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Golden Belt: Previewing the commercial/retail/entertainment space

On Friday, we took a look at the 37 apartment units and the 35 artist lofts available at Golden Belt, the important adaptive reuse redevelopment project taking shape on E. Main St. just to the east side of downtown. Today, we'll look at the remaining buildings in the Golden Belt project and their planned uses -- as commercial office space, retail, and dining, including (the developer anticipates) a space for live music or other entertainment.

Img_1479_2 To make sense of the mission and vision for these spaces, though, it's important to understand the project in the context of its arts focus. Scientific Properties' past projects include the redevelopment of 401 Foster Street after Andy Rothschild's purchase of the Venable -- and the resulting inevitable displacement of a number of local artists when redevelopment began -- created an awareness for the need for arts-focused space in Durham, as the Indy noted in this January 2007 article.

The development team for Golden Belt reports that is has been reaching out to artists and the arts community both here in Durham and in more established arts centers like New York, San Francisco, L.A., and Boston, among other major metros. No matter what the audience, though, Scientific has expressed an interest in working with tenants and entities beyond the corporate that dominate the scene in so many developments.

Unlike the vast majority of developers, who approach tenancy from a perspective of finding proven, high-revenue tenants wherever possible, Scientific maintains it's looking at providing opportunities and space for small businesses, design pros, and restaurateurs that may not yet be established, but which are looking for opportunities to succeed.

Unconventional? Sure. Surprising? Not in the least. After all, it's the result of a perfect compatibility between Golden Belt's presence as the largest-scale private sector redevelopment in East Durham and its arts mission.

Practically speaking, a redevelopment project in an emerging area like East Durham isn't likely to attract demographics-driven national chains. To that end, artists are a natural target market for a development at Main and Elizabeth.

At the same time, as we talked about last week, the architecture of the Golden Belt complex is very well-suited to artists, with the abundance of natural light and the opportunity for affordable studio space.

Once you draw those artists -- and with half the artist studios leased, Scientific is well on its way -- what comes next? How about art galleries, a natural retail use for artists who can produce and then sell work on-site (and live there if they choose?) After all, the local buyers as well as the out-of-town fly-in buyers starting to discover the Durham market would be attracted to a large venue like Golden Belt, making galleries a natural driver of retail space.

And with a critical mass of artists, residents and visitors on site -- not to mention extremely ample surface parking -- the presence of live music or other entertainment is a natural. Such diversions are in short supply in the Bull City, but Golden Belt has a chance to succeed in this area by taking advantage of its arts-centric, creative theming. Ditto outdoor festivals and concerts, which as we'll see in a moment, the space is perfectly suited to house.

Want boutique shopping or fine dining? That's Brightleaf Square. Funky shops? Ninth Street is your thing. National chains? Southpoint. In a similar vein, Golden Belt has a chance to define itself uniquely as a destination for the arts and culture in Durham, and to do so in a way that adds value for its residents and tenants while simultaneously encouraging them to locate there.

Everyone talks about mixed-use, and almost everyone complains that mixed-use rarely creates a real synergy between the uses. How many people wake up in their apartment, walk down the development's sidewalk to their office, and then catch a show on property that night? Quite few. Yet in Golden Belt, there's a very real possibility that apartment dwellers will also rent studio space, and maybe go in together on some gallery space.

There's a certain audacity to Scientific's positioning. It's untraditional, and at the same time, completely Durham. This idea would never fly in Raleigh -- which is probably one of the reasons I suspect Durhamites are so excited to see the results.


On with the tour; let's look again at the site plan.


Img_1469 Building 2 is one of the centerpieces of the entire project, literally and figuratively. It's one of the most visible buildings from street level, and is immediately adjacent to the visitor's parking, which is located between the building and Building 7 to its south.

Building 2 is shown at right from the visitor's parking lot, with Building 6 (apartments) to the right. The passageway in the center of Building 2 currently leads directly through to what's becoming tenant parking; Scientific plans to construct a fully air-conditioned glass lobby where this passageway is currently located.

Scientific is proposing ground level retail for the first floor -- and to the western side of Building 2, the second floor, as the grade level rises to make that the actual ground-level space. Keeping with the theme of the campus, Scientific describes the goal for the on-site retail as "unique, design-savvy retail serving artists and the arts community;" ideal tenants from Scientific's perspective could include craft or fine arts galleries, a bead shop, arts supply store, or high-end frame shop, among others. Rents start at $14 per square foot per year, which compares favorably with much less compelling strip-mall options elsewhere in the Triangle.

