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April 2007

More on Foster & Corporation condo project: The Durham Credo

Turns out the property at the corner of Foster & Corporation -- where one of the old Nu-Tread Tire buildings was torn down and where a seven-story condo building was reported to be under consideration -- is owned by "Durham Credo-1 LLC" and the C.N. Clark Co., AKA Denny Clark.

Reportedly (according to both local development sources and one of the wallmaps at Saturday's downtown Durham charette), the project is in fact to be called the Durham Credo, a reference to (wait for it) the Kevin Costner speech in Bull Durham--you know, the one that has Costner sweet-talking Susan Sarandon's Annie character in a rather poetic fashion and which has, oddly for the movie's R rating, become a model for secondary school poetry assignments around the country, according to Google. (I still ask, when will we escape the Bull Durham references? Is there a patch or twelve-step program that can help?)

Anyway, the project reportedly will feature retail along at least the Foster and Durham Central Park sides of the development.

Clark and his team have applied for NC Brownfields treatment for the project, which allows developers of former industrial and other polluted properties to be held to different decontamination standards than the initial polluter in order to redevelop the site for new uses. The Credo name is also starting to filter out into the community -- with the Durham Credo sponsoring a raffle over at the Durham Central Park School recently, for instance.

There was a pretty lively discussion here a couple of weeks ago about the project and how it'll fit into the local Central Park environment. My initial reaction to the project's height was cautious, but after driving through the area and looking at the neighboring buildings (particularly the warehouses across Foster), I'm curious to actually see some elevations to see how this will fit into the area given the height. Drawing a critical mass of dwelling units to this part of downtown does seem like an important step towards cementing some of the other redevelopment opportunities around the DAP/Central Park area.

Who kept the dogs out?

I'd like to say the following: if you've driven by Northgate Park in the last two weeks, you've seen the new dog park ready and waiting to open.

Instead, I'm sorry to say this: If you've driven by Northgate Park anytime in the past three months, you've seen the new dog park ready and waiting to open.

The question is, why is it still waiting? More from regular reader Joe, who reported the problem:

The City of Durham website has had the words "Dog Park" listed among the amenities at Northgate Park for a solid year at least. At some point in February (maybe January) they finally put up the long-awaited fencing and signage around what used to be a baseball field for larger dogs and around another area nearby for smaller dogs.

Problem is, the gates are still locked and the park is off limits. There's actually some yellow crime scene tape up there too. I've been through there a few times in the last couple of months and it's been the same scene every time: signs saying "park closed" and locks on the gates. It's ridiculous! There was another fellow there, who said he's been at Northgate Park every weekend for the last three months and it's always been closed.

We dog owners in the downtown area are eager for a (legal) place to let our four-legged friends roam freely and meet other dogs that's a little closer than Woodcroft.

Personally, I find the crime-scene tape most bemusing (though I assume it was used simply to stay "keep out.") What crime could have possibly happened at a dog park -- trafficking in illicit doggie treats? Or perhaps public urination... a crime for humans, now verboten for pooches?

In all seriousness, delayed park projects are sadly not a new phenomenon in the Bull City. If you want to see a world-record time for a man turning from off-white to deep red, ask Barry Ragin sometime about the long struggle with the City to get the Duke Park renovation, funded in the '96 bonds, to happen years later -- and with the issue of the bathhouse's future still in the air.

I myself have been tempted to open a bike-rental business on weekends just north of the new dog park. See, that's where the nice paved North-South Greenway turns from rough-but-passable asphalt through Northgate Park to broken gravel north of it on the Rock Quarry segment. I figure I could let people park their road and comfort bikes and rent a mountain bike for the next 1/3 mile or so. 'Cuz you'll need it. This would be okay if the trail had been meant to be gravel all along, like the Wake County segments of the American Tobacco Trail -- but instead its the remnants of old asphalt desperately in need of repair.

The use of a construction manager at risk (CMAR) arrangement on the Performing Arts Center has been widely discussed; less so has been the decision to bundle a number of the parks projects in the '05 bond together in a similar arrangement, with a single contractor responsible for lump-sum completion of them. Personally, I'm glad to see the City do this. The agonizing wait for the Third Fork Creek trail in South Durham -- which went into a cycle of bid, analyze, select, find costs have risen, re-bid -- has added delays into the years. Handing over the risk development and construction brings to a private firm incentives them to complete the project on time, with financial incentives to do so, while shielding local government from some cost risk.

