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Public and private: Who controls downtown Durham's agora, and its cool?

A couple of days ago, we tweeted out a link to an article by Matt Hartman, a Durham-based writer whose article on downtown Durham and gentrification appeared this week in The Jacobin.

The thesis of Hartman's piece is that downtown's "cool" is a cultural asset created by Durham pioneers and which, through its exploitation and marketing by developers seeking to revitalize empty buildings and vacant land alike, is being expropriated by capitalism.

Perhaps not a shocking thesis to appear in a magazine that describes itself as a socialist voice for the left. And not an uninteresting one; it's definitely worth a read, wherever your views sit on the political spectrum.

While his argument is an interesting one, I'm not sure I agree with all his conclusions. Still, Hartman's argument about the need to understand the nexus between public and private entities and to develop successful public spaces is certainly worth some discussion.

Let's start by looking at Hartman's view of Durham's history, which seems to start in a classic gentrification analysis: abandoned spaces, available at a low cost and made into creative enterprises, then overwhelmed by second-wave gentrification so as to allow capital to benefit from what labor built.

This argument is not novel. What I found more intriguing is Hartman's assertion that the culture of Durham -- Durham grit, as it were -- was created by the community, then used by developers seeking to commoditize the vision.

The notion of privately owning and profiting from a public good is one inherent in capitalism, but the development of Durham represents a contemporary twist. Developers now aim to re-enclose the little commons we have left — including immaterial goods like our community and our history, in addition to their material bases — and sell them as a commodity. […]

[I]n a small-town version of the “Detroit vs. everybody” mentality, the people of Durham developed a pride in the “grittiness” of the city, seen most visibly in its architecture: large swaths of old factories, closed auto-body shops and gas stations dotting city blocks, old mill villages interspersed between it all.

Thanks to cheap land and empty storefronts, galleries, bakeries, and restaurants popped up. Now Durham is a place praised by the New York TimesTravel + Leisure, and Southern Living for its commercial opportunities.

Like other gentrifying areas, the investment came first to housing and retail. But, thanks to conspicuous Durham pride, investors claimed they wanted to be a part of what already existed. Projects like West Village — a massive complex of offices, lofts, and luxury apartments housed in old tobacco factories — were celebrated for their “creative reuse” of vacant, though historically significant, buildings. […]

In each case, the culture of the area — loved because it’s unique, because it’s something that can be billed as authentic — is mined for new profits accessible via land ownership.

I would argue that while many Durhamites -- even in the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s -- always had pride in their city, much of the "Durham grit" reputation Durham has drawn out has not necessarily preceded the West Villages and American Tobaccos of the world, but have been supported by it and in some ways developed contemporaneously with it.

I work in ATC for an organization that was one of the first tenants. A decade ago, no one was talking about "Durham cool." Indeed, from what I heard, there was a great deal of skepticism, a sense of being exiled to a space that wasn't dangerous, but was merely dead. Coming from the Northeast, I was wowed by the campus from the first time I saw it, seeing the potential and what could be, and was excited to work there. But at the beginning, I think few felt the same way.

There were practically none of the "galleries, bakeries, and restaurants" that Hartman describes as popping up in underutilized spaces and drawing developers. (There was a shuttle bus to take workers to the nearest dining option, however -- Ninth St.)

All there were, were empty storefronts. As Jim Wise noted in a 1998 column in the Herald-Sun:

We've heard local folk -- among them the late Jim McIntyre of the Durham Arts Council and American Dance Festival ramrod Charles Reinhart -- wax visionary downtown Durham as a place to wander from art gallery to theater to cafe, to linger over tea and baguette while listening to a strolling violinist. Nice image, but it's from a different place and time. These days, who's got time to linger over anything? [...]

In many ways, at least for those of us who have been around for a while, Durham is still a small town. In other ways, though, it has quickly become a city -- in that it is a multiplicity of small towns, communities within a community. Woodcroft, Treyburn, Old North Durham, West End and so on, all with their own places of kinetic and economic convergence, their own little "downtowns.'' The old downtown, down around the Loop, just doesn't serve much purpose any more. Maybe there is one for it; if so, you can bet it won't be a rerun.

Certainly the availability of inexpensive space ready for reutilization helped attract entrepreneurs, artists, chefs and others to downtown, to the sort of spaces Hartman fears, with some justification, are being bought up, corporatized, and neutered of their culture.