On the remaining floors, Scientific is looking to lease out space to commercial office tenants. The developer won an RFP with the City of Durham last year to lease out a significant amount of space to the city's Community Development and Neighborhood Improvement Services departments; expect this department to be in the first wave of tenants moving into Golden Belt come late spring.

Building 2 is gorgeous inside, especially in its current pre-drywall configuration. Seems doubtful that a tenant would take up an entire quarter of a floor or so and maintain the great natural light without division, but it's always possible to hope.


On the eastern side of Building 2, note the original pulleys remaining in place near the roofline.


Construction continues apace on a lower floor of Building 2.


Finally, a view of the north side of Building 2, as viewed from the under-construction tenant's parking lot.


One of the very interesting elements of the Golden Belt site plan lies in what the spaces under construction might be used for from time to time, as opposed to necessarily every day. Take the tenant's parking lot, for instance. Expect to see it serve as automobile parking most days of the year -- but also look for it to transform into an outdoor event or festival space from time to time, too. One could imagine a future Centerfest, or perhaps Taste of Durham, taking place in this space.

As it happens, the tenant's parking lot's western side is comprised of a tall retaining wall-style structure that holds back the higher grade from the railroad tracks and Elizabeth St., all of which combines with the tall Golden Belt factory buildings to make an outdoor amphitheater. The western wall will be reconfigured to create a space usable as a stage, much like the base of the Lucky Strike water tower at American Tobacco.


On the south side of the visitor's parking lot sits a squat 1950s structure that had served as an office building for the Golden Belt manufacturing facility back in the day. Scientific has earmarked this space for a cafe or restaurant featuring live music, taking advantage of the building's location closest to Main St. The current plan is to raise the roof on a portion of the building to accommodate a performance stage in the 8,500 sq. ft. space. Scientific's representatives note that discussions are ongoing over possible tenants for this and the other retail and commercial spaces in the complex.


Building 5, on the eastern side of the complex, has been designated for "industrial arts" -- a sculpture or woodworking space, perhaps, or even a creative-style office space for the right tenant. The 5,800 sq. ft. space already has some loading dock access, making it ideal for larger scale art and even creative industrial uses.


The adjacent Building 4 is the only structure that the Durham Housing Authority managed to renovate during their ownership of the site. A job training center currently on the first floor is slated to move to an upper level shortly; Scientific intends to offer the built-out floor that the training center is leaving behind to local non-profits in need of office space.

Thanks again to the folks at Scientific for offering up a preview of their work in progress. We'll look to provide updates as the project nears its May/June occupancy timeframe.



Interesting to see the progress, but a few things on here seem wrong- in particular, the assertion that this project is "completely Durham"; there IS a project in Raleigh this compares too, though it's not of this scope; Artspace. In both places, the rent is really way too high, especially if you're looking to recruit artists from other cities (and why leave NY, Boston, San Francisco or LA to live in a city that regards your endeavors as diversions?) So the somewhat predictable result will be similar to Artspace: really, really pedestrian artists basically turning their "studios" into gallery spaces, and not really providing any life to the area except on first fridays.

So, not to burst your bubble, but I wouldn't get your hopes up too much; actually, if you take a look at 401 Foster St, one of the bays has been vacant for about a half year now, in part because of high rent.. a little foreboding.

Kevin Davis


My point about this being the kind of thing that could happen in Durham versus somewhere else in the Triangle relates to the nature of the financing and location. Artspace is in Moore Square, in the heart of Raleigh's revitalized section of downtown; and it's a non-profit, as opposed to a private developer making the project happen.

I love what non-profits can do for a city and I don't mean to disparage Artspace in any way. My point is, it's rare to see a private sector developer try to make this project work in a part of a city in major need of reinvestment. That's the kind of thing I don't think the Raleigh development community would get behind in the same way.

What's the point of a snarky comment about "really, really pedestrian artists," anyhow? Did I miss the Durham Food Coop-esque Art Review Committee's scheduled meeting this week?

