/South Greenway between Northgate Park and Murray Ave. The asphault is in such bad shape, you'd do better with a mountain bike than a road bike.

Take a walk or ride down Durham's stretch of the ATT on a nice day, and you'll see more people there than at any city park... or any city-owned rec center.  I'm thrilled that Raleigh's built such a good greenway network and is ready to take such a positive next step.  Why is Durham so far behind?

DAP: MiLB A-OK, but where's SBER?

Today's N&O reports that "local officials" are scheduled to meet with representatives from Minor League Baseball this week to talk about rehabbing the old Durham Athletic Park of "Bull Durham" fame (mostly vacant since the Bulls scooted down to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in '95) to be a training facility for MiLB, possibly to include a museum featuring the history of the minors.

The '05 bond issue included funds for renovating the good ol' DAP, which has in the past hosted professional women's softball and which was discussed as possibly becoming the home turf for an NCCU baseball team.  One thing missing from the admittedly short article in the N&O, however, was any mention of Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse (SBER), the firm that's managing construction for Phase II of Jim Goodmon's American Tobacco project (and is leading plans to redevelop the Rolling Hills subdivision, too.)  SBER had been in discussions with Durham city leaders over a redevelopment proposal they made that would have touched several blocks surrounding the DAP to create housing, retail and commercial office space in concert with an updated ballpark.

Personally, I'm hoping that no mention of the SBER plan is not a sign that their proposal, which had a financial 'gap' above the funds allocated in the '05 bond, is stalled.  Certainly bringing MiLB in to the picture would seem compatible with it, and given their work rehabbing the area around Boston's historic Fenway Park, this would actually seem to be a "field of dreams" partnership, if you'll pardon the gratuitous Costner reference.

Jan. 24: Some updates from the Herald-Sun in the continuation below...

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Feature on the Venable in this week's Indy

In case you missed it, this week's Indy had a great feature on the redevelopment of the Venable tobacco warehouse in downtown Durham by Andy Rothschild of Scientific Properties, who is spearheading (or ringleading, if you happen to own a certain shopping center on Fayetteville St.) the Heritage Square mixed-use development.  The Indy's article provides an interesting perspective on the win-loss that's typical of such gentrification, and an interesting background on Rothschild's work to find new work spaces for the artists displaced by the renovation.

Durham's Northgate Mall -- where are we going? old

In yesterday's piece on Northgate, we looked at where Northgate is today -- some successes (the movie theater, the strip center), but still troubling failures (the closing of several prominent retailers, and the barrenness of the outdoor plaza still awaiting its first tenants.)

The plaza is the most worrisome part of the entire project. Last August I had mentioned in these pages my surprise that the plaza construction was moving forward despite the barrenness of the east side of the wing, in which only Marble Slab had taken a new space.  I surmised then (hopefully?) that it must be a sign that Northgate Associates had some tenants in the pipeline who were committing to the project. 

It's now almost a year later, the new plaza is done, and there's simply more vacant storefronts to fill -- which seems to imply, in the absence of any other announcements from Northgate, that no one's committed to the project.  Which is, needless to say, an odd thing to discover only after you've sunk millions of dollars into a renovation.

I am a tremendous fan of spunky, locally-owned businesses and I'd love to see Northgate -- a rare family-operated mall in the days when massive REITs own an operate most shopping centers -- make it.  But it's more important to the city and the neighboring community that the center be a success.  So, what would I like to see there?  I see three logical ways to move forward from the current malaise:

