BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for January 5, 2010
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for January 6, 2010

Project 20/10: Downtown revitalization takes off (#7)

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.


Erik Landfried

Wow, if this is #7, I'd like to see what the top 6 will be!

Michael Bacon

It's Robinson Everett, not Everett Robinson. (Or, if you prefer, I guess you could use Everett, Robinson.)

Hindsight is always 20/20, and Robinson was just a remarkable and phenomenal person in so many other ways it seems silly to quibble about the Loop. I got to know him in the past few years through First Presbyterian, where he was one of the most important and long-standing lay leaders of the congregation. While I started out in my downtown activism 10 years ago with utter scorn for the Loop, I've had some Kipling-esque moments (http://www.odr.org/the_palace.htm) where it suddenly starts to make sense what the whole thing was about. It's not as if Durham built its Loop or its Civic Center in a vacuum -- they were based on the best understanding anyone anywhere had at the time of how to adapt downtowns to the auto era. Robinson wasn't motivated out of some disdain for downtowns or a hatred of history, but out of love of and a commitment to Durham.

That said, I still fully believe the Loop was partially a terrible mistake, and what part was not has now outlived its usefulness. (It was built for a time when Five Points was the intersection with the worst traffic jams in town.) Thankfully, the City's transportation staff have come up with what I think is a superb and reasonable plan to fix it. But hey, maybe 30 years hence, people will be hating that too.

"After me cometh a builder. Tell him, I too have known."


strange how there are many established places downtown BCR finds hard to mention but prefers to stick to its favorites, there are many small independent retailers downtown, the ones without big money behind them, the people who take a huge gamble and put everything they have into bringing foot traffic downtown, yet you constantly pay them no heed.

Kevin Davis

@Mark: No insult intended by anyone being left out. FWIW, here I was looking for businesses that have established themselves after the streetscape renovation, which is why I left off Blue Coffee, MarVell, White Cap, Through This Lens, Ninth Street Bakery, etc. Even then, I know Ive left some out.

One of the challenges in doing this series is that its intended to be thematic, not exactingly detailed to encompass every (say) restaurant, business, etc.

If theres a business downtown or otherwise folks would like to see featured at BCR, shoot me an email. I actually have an interview with the folks at RedMASS Ive been needing to get transcribed and posted.

Rachel Freeman

I agree with the above comment. There are several shops that were not mentioned that play a major role in downtown Durham's transformation. Among these is the noteworthy Heather Garrett Design, which is located in the renovated Thom McAn building at 313 West Main Street. A record of this building's existence was noted in the 1893 City Directory, making it among the oldest buildings in the downtown loop. After complete renovation in 2008, HGD was one of the first Main Street retail businesses on the heels of its neighbor Toast. Being one of the first retailers downtown East of Duke Street, HGD gambled on Durham's economic future and has since aided in downtown's changeover.

BCR should not fail to mention such businesses that play a MAJOR role both in the history of downtown and its current transformation.


Sounds like there needs to be a downtown biz directory.


Kevin, I don't disagree about the importance of American Tobacco, but I do think you've understated the impact of West Village Phase I somewhat as first mover in the 1998-present redevelopment of downtown. It's funny to think now about how insane people generally thought the WV folks were at the time (when the project first became public in - ? 1998?) People who wanted downtown to succeed were very supportive and excited, of course, but the prevailing notion was simply that people did not want to live en masse in Downtown Durham. I think even the boosters were wringing their hands a bit. The success of that project made believers out of a lot of people - both naysayers and well-wishers who just thought that it couldn't happen in Durham.

Of course, the BDV folks intended to redevelop American Tobacco as well, (the 'East Village' to the 'West Village'), and Abram had attempted to do so before that. I take nothing away from the ambition of CBC stepping in when BDV let their option on AT expire and focused on WV, or the magnitude of AT's effect on downtown. But I wonder whether they would have taken it on when they did if WV1 hadn't proven the market to some degree.