In all seriousness, there are some who I suspect would agree with the comment over at the Indy's article, who'd prefer to see art come from somewhere "organic," rather than a private-sector project. Well, hey, no one's stopping that from happening. And plenty of good things in Durham have come precisely through that channel.

In the end, do I think GB is risky? Sure. But I'm ready to give them credit for taking the risk and am pulling for them to succeed.


I guess I'm approaching this as an artist living in Durham, and not as a developer or home owner- and the artists I've met in the area don't seem very excited by the Greenbelt project at all, which makes me wonder who'll be in it.

The pedestrian comment would be snarky if it weren't 100% true. I think that's what bothers me when I read about projects like this (and why I wrote a comment on your blog), is that when people talk about having artists in a space, there is never any accounting for quality, like artists are all the same and you just need to find 50 to fill up your studios. And then having rents that *start* at $250-300 ends up leaving a relatively select group of near-retirees, trust funders, and, uh, retirees.

Not exactly the image they seem to be promoting (this from their myspace page):


GOLDEN BELT will draw in the flare, spunk, local love and grit that is Durham, toss in a little cosmopolitan sensibility, and rerelease it -- like, say, a wild bull -- onto a historic textile mill campus downtown.

With a mash-up of inspiration, stimulation, open festival space, live music, art shows, artist studios, lofts for real people (like you), refreshing and funky commerce concepts, and, honestly, some stuff we've yet to imagine, Golden Belt will round us up into one spot and revive us -- the Durham lovers, the curiously curious, the creators, the culturally hungry, the emerging.


When no one else dared to dream such a project possible -- especially on the edge of downtown -- SP dreamed it. Some have called us risk takers. We just think we see things differently....

If you wanna take a tour of the in-progress lofts, studios or commercial space
email leasing

Who I'd like to meet:

Creative minds, emerging entrepreneurs and artists, music makers, craft makers, communicators, scene seekers, concert goers, Durham lovers, life livers, connection makers...

all of you.

come, create, partake.


Also: what would the Durham Food Coop have to so with measuring quality in something? I missed that joke.


Seems like a lot whining going on from Lou. Golden Belt seems amazing and I am exicted for it.


Wow dude. Sorry for criticizing!

I'm back in line now- go Golden Belt! Woooo!

Kevin Davis


I don't necessarily agree with Mike's take on this -- I don't sense this is a case of "whining."

What I am trying to understand, though, is what I _think_ I'm hearing here. Namely, the idea that rents are too high for 'quality' artists so all you'd get at GB would be 'pedestrian' artists.

On the face of it, the idea doesn't make sense to me. I mean, you'd think that artists who produced quality work would be those who could afford (through their income off of art sales) to cover $250/mo. in rent. Sure, the 'trust funders/retirees' you site could, too -- but isn't there a substantial base of artists in Durham for whom $3,000 per year is an ordinary cost of doing business?

To that point, what are the rents for artist space elsewhere in Durham? I really don't know and am curious. Are there lower rates out there for studio space? What are quality artists typically paying?


Thanks for posting the text from the GB MySpace page, that copy makes feel sort of queasy, not unlike my response to "Downtown Sexy" and "Find Your Cool." Maybe Manpurse quit because it was just too easy.

I am also curious about the cost of artist space downtown, the building on E Chapel Hill St would be a good example. Or, Venable before SP bought it. It might also be interesting to contrast the occupancy of Venable pre SP and now.

Kevin Davis

Oh, and Lou -- the Food Coop joke referred to the battles that have taken place over there over questions as to the management group was operating the Coop in the right way. The debate featured a very tabloid-style blog that talked about the "machinations" of Coop leadership with some phrase like "Stalin Would Approve" next to a picture of the Soviet leader; people wearing "END CORPORATE RULE" buttons to protest Coop ownership at board meetings; etc.

All of which had great import to the community at the center of the debate, but to the outside looked like some kind of student non-violent coordinating committee leadership purge in the 1960s.

Which worked better as an image than a joke, admittedly.

Broadly speaking, there is always a tension between Durham's great qualities being discovered and people complaining that they're being discovered and thus the people who were here first can't stay here. And there are good reasons for that -- often there is a pricing out -- but there are ways for the community to respond, too.

Personally, I don't think that missing what the Venable was makes much sense. I mean, the building was going to eventually get bought and repurposed, eventually. That a developer (and coincidentally, the same one) has worked to provide other arts-focused spaces seems to me to be a good thing, compared to the alternative.