All fine and good, but where does this leave the dog park? Here's hoping the Fidos of the world can get in before we reach the "dog days" of summer.

Why we still need the Herald-Sun

I fear that I pick on the Herald-Sun here perhaps a bit too much, though not less than they deserve. Sometimes, to criticize something is to simply say you love them (or want to) and you hope, you wish, you know they could do better.

And frankly, if you look back in the microfiche to the days when they were under local ownership, there was much more in-depth local reporting -- though it's of course hard to dissociate this from the advertising pressures that all daily newsers are under these days. Most days, the Herald-Sun is so thin from to a lack of local news coverage that you might only be able to wrap a minnow in it.

For its part, the N&O is fortunate to be based in a larger market, which affords the chance to spend more dough on reporters and editors. (All too often, the same names recycle through the by-lines on the H-S these days... sometimes multiple articles in a day, which seems more appropriate for the Caswell County Chronicle or what-have-you than a real city paper. I'm sure it makes it hard for good reporters to cover stories as deeply as they'd like, too.)  And Saturday's Durham News section has really been on point with more features coverage and news analysis, along with some at times very moving writing.

Still, if we ever lost the Herald-Sun, we'd lose not only a local institution, but one which remembers which locality it is speaking to. As good as the N&O can be at times -- and it matches up with the best mid-market papers I've seen anywhere -- it always will be a Wake-centric publication. Case in point, from the N&O's "Taking Stock" blog: some comments to a post by Sue Stock on a new Sheetz gas station going in at RDU:

Comment from: Sue Stock [Member]

04/21/07 at 18:17

Sheetz is under construction as you head into the airport. So if you come from I-40, Sheetz will be on your right as you drive onto the airport's property. But it's before you split off to go to the terminals or parking.


Comment from: JD [Visitor] 04/21/07 at 18:26

That's if you're coming from Raleigh, it's on Aviation Parkway, as you exit I-40 at exit 285. For us Durhamites, who take Airport Blvd (exit 284) to RDU, we'll need to exit off of Airport Blvd to the right to get there. (Sheetz will be on the left.)

No disrespect intended to Stock, who does a pretty decent job of covering local retail happenings from Clayton to Chapel Hill and back, including some news out of the Bull City that the Herald-Sun's "Business Buzz" sometimes misses. It's more endemic than just one reporter; a couple of times over the past months, for instance, at least one City Councilman has rather publicly complained to the N&O's editors, correcting oversights as silly as bylining the CROP Walk, a Durham institution, in Raleigh... or graphics of RTP that somehow seem to show it's all in Wake County.

Together, this all points to a broader challenge: the city the N&O serves is the City of Oaks. Without a local paper of our own, I suspect The Durham News would soldier on as it does.  Weekly, that is, just like the Eastern Wake News and The Cary News and I'm sure, eventually, the Wendell News or Granville Gazette or whatever is planned to come next.

There are certainly real challenges ahead for the Herald-Sun. The Indy's analysis from last year, for instance, seems still all too true a year later. A fair amount of boosterism and community news over the sort of deeper-digging local reporting you saw in the 90s. And more syndicated content than a scratchy, over-the-air UHF station. And a metro desk no bigger than the N&O's -- at least from all outward appearances.

The Herald-Sun and its new ownership was a shotgun marriage -- literally overnight, from the paper's perspective, the Rollins family left and the Rollins family came in. And that means, it's time to say the words that inevitably come into so many marriages after a couple of years:

"I love you, now change." Because we've left Paducah, honey, and we need this marriage to work out. For both of our sakes.

Fowler's becomes Parker & Otis -- and adds grocery basics

More news on the re-imagining of Fowler's under new owner Jennings Brody. In mid-May the shop at Peabody Place across from West Village Phase II will re-open as Parker & Otis. Besides breakfast/lunch and gourmet food items, P&O will feature grocery staples like Maple View Farms milk, vegetables and fruits, and "other necessities." (The N&O's Durham News featured this and lots of other news about downtown in a great article by David Newton yesterday.) Looks like the website is under development, and shows the hallmark of another Flywheel Design project.