All i'm saying is that if BCR is representing all of downtown, it should randomly include all of downtown. How often to you hear about Gaujillo's, Mt Fuji, Bull McCabes, Federal, Tosca, Whiskey, Gurleys pharmacy or the above mentioned Heather Garrett Design. Most of these places were open since 2000, it would be nice to mention them once and a while instead of going back to your favorite few, don't get me wrong i enjoy all the places you mention, i also enjoy a few others too.


Welcome 2 Durham...BCR

It is very interesting to see the Main St. corridor develop over the last several years. The more gaps that are filled in between Brightleaf Square, Five Points, and the Talk of Town side the better. I see Golden Belt having a similar effect as West Village on the eastside of downtown. This part of Main St. between Roxboro and Alston will probably see the next wave of private investment over the next 10 years.

It will also be interesting to see how the DAP district develops as well. If I were to gaze through a crystal ball, I could see Foster/Rigsbee developing into a Durham version of Glenwood South (i.e. larger clubs and restaurant/lounges filling warehouses and old auto sales shops). There is a market because there are plenty of people in the 21-30 range who drive all the way from Durham/Chapel Hill to Raleigh to hang out down there. Not saying that is a problem besides the long drive back home for those involved.


Any update on Ringside?


BCR,I agree with MarkW. For example, Bull McCabe's was open ON ITS OWN at five points with roads closed and sidewalks under construction for months. It managed not only to stay afloat as a new business but prosper, and it must have been an inspiration for others such as toast, pinhook, revolution, beyu coffee, whiskey, etc. to move to the area as well. It seems remiss of you to neglect this establishment in your downtown discussions.


If you search through BCR (field at upper left corner), you'll find countless articles about Bull McCabe's and others well before opening dates (owner bio's, photos, adaptive re-use, etc.) I don't think any new business has been neglected just because it wasn't pointed out in this one, somewhat abridged article about downtown revitalization. It's only ONE of twenty segments--which in itself is a task beyond reporting on daily happenings in Durham.

This blog doesn't serve as a free publicity outlet for individual businesses. It's a blog about Durham business, politics, and other issues that just happens to be there as an outlet for the entrepreneurs and risk-takers when the TV cameras and newspaper journalists are off elsewhere.

I'll bet more has been written and discussed in this blog about Pinhook, Revolution, Bull McCabes, and even the downtown pharmacy and head shop, than in any of the local media. Besides, if you want foodie write-ups from the very beginning to the latest menu item, try Carpe Durham.


Guajillo's and Mt. Fuji aren't mentioned much probably because of their lack of good food.

Scott Harmon

While American Tobacco is a significant project, it was pre-dated by West Village Phase I. That project took far more risk, and was, relative to what had happened before, a much larger "step", I think. I'd agree with above comment that WV1 was the real turning point. The success of that project, I have no doubt, is what gave CBC the courage to do AMTAB. But if you REALLY want to go back, one must consider Brightleaf. That project is currently the most vibrant retail location in all of downtown, mainly because it's been here the longest, AND because of the great redesign of the courtyard, which was originally conceived as a horrible 70's era pedestrian mall. I look forward to when the City Center has the same vibrancy. It's coming, and soon.

Scott Harmon

Greenlatern -> re: Ringside, I assume you know that the club is gone? The upper two floors have been converted into a private residence. The owner received his certificate of occupancy last week. The ground floor is retail space. There is a very strong prospective tenant for the space, but it's premature for me to mention any details. The owner has a website at http://www.308westmain.com/


@Scott Harmon: Thanks, I meant to say Ringside property. I knew it closed a long time ago, and assumed it was going to restart as a club/cafe. It's good to see the high-res photo on the website and that it's open for many uses.


Bull McCabes is where the old Jo & Joe's used to be, Markw. So, no, it hasn't been "around since the early 2000s." My friends and I used to hang out at Jo & Joe's all the time - it closed in, what, late 2006? Early 2007?