Though like DTH, I'm still wondering what the $$ is for other spaces used for arts and artists.


Well, when I came here in April 2006 and there were no studios available at Dan Ellison's studios at Durham Arts Place, and really, that's it for Durham, other than vacant store fronts and offices. Those are priced in the $120 to $250 range, as far as I remember. I moved here to do a project with another artist, so that (conveniently) we split the rent on the studio we did find at 401 Foster St, otherwise the $500 rent/utilities would be way too much.

If you want, I can go through the numbers with you, but basically I work 40 hrs a week on a low-stress job so i can work 4-6 hours in the evenings and 8-10 hours on the weekends. The money I make covers everything, if i needed more for rent i'd have to get a "better" job that would sap energy from getting into the studio consistantly. I'm okay with this arrangement, though it would be nice to be able to augment that income with sales...

But sales don't really factor in- we don't have an in with wealthy people in the community, so we (perhaps stupidly) decided to purposely price work affordably ($10 to $60 for most things) so that if people liked the work, they could just buy it. From our experience, and in talking to other people downtown, there's a sense that people don't buy things like art not b/c they don't like it, just that in general, the middle class/upper middle class types are already living beyond their means and can't be buying things like original art. Possibly the situation in many other cities, with a recession looming, but not very encouraging, and a factor to think about when thinking about renting a studio in Durham.

So, knowing that there isn't much in the way of studio space, I was excited about the Golden Belt project, but given that the rent *starts* at $250 (which, when I tell other artists, it's understood that's as far as most working artists can go), I can't see it as altruistically at the developers do. And as there's no review process, just whoever ponies up the deposit first- what are the odds that there would be high quality artists? I mean there are places in the triangle I go hoping to see interesting work, but Artspace isn't one of them, and Golden Belt seems like a huge version of that (and notice that the only studio in Artspace that looks like anyone actually works in it is the one they give out for emerging artists... not a coincidence.)

Also, I may just be being impatient- perhaps this just needs to get going and build momentum, and things will go from there. Hm.

Dave W.

Thanks Kevin for posting all this good info and pics on Golden Belt to help get the news out. Whole lot of topics in the comments here.... Good stuff here for a scholarly type cultural anthropology case study without the hoopla of Richard Florida (and one that distinguishes between "working artists" and "creative class" professionals. Disclosure 10 years ago I was probably more of the former, now I'm edging closer to the latter).

I doubt most people who work "real jobs" (salary, some benefits) realize the HUGE difference to a signficant percentage of artists between $250 and $350 for studio rent. That $1,200 a year may not sound like much but is often a tipping point in the decision making. I see it fairly often in friends' search. I also wonder if folks realize how few artists in the Triangle sell less than a few thousand dollars worth of work in a year (and thus a small rent increase does cause large problems).

My studiomate Lou might be right that many folks don't understand the quality of artist aspect and how that is a big thing that may be overlooked in judging the success of an artists' development -- and to many (but thankfully not all) people art is merely the background for a field trip once in a blue moon on the way to dinner. "Hey that's great, love to see this stuff, keep it up, we're going to go drop $80 on dinner now."

In my 20s (1990s) like many others, I worked cooking jobs at night so I'd have my days to work in studio when I was fresh. Meant I made $7.50 an hour and skipped on things like health insurance and having AC at work and home. I worked out of a self-governed artists co-op in Raleigh (Antfarm) for 7 years and rent was cheap (less than $5 a square foot) for a fairly non climate controlled warehouse with an occasionally leaking roof on a handshake rent deal. It worked well for me and dozens of others but by the time you hit your 30s many folks are ready for a lil nicer space, and health insurance seems more important as does having an apartment that isn't a piece of shit, and maybe Miss MFA and Rock n Roll Johnny that just joined the studio last month is getting on your nerves when they borrow your tools and don't put them back.

I moved to Durham in 2003 and rented a similar type space on the east side of Durham.

Took me two years running around town to find a space that was a little larger and a little nicer. Rents ranged from $4 to $14 a foot. I found plenty of 100-250 square foot spaces that were too "officey" with bad light and vibe, and a fair number of 2,000 square foot spaces that did have decent light, open space, rough hewn floor, high ceilings and were in the $7- $12 a foot range. But I only needed 600 square feet and couldn't find others to commit to a multi year lease.

