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July 2007

Durham ranks #3 for small-market relocations

Don't know how I missed this one the first time round, but it seems a number of folks have, since it hasn't gotten lots of press. (The DCVB, it turns out, did note this last month.)

Anyhow: Durham was named the #3 small-market for relocation in 2007, after Provo and Ogden UT, but before Colorado Springs. Winston-Salem ranked twelfth and Asheville twenty-third among small-market cities. The study, by relocation firm Primacy, factors home prices and house affordability as well as property taxes and rent rolls into its calculations.

Raleigh-Cary ranked #3 in medium-market and Charlotte #20 in large markets in the same survey. In other news, jealous that it's ranked a 'medium' to Charlotte's 'large' market, Raleigh-Cary has just smacked Charlotte upside the head when the Queen City wasn't looking.

(All of which could begin the age-old debate as to the cleaving of the old Raleigh-Durham MSA into two separate metro areas a few years back, but we won't go there.)

Bull City, meet Google Streetview

So if you're an afficionado of 'teh Internets' like me, you've probably run across the new Google Streetview feature on the company's web site. Streetview is a new feature on Google Maps that lets you see "street level" views of sites in selected cities. You can already look at top-down satellite imagery with Google Maps, but if you're in a city that has street-level photos enabled (like San Francisco), you can get a street-level view perspective, too, that looks just like you're standing outside the building.

Gizmodogooglefleet1_2 A few weeks ago, the tech gadgetry blog Gizmodo published an article with pictures of Google's vehicle fleet, sitting in a parking lot (presumably in Cali based on the license plate -- see image, from Gizmodo, at left) getting ready to take photos. You see, these street-view images don't just come out of thin air -- Google's purchased a fleet of Chevy cars to drive around America, roof-mounted camera at the ready, waiting to capture more image data for Google Maps.

Imagine my surprise, then, coming down LaSalle St. today towards Duke's West Campus on my way from a meeting, only to see one of the Google Streetview fleet driving right here in Durham. I saw the car turn into the Erwin Terrace/Poplar Manor development at the corner of LaSalle and Erwin, so I hightailed it around the corner and met up with the car behind Erwin Terrace. The car was a grey Chevy, with California plates and the same tell-tale roof mount... all identical to the fleet from Gizmodo.

Not the greatest photo, but you can just make out the Erwin Terrace dumpster structure on the right and Poplar Manor on the left:


I waved excitedly to the driver and asked her if she was working for Google. She wouldn't answer, but smiled as I asked her why I thought she was. I mentioned the Gizmodo article and she just smiled further, kindly relenting to allow me to take a quick photo of the vehicle in situ.

Keep an eye out on Google Maps in the coming months, it seems. And for heavens sake, clean up your front yard before Google plasters you all over the Internet.

American Tobacco Trail update

Dan Clever, president of the Triangle Rails-to-Trails organization, pointed me in the direction of Joe Miller's blog at the N&O for an update on Durham's long-awaited 'missing link' of the ATT south of NC 54, including the I-40 bridge. Here's what Miller had to say on his blog last week:

Lee Murphy with Durham's Public Works department told Get Out! Get Fit! late this morning that the project will undergo a public comment period over the next six months. The project will then go to design in 2008 and construction begin in 2009. The bridge and trail — again, if all goes according to plan — could be done by summer 2010.

Murphy says "about 95 percent of the route" the trail will take has been determined, with just a few items to be resolved regarding navigation through the Streets at Southpoint. $4.7 million — "from various sources" — has been allotted for the trail and bridge.

This stretch
coupled with two missing bridges on the Chatham County section of the 22-mile ATT constitute the last significant stretches of the ATT yet to open.

Though long overdue (almost a decade after the rest of Durham's ATT opened, once all is said and done), it's good to see a greenway project moving in the Bull City. Incidentally, Miller's blog will be publishing updates on the ATT all week, culminating with a system map to be printed in Thursday's paper.

Davis, Wittenberg, Greenfire: A play in three acts?

We noted here a few weeks ago the news that Craig Davis had picked up the Durham Centre, the much-maligned office tower at the corner of Foster St. and the Downtown Loop. Even as Davis' firm begins its plan to renovate the lobbies and common areas of the twenty-year old tower -- and seeks a "large corporate" tenant to take naming rights, something missing from the building since its People's Security days -- much of the speculation from developers and the press is focused on two more interesting possibilities Davis picked up in the process.

Forgive me while we enter a little window of speculation ourselves on what this could mean for downtown.

First, the $19.2 million purchase of the tower included ownership of the surface parking lot immediately adjacent to Durham Central Park, Piedmont, and the Branch Gallery, close to the soon-to-be-renovated Durham Athletic Park, and the proposed Durham Credo condo project. Suddenly, Davis has picked up a very valuable piece of property in the heart of one of downtown's most active real estate districts.