This is a solid step towards more grocery services downtown, and really hits the mark for what downtown residents need. Downtown advocates and residents of nearby urban neighborhoods have consistently asked for two things: a downtown grocery store (with Trader Joe's the desiderata for some), and the elimination and adaptive re-use of the dead, open parking lots that are eyesores and poor land use in much of the urban core. Of course, these two goals are in perfect contradiction, as even smaller grocery stores generally are standalone buildings surrounded by a sea of parking spaces.

Assuming P&O hits the mark with the right selection and just enough variety -- and has sufficient hours of operation -- it could present exactly what a downtown resident needs: bread, dairy and other everyday items a short walk away. Most downtown residents in a Sunbelt city with underdeveloped transit like Durham are still likely to own a car and to hit the Whole Foods or Kroger for their main shopping, but won't want to drag themselves up to North Pointe or down to South Square for a quart of milk. Everyday staples in walking distance really hits today's core needs.

In the same article (and back in the Old North Durham DAP-area development forum in February), Bob Chapman of TND mentions that a presumably more full-line neighborhood grocery store has been demanded by residents of urban neighborhoods and that this is one use under consideration for the old Strawbridge Studios building on Geer Street in the DAP district, along with an art gallery/studio and deli. (Given the size of the space, it seems quite likely the actual use will be a mix of various things.

Given the challenges that Capital City Grocery has had attracting traffic in Raleigh's more heavily-populated "Inside the Beltline" neighborhoods, small steps like these are the most likely steps forward we'll see for downtown grocery for some time.

BCR: Limited posts this week, and a question

A note to readers: I'm traveling this week (4/22-4/28) on vacation, so updates may be a bit more sporadic than usual. I'm visiting family in my hometown and least-favorite Southern city, Orlando. New items appear below this post.

In the interim, I'm curious for feedback on what folks might like to see as expanded (or reduced) topics for coverage at BCR, especially as the number of readers grow. Are there things happening in Durham you'd like to read about here... or things you'd never want to see covered again? Please feel free to use the Comments section on this page, or email me your thoughts.

Heritage Square, Golden Belt city incentives moving forward

There's a very good article by Ray Gronberg in today's Herald-Sun on the proposed incentive financing for the redevelopment of Heritage Square and the Golden Belt Manufacturing Co. sites by Scientific Properties, Andy Rothschild's Durham-based development firm that's tackled the Venable and several other downtown projects.

Some key points at hand from Gronberg's piece:

  • The inclusion of GBMC -- which is intended to provide live/work space for artists, music performing spaces, and some office and restaurant space -- into the incentives package for Heritage Square is a new happening; previously, the incentives under discussion were just for the Heritage Square shopping center.
  • The current plans for Heritage Square call for about 300,000 square feet of retail and 200,000 square feet of office and possibly hotel space; up to 100 apartments/condos are possible.
  • The incentives for both projects would include $2 million in streetscape improvements and $4.1 million in tax breaks to the developer over ten years. The developer still needs an additional $6.2 million in gap financing to make the deal work.

Is this a good idea? I think many folks are at an inflection point in thinking about how these incentives work, and what the need is for them today. There's a strong current of thinking that downtown's success is proven, and that it's time for developers to stand on their own in bringing these projects to life. At the same time, there's also real concern that single-developer mega-projects overwhelm the ability of local developers to play (as discussed around the DAP proposal), and that massive developments like American Tobacco and West Village will tend to favor national firms from design/construction all the way to the selection of which retailers will get to lease on the site.

Personally, I think Rothschild's plan is a sound one and worthy of city investment, for a number of reasons:

  • To my mind, city incentive dollars can make sense for existing large facilities like Golden Belt that, by dint of their need for all-at-once redevelopment under single ownership, require significant up-front investment. It also seems reasonable that incentives are more appropriate for developers willing to work in underfunded and more blighted districts, versus districts like Brightleaf that have already demonstrated their viability. Heritage Square and Golden Belt meet both of these challenges.
  • There is tremendous concern that ongoing development downtown will price out small businesses in general and artists in particular. Rothschild has both contributed to but also been sensitive to this issue, as this Indy Weekly piece covered. To my mind, the fact that Golden Belt would have a focus on space for the arts and music performance is a plus, and not something most developers would try to do. Of course, from there we get into questions about who could afford the space, what the impact would be on initiatives like BCHQ and other more organic projects, and so forth.
  • The inclusion of GBMC in the plan is a boost for East Durham in an area where the City has spent tremendous amounts of tax dollars on projects like Hope VI and Eastway Village. Shoring up residential with some commercial and arts activity cements this corner of the district and represents investment in East Durham, which has traditionally been neglected by developers.
  • Although there's been sensitivity about the impact of Rothschild coming in to the vestiges of Hayti with the Heritage Square project, a number of business-owners in the existing complex have complained about the poor maintenance of the existing facility, and have expressed their support the redevelopment, having been offered the opportunity to re-open their businesses in the new complex.
  • The inclusion of such a substantial retail component in the Heritage Square plan bodes well for the presence of more local businesses and businesses that will serve the surrounding neighborhoods.

To the extent that opposition is likely, it's doubtlessly going to be spearheaded by the Hesters, owners of the Phoenix Square and Phoenix Crossing shopping centers near Heritage Square, and active participants in the unsuccessful Rolling Hills project. The Hesters have been advocating vocally for a $25 million (or more) streetscape investment on Fayetteville Street. They've acknowledged this would be a major boon to their properties' value, but they've also argued that this would be an appropriate investment in this part of Durham.

I'm not convinced that they're wrong that Fayetteville Street needs aesthetic improvements. At the same time, however, the payback from the Heritage Square investment is substantial enough to justify this financial support. First, only $2 million of the $6 million are hard dollars; since the remainder are discounts on property and sales taxes, these incentives represent foregone tax dollars that wouldn't have come in anyway without the Rothschild redevelopment. Once the ten year discount window expires, there's a stronger tax base to provide the city with revenue.

At the same time, for this initial investment of $2 million in hard dollars, the City is estimating the creation of 1,300 jobs. Durham County earlier this year approved $1 million in County incentives for Merck for 60 jobs and a $100 million plant investment -- though only after $40 million in tax incentives and other governmental dollars from outside the county. And let's not talk about the ridiculous largess to Google out in western N.C. Frankly, from a return-on-investment perspective, this one looks pretty good.

Frankly, I'm not convinced the Hesters have a leg to stand on on this fight -- particularly in light of the fact that their Phoenix Crossing shopping center cost $4.2 million, with a staggering 20% of that coming in the form of city-backed grants and subsidized loans in the late 1990s. It's hard to take seriously an argument that spending $2 million of hard dollars and foregoing some of the new tax revenue is unfair when, as a percentage of the development, Scientific would be receiving a much smaller investment.

Seven-story condos at Foster & Corporation?

At today's Preservation Durham lunch discussing developments in the Durham Athletic Park district, a resident asked the panel what the plans were for the lot at the corner of Corporation and Foster Streets, where an old art deco garage was torn down a couple of weeks ago.

Apparently, the plan is to combine that and an adjacent lot as the site for a seven-story condo building including structured parking. The Durham GIS site is down this evening so ownership of the lot can't be confirmed at this time, though an update will appear here when available.

My early thoughts: on the one hand, it's always good to hear of plans to bring more residents downtown, which is tremendously important to supporting and sustaining communities of interest, retail, and dining. At the same time, my first impression is that this is pretty out of scale with neighboring buildings. The brand new Farmer's Market and the Downtown Trail bike/ped connector runs just to the south, while the soon-to-be-revitalized old Durham Athletic Park sits to the north.

Although there are imposing old warehouses on the east side of Foster, seven stories in this location could be more controversial than the same-height Chancellory project proposed between Brightleaf and Trinity Park -- though, of course, with few if any residents on neighboring blocks to object.

This project (if it comes to fruition) may have to some extent benefited from the City's decision to send the DAP plan back to Struever Bros. as a ballpark-only project instead of one that would have involved the Baltimore-based developer planning uses for retail and housing adjacent to the DAP, too. Had Struever been in a position to execute its initial $11m plan for retail and residential around the DAP, it would have had the jump on the market in the area. The owner of this Foster & Corporation lot could have still been able to propose their own building, of course, but their market absorption rate and prices -- that is, the ability they'd have to rent or sell their retail or residential space -- would probably have been dinged by being second to market. Assuming, of course, that there would at that point have been any latent market demand to grab... or that they could have gotten the financing with a large national developer doing big work right next door.