But these storefronts were empty for a couple of decades before these projects. Downtown's business districts began to fill after the linchpin projects, and the streetscaping, not before.

There were pioneering users of space and buildings in downtown, to be sure -- upstairs art centers, studios in the Venable, the occasional residential unit here and there. But I would describe them as truly pioneering, and mostly operating within close communities or serving, for instance, as sites to work on art or media to be displayed or sold elsewhere. There certainly were not visible, street-level retail users, for instance.

Many of Durham's most interesting, beloved businesses came in to that latter, public existence because they saw a community taking pride and interest in its future, and I suspect that at least some of that pride was inspired by the success of American Tobacco and West Village -- not co-opted by it.

There are legitimate questions to ask about how we keep housing affordable, and commercial and retail spaces affordable, such that we keep Durham's character from chain commoditization. Those, to me, are more important than who usurped what community character.

Then again, I'm not sure Hartman remembers this, but practically the first business to fail at American Tobacco was a Starbucks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While I think Hartman is too hard on the development community for a co-opting that I don't think happened in the order he describes, there is an important rationale and concern behind his argument that I do think is worth carefully considering -- the need for public entities, like governments, to own, design and manage key public spaces.

In short, American Tobacco is a centerpiece of Durham’s community, praised by even the most ardent critics of Liberty Warehouse’s destruction. But despite the economic good it has done for Durham, the development has become the lynchpin in the argument for privatizing the public.

And the damage this mode of development has wrought isn’t wholly symbolic. Because it’s privately owned, Capitol Broadcasting can police mass gatherings in ways impossible in truly public spaces. […] Such commodification inhibits the vitality of that public life, narrowly channeling it into activities and viewpoints approved by private companies. […]

The question then, isn’t whether the state will be involved but for what end — to facilitate privatization, or to keep community spaces in the public sphere.

Hartman is correct that as private space, the owner can restrict the uses that take place on the site. While I appreciate what Capitol has done in the ATC's restoration, and think they are actually a remarkably civic-minded entity, it's vital to make sure that public commons exist for speech, assembly and use, lest we end up in a simulacrum of the HOA dystopia described in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

I don't think that this is a matter of the private sector -- American Tobacco and CBC in particular -- seeking to "capture" public spaces within the private sphere, however. In many ways, they've just been remarkably effective in creating attractive public spaces.

The campus features aesthetic and recreational features, like a river crossing without guardrails, that few private and certainly no public developers would dare to insert, let alone their risk management teams. And the resulting success of the space is obvious, with the campus filled with people for scheduled events and recreation alike.

Indeed, one of the interesting future conflicts that will exist, and which is interesting to consider in light of Hartman's narrative, is the green-space between Blackwell and the DPAC. It exists today as a public commons, but it's not a public park -- CBC, which owns the land, turned it into a temporary commons when the DPAC opened in order to connect the ATC and the theater, since the company was not yet ready to build on it.

And I heard some rumblings at the time that there was a fear the public would become enamored with what is private space but which is temporarily appearing to be (and actually being used as) public space, and that the public would someday oppose CBC building on its own land.

It's in that anecdote, more perhaps than those Hartman cites, that I think we get to the really important part of his argument: we cannot, and should not, rely only on private entities to make appealing, engaging public spaces.

Unfortunately, Durham's track record on truly public spaces downtown is more mixed than the private sector, as seen by anyone visiting Durham County's sparkling new Human Services Complex on Main St.

In designing the building, the County didn't add public space on the exterior; the courtyard is inside the building, surrounded on all sides by the complex itself. From one description of the space (emphasis mine):

Located in an underdeveloped part of downtown, the Durham County Human Services Complex is an important part of the area’s revitalization. A bluestone and granite paved interior courtyard offers employees a large gathering space that honors the requirements of visibility and security while enhancing the relationship between the interior and exterior. 

I've left the emphasis on employee access since while there's no barrier to keep the public from entering, there's nothing inviting them to do so. There's zero street-level or pedestrian interaction, and you must pass a large, well-staffed guard's station to enter the building.

It feels, as a number of Durhamites complained when it was built, like a setback of the other -- the interior of a castle, surrounded by high walls. And the interior is supposed to be... contemplative? Hardscapes, long rows of planters to sit on. Stairwells to upper levels.