I think a large problem in Durham is still the lack of 300-600 square foot spaces that are nicer than a raw unheated space -- but not that much nicer so they are still affordable. Bigger than 150 square foot rooms (i.e. same size as working out of a bedroom at home which a lot of people can do on their own and tire of, its lonely and limiting); but smaller than the 2000 square foot spaces I found left and right for two years while I tried to "move up" from Al's barn but couldn't find people to join in with me.

I think there are fair number of folks that are more working artists/not near retiree hobbyists and can afford slightly higher rent that tend to be slightly older and go the route of buying a building or adding on to their house; taking on that debt and knowing they can recoup the money later when they sell the building. This reduces the pool of renters and can limit the diversity of an Artspace type place.

I think Golden Belt could work quite well to fill this need for medium size spaces by working artists that want collective energy, rubbing shoulders, sharing resources, etc if things play out well, and that depends on a whole lot of related factors. (including quality of artists and gallery attracted, cost of space to artists, whether the intial round of renting artists find a community that buys work and doesn't just visit on Artwalk day).

I was disappointed that American Tobacco made zero attempt to consider artists as an audience (or attractor for retail re: gallery). I'm very glad that SP is taking this on with a good bit of focused vision and hope that it becomes a project where reality lives up to theoretical potential.

disclosure: I'm also a studio renter at 401 Foster St. (I started the Bull City Arts Collaborative with Kenny whom I met in my hunting around town). I hesitated to post this since now a large percentage of comments are coming from one building --but maybe others will chime in with different perspectives.

Kevin Davis

Lou and Dave -- Thanks for sharing some of the math that makes local art spaces work (or not.) I think it helps those of us who aren't artists understand where the pain points and possibilities are.

One of the challenges, I suspect, is going to be finding spaces of the kind you're talking about, Dave -- that mid-size 300-600 sq. ft. space at an affordable price with some amenities, but not too many.

Just for fun, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope on 801 Gilbert St., selling down the street from Golden Belt. I don't know if the listing price of $380k is FMV and/or what you could actually negotiate for the building, but let's assume you bought the structure for that and then spent $100-150k on a very bare-bones renovation into arts space (which is also probably a low number).

By the time you factor in debt service, utilities, taxes, repairs, management costs -- I'm going to take a wag that you're at around $80-90k per year to own and operate that space.

At 14,000 sq. ft, by the time you add in common areas like bathrooms, egress, etc., let's assume you could get 25 studios in there at about 400 sq. ft. apiece.

At $250 per month, that would work out -- assuming you're fully leased up in the studios -- to about $70,000 per year.

Now I didn't factor in any of the historic tax credits you might get, and I'm assuming very little equity goes into the deal upfront. Still, it's a stretch to make the numbers work there.

Pull back on the renovations, don't heat the place, assume you've got patient capital to tie up for a few years on the assumption that the property will appreciate, and assume that you can use the project as a shelter on other profits... and you can probably eke out a small profit.

I didn't talk about this at all with the Scientific folks, but it actually makes me wonder to what extent the artist studios there are really a profit center, versus being a loss leader/community builder to drive retail and residential use?

Dave W.

Undoubtedly making the numbers work is extremely difficult and much of why arts spaces are not easy to develop.

Personally, I'm pretty confident SP is interested in providing high quality arts venues and studio space at as low of a rate as possible for the long run, and there may be as much philanthropic drive as profit motive (or loss leader aspect). But rising construction costs and investors who -- even when kind-hearted -- still expect a certain percentage on their return are probably two big factors.

Ultimately what makes many renting artists nervous is the knowledge that they often will be shown the door (re: significantly higher rent) when an area has improved and has more demand. I doubt that is the case with Golden Belt and SP plans to hold true to the mission for the long run, but imagine other folks might wonder. In regard to the larger issue it is understandable that folks who invest expect a return. I think most artists are aware of all these difficulties and is why some might be guarded in their optimism.

I'm glad SP is taking Golden Belt on and looking forward to the results (both inside and outside the studio space component). Be great if a good live music venue develops.


I am looking for a space to paint. I found this Golden Belt place.....i dont make a living as a painter, but i dont think 250 a month is a lot to ask. it will sting my pocket a bit, but I dont see anything else available here in i guess its Golden Belt

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