Similarly, Mt. Fugi didn't arrive until well after the remodel of Brightleaf, which happened in 2003? (My date on that could be off. I can't remember for the life of me to be honest what year exactly it was, but I certainly remember the 'old' Brightleaf well - remember those brick steps everywhere?!). I think Mt. Fuji showed up in 2005 or thereabouts. That was the year/years when Brightleaf went from having Sati's and El Rodeo to suddenly, post-renovation, getting a bunch of more 'high end' restaurants (e.g. Chamas).

Nor did Whiskey show up on the scene until, what, two years ago?

And oh - Ringside. I have memories of one absolutely crazy night there when they were doing their "theme" evenings. That was one of the strangest bars/clubs I've ever been to - truly.


Markw, just reread your comment again. I think I may have misunderstood you. Your line:

"Most of these places were open since 2000..."

I interpreted that to mean you thought these places had been open since 2000. But perhaps you meant to say that they opened since 2000? If so, I agree with you there.

Angel R

markw, regarding Guajillos, they have new management and they will be introducing Colombian food to the menu.


My mistake, i meant to say in the period between 2000 - 2010 which is the time frame of this article.

Kevin Davis

All: Thanks again for the comments. Just wanted to clarify on a few points here. To be honest, and though this is a pretty bad excuse, this was one of the more "time constrained" stories in the series I've written, and it shows in the errors and omissions here.

I'll make a second pass through the article in a week or so and correct these items, esp. before this 20-part series makes its way into a more permanent fixture/page on the site. But to recap:

1) West Village: Scott and Gary are 100% correct. I avoided a big mention of West Village in the first two paragraphs on the mistaken belief it opened in 1999, but further research demonstrated it opened in 2000. Personally, I'd argue American Tobacco was still a bigger step for downtown renovation than West Village -- an argument I'll defend later in the top 20 (hint, hint) -- but WV's pioneering role needs more acknowledgement than I gave in this first pass.

2) Robinson Everett: For the second time in a month, I've Googled a name one way to make sure I have it right, only to then reverse it in the post. My error. Michael, for the record, I didn't mean the mention to denigrate Prof. Everett in any way. He was a great man and did a lot of good in Durham; I had a chance to talk with him about the Loop a few years ago and agree that it was absolutely an attempt to make Durham a more functional place, not a less functional one.

3) Listing local businesses: No disrespect was meant to any business by being named, or not named. I appreciate the feedback that the addition of randomness to the mentions would be welcomed, and I'll keep that in mind going forward.

Some of the businesses mentioned here have been mentioned and featured on BCR before; others haven't. In particular, this post led to a nice conversation today with Heather Garrett -- useful for me, as I hadn't realized it had moved beyond an interior design business to a retail store per se.

The post was intended to be a thematic, broad coverage of the fact that revitalization has started to take root downtown. That it's hard to remember to mention every business is, perversely, kinda a good thing.

To the extent some businesses get mentioned more than others, there tend to be two reasons: either the business is really good at getting their word out via Twitter, press releases, the web, etc.; or I happen to have more familiarity with the business first-hand. (With the smoking ban, I'm hoping to get out more to places like Bull McCabe's that I previously only ended up at a couple of times a year.) But I'll be careful to try to feature a broader set of businesses.


How awesome it is that so many downtown businesses are offended that they are not mentioned in your article Kevin. It's a testiment to how far downtown has come and the incredible opportunity the future holds. Thank you for keeping it in front of us. It is important however for us to embrace the evolution in a new and more proactive way. Organizations like mine, the chamber, are working on doing a better job in that regard.


Am I the only one worried that my RSS has lost the top 6? I guess this kind of long-view reporting takes time and research or something. I demand a refund!!

Kevin Davis

Hey Bartholomew -- sorry its taken longer than I hoped to turn back to this series. Youre kind about the researching time, which can be length; I clocked in about six hours for the just published next chapter in the series. (Frankly, the whole hair-brained idea has given me newfound appreciation for Gary Kueber, whose labor of love work at Endangered Durham takes far longer on any given day than my often-quick blog posts do.)

The top five are still coming, but it may be a couple of weeks before theyre all out there. Once complete, therell be a new Project 20/10 section to BCR on its way.  Thanks for reading!

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