Something that could have been Anywhere, USA, as a corporate headquarters.

Or look at the new County Courthouse's stark, steep steps and entry plaza, whose design seems to have been inspired by a committee concerned with how easily one could wash down the materiel after a riot. Indeed, when you look up at the plaza and courthouse from Dillard St., the entry and the public space aren't easy to see. Shouldn't architecture, like justice, be transparent?

Sometimes, our public entities get it right. CCB Plaza downtown, for instance, is frequently used for community events, and is a popular place to sit or hang out. Other spaces, like the Orange St. "Pedestrian Mall," lacked pedestrians or mall-style stores until Scratch opened up; in this case, a small business is helping to activate the space.

And here we are, on the verge of building a new police headquarters, one of whose design challenges is -- wait for it -- the ability to provide green space, art, retail spaces for small businesses, and street engagement.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Where Durham has been most successful in creating or planning engaging public spaces has been where it has partnered with non-profits and citizen groups to make plans.

Take the Durham Area Designers' work on public art, community/small area plans, transit and the like.

Or particularly Durham Central Park; the recent dust-up at City Council as covered in the Indy Week over the role of the private, not-for-profit Durham Central Park board regarding negotiations for condos. To me, this raises a perhaps better lens for analysis of the sort of issues Hartman talks about than the ATC does (though likely came up too late for Hartman to include.)

As with American Tobacco, the area that's today's DCP was a set of abandoned buildings, transformed into something very cool -- in large part through DCP financing and vision, but at the same time, through City land acquisition and ownership.

It's that underlying land ownership that is so valuable, versus a privately-redeveloped (even if partially subsidized) reboot, a la ATC, Golden Belt or West Village.

It's also what makes last week's concerns from Council over the stakeholdering so important.

To date, over a decade-plus of volunteer work, I think DCP has been extraordinarily beneficent and has acted in the public interest -- an argument their leadership has also made. 

I don't quibble too much with the condos per se, as the park will see some improvements, and particularly since the site owner has long planned condos on the location -- and save for the annoying lack of street-level retail, the structure now being planned looks far more attractive than what was planned before the Great Recession.

But last week's debate raised legitimate questions about the boundaries between DCP and the City that, to me, haven't really been pertinent in the past but might in the future.

How do we make sure that a successful public/private partnership, whether it's DCP or something else, continues to be as innovative as an American Tobacco, while being as open and truly public as a City park or the CCB plaza?

To the extent that Hartman's analysis inspires those sort of questions, I think there's some good grist for the mill, even if I for one am more worried looking forward than looking at our present or past challenges in this area.


Jason Reyrs

GREAT article. I am so glad this blog is back! Speaking of public space in Durham, I'd love to hear your analysis of this project/vision:


Dave Wofford

I think the lack of street level retail and commercial space with 539 Foster is more than "annoying," but is extremely problematic.

This is like the fifth large condo project near downtown to get started that has no activation of the street or sidewalk.

This creates multiple problems. It is bad boring development for everyone in town, and it is also helping create a lack of spaces for retail and commercial tenants to look for and hopefully afford if they are an independent business.

The 539 Foster location is right smack where we should be seeing a mix of commercial and/or retail tenants that would recognize and continue this location as a downtown/neighborhood/industrial mix and a development that activates the street and sidewalks like our leaders have been saying they want to see for years.

Whether the drawing (which may or may not have any relation to the thing that actually becomes the plan) makes us think the development will be attractive or another cookie cutter piece of shit Legocondoplex is kind of beside the point.

The first thing is to make the mix of tenant uses what we want to see if Durham is to be an interesting place. So, ensuring that the development has commercial and retail space is first and foremost what matters.


539 Foster in the DDO, so they have the right to do mixed use OR non-mixed use.

The city had a bargaining chip in the negotiated public easements, but using public leverage to dictate design (or use) brings its own risks. Good designers bureaucrats do not make.

Also note Liberty DOES have significant commercial space on the Foster wall, and light commercial continues to pop up throughout the neighborhood, from the Pit to Blues Club.

Not everything is going to happen everywhere, and that is fine.