Is seven stories of condo living nestled up against the Farmer's Market the right one for Durham? Doubtlessly something that folks here may be talking about for some time to come.

Do they get hazard duty pay for this?

So I made a bag of popcorn and turned on the tube to watch Monday night's city council meeting. The Herald-Sun covered the main brouhaha of the night, the much-ballyhooed 'cooling off' period for former city employees. Personally, I found the debate to be a rather pointless one -- and a much less concerning matter than, let's say, the brother-in-law of a Council member being selected over city staff's recommendation for a design project.

But then, maybe that's just me. As was pointed out by several opposed to the cooling-off idea, the entire council debated, publicly and vociferously, the construction manager at risk (CMAR) program for a year before it was implemented. Am I surprised that the city staffers working on the issue would recommend three of the most prominent US firms in the CMAR business as finalists for a CMAR contract? I'd be more concerned if City Hall were pushing Joe's Discount Construction over players like Skanska. By the same token, if a city staff member involved in construction oversight leaves the city employ, it seems logical that one of these same large CMAR firms would be a natural employer.

Frankly, after seeing the challenges that the City has had getting projects like the long-delayed Third Fork Creek trail done, with projects in an incessant bog of bid-cost escalation-rebid, I'm happy to see CMAR used for projects. After the widespread complaints that the '96 bond funds didn't get spent fast enough, or well enough, it's better to wrap up multiple projects in a bow and let a CMAR run with them to bring them to completion. With good incentives and contractual obligations to ensure compliance. How free market of us, letting private firms take the wheel!

But of course, the cooling-off motion had no chance of passing from the start. Instead, coverage of the debate (and the mayoral mileage it provides), not passage, was exactly the goal of bringing it up. One might ask if there's a conflict of interest, metaphorically speaking of course, between advocating conservative interests on the City Council and working as a VP for the most aggressive network of right-wing think tanks in the state. Do we need a cooling-off period for, well, for Art Pope, generally? Does Thomas Stith get a discount at Rose's?

All that said, the best line of the night actually came from the usually-serious Stith, so credit where credit's due:

"I was sitting here chuckling... the city manager reminded me at the Farmer's Market that the event was taking place, so I showed up just to be supportive of the mayor, and he had an unfortunate conflict, so I ended up having to speak for the mayor.  I kinda liked that -- might could get used to that, Mr. Mayor." 

-- Thomas Stith, on attending (and happening to speak at) a recognition event for Eastway Village homeowners

He might run for mayor? Imagine that.

Almost four hours later -- although you can only speak for two minutes at a time, if you've got Victoria Peterson and the Hesters in the house speaking two minutes on item after item, things run long -- it's over. Just another night at the City Council. Do councilfolks get hazard duty pay for this?

The Durham Bulls' wind-fall

Snorting_bull Monday's high winds throughout the Triangle wreaked havoc on trees, power lines, and even caused some traffic accidents. Nothing quite so visually striking, however, as the damage caused to the famous "Hit Bull Win Steak" sign up on the left field wall, whose head was sheared partially off the body.

Have no fear, say the Bulls. The so-called "Famous Bull" will be put back together, the D-Bulls assure us.

I say: Don't bother.

Don't get me wrong. I love the team and I love going to Bulls games; in fact, I had a great time taking a contingent of colleagues from San Francisco, Boston and Chicago out to the DBAP just last week, braving 50-degree weather to cheer the Bulls and boo the Pawtucket, R.I. ("Is that near Woonsocket?") Red Sox. One told me she doesn't have nearly as much fun at a Cubs game as she did on a cold Bull City night at the ballpark.

For me, though, my favorite part is walking along the concourse, reading the long history of the Bulls. Of their days playing in the old El Toro Park, of their various affiliations with major league teams, of their struggles in the 70s and resurrection in the 80s. The Bulls go a long way back in Durham and our city should be proud to have them here.

So I'm bemused that folks get awestruck over the 'Snorting Bull' sign -- a feature that dates way, way back in history to, oh, the late 1980s, when it was invented by Thom Mount's crew for the movie Bull Durham. Heck, that bull sits undisturbed along the concourse in the DBAP, being at a mere seven years of age unable to weather (no pun intended) installation in the new park upon its move from the DAP. No, we're talking about a twelve year old, new piece of fake history.

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