1. Time to sell out and redevelop as a mall. One challenge for the Rands in leasing up Northgate is that Simon, CBL, General Growth, etc. all have deep relationships with mall retailers and can rely on multi-property deals and leases to draw tenants in.  It's not easy to be the lone sheep in this game.  A national owner may be able to help to shore up Northgate's lousy vacancy rate.  On a recent trip to San Francisco, I took a look at a project, the Shops at Tanforan, in San Bruno, a middle-class community just south of Daly City and South San Francisco.  The 1970s-era mall's anchor tenants (Sears, JCPenney, and Target) were doing well, but inside the mall, the aging facility had a 40%+ vacancy rate and the facility was not aging well. General Growth Properties, the developer of Southpoint here in Durham, stepped in and razed the existing mall, building a shiny, steel-and-glass complex in its place.  Two years later, the new mall is almost fully leased, with a mix of tenants strikingly similar to those national retailers (PacSun, MasterCuts, Charlotte Russe, etc.) that are already in Northgate.  (Here's an interesting case study on the project.)  Admittedly, Northgage doesn't have the benefit of a mass-transit station to draw shoppers the way Tanforan does, but I think the rest of the analogy does.

2. Convert to a traditional shopping/power center. North Pointe has been successful in bringing Costco, Home Depot and the like to north-central Durham. With a retail 'strip' already in place and anchored by Guitar Center, Office Depot, and the cafeteria, redeveloping the remainder of the property to draw in more large retail seems at least a possibility. This might be the easiest plan to execute, but I think it would miss a much bigger opportunity to help both the mall property and the neighborhood. To wit:

3. Redevelop as mixed use. Paging Mr. Kane... Mr. Kane, are you reading this? Strange as it might seem at first glance, a North Hills-style redevelopment of Northgate could make the most sense of any future for the property. Consider the possibilities--

  • Northgate has an overabundance of parking spaces in the form of two now-lightly used parking garages, reducing the up-front cost of building out project infrastructure.
  • The mall has very good access to I-85 thanks to the recently-completed widening and  upgrades to the Duke/Gregson interchange.
  • The new theater and plaza space would be a logical standalone retail facility that could become adjacent to apartments or other housing added elsewhere on the site.
  • Macy's would certainly be logical as a standalone retail outlet here, as in so many other parts of the country and even the state. Integrating the monolithic and rather unattractive Sears would be trickier (particularly if there are long-term lease tie-ups, which there might be given Sears' recent renovations to that store) but worth exploring.

Could a North Hills plan work at Northgate? Probably not on the retail side in terms of replicating the type of mix at North Hills. But a residential-focused project with neighborhood retail and some entertainment and dining options could do well.

All of this, however, would depend on the progress and completion of one major project: the East End Connector, which is an important ace-in-the-hole for the property's future economic value.

Today, Northgate sits on a major highway at the northern end of Durham, away from the "retail action" along the I-40 corridor.  By the middle of the next decade, however, from Northgate it'll be a 2-mile drive on I-85 to U.S. 70, then a six or seven mile drive down 70 and the EEC to NC 147 and straight into RTP.  At the same time, Northgate has a great location just 5 minutes' drive or 20 minutes' walk to Brightleaf and the revitalizing downtown Durham.  With a 100% freeway, low-traffic connection to the heart of the region's economy, a new, mixed-use Northgate would be perfectly situated as a destination for RTP workers.

No matter what future it has, Northgate has a past that long-time Durhamites are proud of.  It's time for Northgate Associates to realize that the ability of reality to match their dreams may be a bigger challenge than they're capable of meeting.  The time may have come to pass the baton and move along.

Culture Crawl on for tonight

Though the closure of Jo and Joe's had many worried that the Culture Crawl downtown would, er, crawl to a stop, it's still ongoing!  This month's edition is scheduled for tonight from 6pm to 10pm.  From the ABCDdurham listserv--

Culture Crawl is a Downtown Durham monthly art, theatrical, and social event. Artists of various types of mediums will showcase their works at downtown galleries, theatrical spaces, restaurants and nightclubs. All events are open to the public.

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Old Durham, New Durham

Yesterday was by any account an interesting day for re-development and renewal in the Bull City.  Downtown, one building with an old history and life was dedicated for a new purpose: helping us remember and celebrate that which came before.  Meanwhile, the same day in south Durham, an old and dying shopping center has officially been christened for a mixed-use renewal.  Two fading edifices, two new purposes.

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