Feral Pigeon

Good piece. I understand the fear to steamrolling gentrification but where in Durham has that happen? In Matt Hartman article I read that the downtown development " which now threaten to price out the moderately wealthy residents who previously priced out the low-income residents. " I must have missed something, who was displaced? Nearly all the new development has been done either on or over previous commercial structures. Who was living downtown before all this renewal?

There are things to complain about like the lack of affordable new development or the urban design of sections like the Police headquarters, but the idea that downtown Durham is becoming the playground of the rich displacing the previous low income or moderately wealthy is pure urban legend.

Khalid Hawthorne

I think the "gentrification" is in reference to the smaller businesses being priced and/ or tossed out. I knew some people that lived downtown before it was "cool". They could not do that today at the salaries they were making at that time.

This is a good post BTW...a lot to unpack. I will stick to gentrification. If people are serious about having affordable/ workforce housing and/ or retail/ office space available downtown, we need to be ready to provide the public capital for that public benefit. ATC was different because they were investing in an unproven market.

Sidenote: Figuring out a way to fund something very similar to that SmART Initiative should be on the list as well. I know we had a Urban Open Space study completed but this is something that can be implemented and will ACTIVATE key areas throughout our downtown.

With all of the investment projected for downtown, I would be for setting aside part of the additional taxes towards several public benefit items (Affordable Housing/ Commercial Units, Smart Initiative and Beltline/ Loop Conversion).

Ellen Cassilly

Great article. So happy that your blog is back.

Joanne Andrews

I'm glad Khalid mentioned the Open Space plan. Several years ago the planning dept held a series of charrettes to discuss public open space as the city worked towards developing a master Open Space plan. In those meetings, which were facilitated by Tom Dawson and Lisa Miller and others in the planning dept, groups broke out to discuss and re-imagine various public spaces within the loop. The group that I was in focused on City Hall and the parking lot across, adjacent to Orange street. We talked about how our existing City Hall was so forbidding to any civic engagement with no plaza or outdoor space where citizens could gather. We spent some time re-imagining that space, some of which made it into the final plan.
Durham has a a visionary Open Space plan, crafted by Tom Dawson in the planning dept after much public input. If the plan were fully implemented, many of the issues raised in the article about public space would be addressed.


Just to be clear, MORE open space = LESS affordable housing.

Land is a fixed asset, and Durham's urban affordability issue is accelerating demand with a relatively fixed supply.

The more land we dedicate to green space, the less land there is for any housing (which means housing, by definition, becomes less affordable). We have an adequate supply of parks in and around downtown. Maybe focus on making those parks top shelf, rather than taking yet more developable land offline?

I would love to see the rims of lesser used parks sold off and developed with profers for affordable housing. Start with affordable townhomes @ Rocky Creek, Mallard and Duke Fitness and Life Center. Then go from there.

Taylor Mingos

+1 Dave's comment:

"I think the lack of street level retail and commercial space with 539 Foster is more than "annoying," but is extremely problematic."

We absolutely need development that engages pedestrians and provides much needed retail space for small businesses. DDI knows about the retail space crunch and I hope they are lobbying for ground floor retail in these projects.

I also believe strongly that any project that receives public money -- such as the new proposed parking decks in downtown -- should be required to have ground floor retail and a street-level experience designed for pedestrians, not cars. http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/blog/real-estate/2015/06/downtown-durham-nc-parking-decks.html


I always have to question incentives for projects of this scale. Do we really need to give $5.25 million to make an $87 million project feasible (or $6 million to a $91 million project)? That money would certainly fund a lot of police officer positions over the 15 year payment life. Would these developers actually not build the project if Durham stopped cutting checks to these developers?

The idea of "job creation" is always thrown around, but somehow that money only goes to out of town REITs that don't really seem to be struggling for cash.


I think I got a different thesis from the article than Gary. I read it as an analysis about how monied interests have co-opted the community in general: cultural equity, character and spacially.

One thing that could have been better emphasized in the Hartman article is the fact that not only did Durham roll over to every cartpet-bagger with a dollar, but that we in fact *subsidized* these projects. Either directly as with ATC or indirectly via deferred taxes. So why could we not have carved out more for ourselves? Lack of pride?

And the Muze bldg is not only the latest example of this, it may be the worst, bc srsly? At this point surely we don't need any more "help" from these leaches at this point?


Who is Gary?

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