Secondly, and more intriguingly, come rumors in the N&O that Craig Davis' firm may want to approach the Durham Centre's original developer, Frank Wittenberg, about buying his long-dormant air rights over the western end of the Durham Centre parking garage. Wittenberg has been claiming he'd break ground on a condo twin-tower to the Centre "real soon now," though it's not clear that there's the interest or market for the luxury skyscraper condo project Wittenberg has proposed.

Wittenberg's gotten most of his press here at BCR concerning another oft-maligned project -- the Duke Studio Condos, which has been in full 'pause' mode since this March. As we discussed here before, my best guess is that Wittenberg was on highly speculative bridge financing for the old Crown Park Hotel near American Tobacco, allowing him to acquire the property and perform some renovations in the hope of driving enough unit sales that he could get more conventional financing for the project.

Continue reading "Davis, Wittenberg, Greenfire: A play in three acts?" »

Still more downtown dining: Toast

The completion of the downtown streetscape work has brought with it a number of new downtown restaurant announcements, notably Dos Perros (from Jujube's Charlie Deal) and Revolution (from Jim Anile, late of Il Palio), but also including the nonprofit-meets-restaurant Front Street Cafe and the ever-tasty Locopops.

As great as most of the new restaurant announcements have sounded, most of the new offerings, like Piedmont and Rue Cler before, cater to gastronomes more than office gnomes. One think missing out of the equation has been an honest-to-goodness corner restaurant/cafe (and no, I'm still not ready to put Symposium in that category.)

So I was excited to hear yesterday's announcement that Kelli and Billy Cotter are planning to open up Toast, a restaurant on West Main Street at Five Points, by the end of the calendar year. Grilled paninis and soups will be on the menu, along with wine by the glass and perhaps bottle. Making Toast a great "neighborhood cafe" for Durham is the stated goal -- marking the arrival of more casual, everyday dining in downtown Durham.

More news on this one as it becomes available.

Northgate Mall adds stores, new manager; a new hope?

Interesting piece in the Herald-Sun a couple of days ago on Northgate Mall, focused on their hiring of a new manager -- a 42-year old newcomer with a UC-Berkeley MBA but no previous retail management experience.

There was a bit of a breezy tone to the article, a most optimistic spirit of Northgate's chances of making it despite competition from Southpoint. Besides the hiring of a new manager, however, there's not a lot of news to report. True, there are a couple of new stores coming -- notably fashion retailer 5-7-9, and electronics discounter TigerDirect (to the former Old Navy space.) But Northgate's owners are still expecting the outside plaza to not be fully leased until summer 2008, two full years after it opened.

Amusingly, the article pinned some hopes on Northgate's revitalization to that of downtown, arguing that all the residents coming in to Durham's center would help bring the mall back to life. Ironic, since of course it was the presence of Northgate that lured firms like Sears out of downtown and up to what was then considered the "suburbs."

I think the jury is out on whether Northgate will draw up from downtown, or whether areas like West Village and Heritage Square will draw retailers into the city center as a new destination for boutiques and more eclectic shopping. National retailers of the sort that would perch at Northgate are bottom-line driven on parking, and as good as the arrangements at West Village are for parking in an urban setting, strip-mall-minded national firms aren't widely comfortable settling in those environments.

On the other hand, these same retailers tend to be tied to formulae of demographic patterns around growth and income that themselves provide more discouragement to Northgate than downtown -- and the demographics aren't changing yet in the area immediately around Northgate, a point alluded to in the Herald-Sun piece.

I've made the case in the past that Northgate is fighting a battle that's tough to win, and I still think Northgate is an enigma inside an anachronism -- that is, a locally-owned enclosed shopping mall -- that makes it tough to compete for leases with national firms.

Still, you have to give credit to the Rands for their resiliency, and their willingness to invest more dollars in the business. If Northgate goes, it won't be for a lack of investment on the family's part. Eventually, I think the value of the land and the location, with improved highway access on the US 70 corridor, will still be far more likely to support mixed-use or residential than its current enclosed mall mode. But for now, we'll have to wait and see what opens up in the space.

Commuter rail studied for the Triangle, Triad?

How weird -- I posted here earlier this week about how we could use something like a Northern Virginia-style VRE commuter rail system in the Triangle as a start for transit, and Michael piped up with some history on how the North Carolina Railroad Company (NCRR) already held the rails, and it'd be great to see better use of them for passenger use.

Well, along comes this nugget in yesterday's News & Observer:

While the N.C. Railroad looks to get more freight traffic off our crowded highways and onto its tracks, the state-owned railroad is also thinking about new commuter trains that could serve the Triangle and the Triad.

NCRR's 317-mile tracks carry more than 70 Norfolk Southern freights and eight Amtrak passenger trains every day. Scott Saylor, the railroad president, has asked a consultant to study the feasibility and costs of adding commuter train service.

The idea would involve about four scheduled runs in the morning and four in the evening, Saylor said, similar to the Virginia Railway Express, which takes workers to Washington, D.C., each morning from as far as 60 miles away. . . .

The NCRR study will look at the possibility of trains serving Triad workers who live between Clemmons and Burlington, and Triangle workers who live between Burlington and Goldsboro. The results are expected in the first quarter of 2008.


Most interesting. Nothing to get too excited about, yet -- but the fact that NCRR is willing to look at this is a step in the right direction. Of course, the challenge with such a far-flung system is that it's easy to look at these as sops to developers, since they help open up distant lands like Goldsboro to more sprawl and residents. On the other hand, to be frank, 'round here that's happening anyway, with people choosing to make that commute anyway, just in their friendly personal auto.

It will be interesting to see what kind of stops are proposed for such a system. One would have to imagine that Durham and RTP would each be logical choices; in fact, it's not hard to see this paralleling TTA's very popular and successful intercity bus routes between Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and the Bull City.

One thing's for sure: the presence of such a system could have a big impact on future rounds of planning for a Triangle light-rail system, especially given any significant overlap in routes.

The Chancellory: Back to the drawing board

As expected, Durham's Board of Adjustment rejected the height and density permits for The Chancellory, the luxury condo project at the southern end of Trinity Park.

In yesterday's post, I shared my frustrations over two points: the ongoing challenges in getting density and urbanity recognized as good things appropriate to Durham, and the process difficulties inherent in this particular project.

I realized that a newcomer to this particular Durham discussion might ask, 'What of the developer?' One might perhaps feel bad for Park City, the development firm spearheading the project, for all they went through to end up at this point.

Please don't.

If there's a lesson for developers in Durham out of this experience, it's that neighborhoods and neighbors have long memories, and that trust is a long row to hoe. Though there are disagreements in the precise details about the particular path that this project took to get to that point, the miraculous transformation of a 70-room boutique hotel to a 100+ room extended-stay hotel complete with parking deck thrown in gratis was probably, in retrospect, the real death blow for neighbors' support for this project.

And so while I do have concerns that the project's outcome wasn't necessarily the best one for the neighborhood as a whole, it's not fair to lay that entirely, or even mostly, at the feet of neighbors themselves. Was the neighborhood not able to make a bottom-of-the-ninth-inning save, a last-minute deal to save the project? No, and that does frustrate me. But the project never should have made it to the point of a last-minute save in the first place.

As the experiences with Station Nine demonstrate, neighborhoods can come around to understand the benefits of density and urban projects. But there has to be a two-way relationship of trust that is earned, not granted. With luck, whatever comes next for the empty parking lot at Lamond and Watts will reflect such a relationship.

The Chancellory: The center cannot hold

In a very articulate and well-thought out post, Gary over at Endangered Durham had the following to say about The Chancellory at Trinity Park:

[The southern end] of Trinity Park is now shorter and less dense than it was historically. I did not have a problem with the density on the original plan, and I still don't. This is going to be a transitional block between the ever-burgeoning business district at Brightleaf and the neighborhood. I don't think it will be little houses - the developer's basis in the land is $1.5 million. I don't think the alternative is going to be a project that a greater percentage of the neighborhood is happy with.

I believe in urbanity in the city, and this is it. It's good for all of 'in-town' Durham, and good for our greenfield areas to do urban density infill. . . . [I] would hope that the neighborhood would support this project at this point.

Well, the neighborhood hasn't really spoken. But some neighbors have. Which speaks volumes as to the contentious nature of this project, and about the outcome that has led to.

As has now been announced on the Trinity Park listserv, the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association has for all intents and purposes withdrawn entirely from the process of attempting to negotiate a binding agreement with the proposed project's developers for the time being.

This change came after intensive lobbying from the Neighbors for Sustainable Development in Trinity Park (NFSDTP), a group of area residents that came out in strong opposition to the initial project and which has fought aggressively to prevent the TPNA from taking a stand any more liberal on the key, thorny elements of the project -- parking, height, density, aesthetics, etc. -- than that which NFSDTP would support.

So, what happened? Let's quote from the announcement that TPNA board VP Lance Kimbrough made to the neighborhood via its listserv last night:

Continue reading "The Chancellory: The center cannot hold" »

Most Durham mainstream high schools ranked in US's top 5%

A piece of very good news for Durham's schools today: Jordan High, Durham School of the Arts, Riverside and Northern were all ranked among the top 1,200 public high schools in the US by Newsweek magazine. Jordan and DSA ranked above the prestigious Broughton High in Raleigh, though all fell behind Raleigh Charter, Enloe, and East Chapel Hill High.

This is excellent news for the Durham school system and a welcome counterpoint to the constant drone from real estate agents and 'concerned parents' in other communities that Durham's schools are substandard. As we've discussed here before, it's impossible to evaluate Durham's public schools on bottom-line numbers that ignore the significantly enhanced level of socioeconomic diversity found in the Bull City's schools.

Was Newsweek's measure, which put a disproportionate weighting on AP/IB test-taking, the end all and be all of measures? Absolutely not. And pointedly missing from the list were Durham's two historically-black public high schools, Southern and Hillside -- another reminder of how far the district, parents, and the community have to go.

Still, it was interesting to note that WRAL's article online fails to mention that of the eight schools from the Triangle that made this list, exactly half were from the Bull City.