County reveals old Courthouse's proposed new look, retail; HPC weighs in this week

I'll be the first to admit it: I've often been underwhelmed, like many of you perhaps, at the County's idea of urban development.

While the County got a great recession-era price on the new Courthouse, for instance, its entry plaza is a barren wasteland at stark contrast with well-activated, engaging urban spaces elsewhere in downtown. And heck, when the project was under discussion, it took a ton of community grousing from this site and hundreds of other folks to preserve even the glimmer of a street-level retail future for the new Courthouse's parking deck.

Similarly, the Human Services building on East Main has managed to be uncharmingly similar to the old Sears department store there that once housed the functions. Sure, there's glass and windows, but it's still a big-box-on-the-block, with all its attractive green space on the inside and no street-level retail to engage East Main -- to say nothing about the big ol' parking lot next door. (Witness the resulting scrutiny over a planned Durham Police HQ just to the east of here.)

It's for these reasons, then, that I feel more than a glimmer of optimism about the proposed refresh of the 1978-era County Courthouse, on the northwest corner of Roxboro and Main.


Compare this to the structure we've known and un-loved for so long:


The old structure -- said by Jim Wise and others to have been outgrown almost as soon as it opened, and brought to obsolescence less than forty years later by the jail-blocking tower -- is proposed to become administrative office space.

And we'll give the County credit for thinking imaginatively on a couple of fronts. The new proposal calls for a recladding of the structure that modernizes its look significantly, though there likely will be some appropriate scrutiny on the cost and ROI of this effort.

And just as importantly, the plans call for retail space along the entire south side of the building, activating the Main Street corridor.

Durham's Historic Preservation Commission gets a crack at the plans on Tuesday. Let's delve a bit more into what this looks like and what it means.

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Developers unveil site plan, more details on controversial Publix center for north Durham

A crowd of more than one hundred packed the Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church's sanctuary on North Roxboro on Thursday night to hear the latest from the development team proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center at the corner of Guess Road and Latta Road in north Durham.


The logistics contrast from this fall's last go-round on this subject couldn't be starker: a crowded, uncomfortable elementary school cafeteria where speakers couldn't be heard and unruliness reigned at times, versus the pews-and-pulpit auditorium with PowerPoint, amplified audio, and (Publix-provided, natch) refreshments.

Similarly, while the developers were often on the defensive in the first meeting, in this session the agenda (there was an agenda) was tight, the presentation carefully crafted, and unanswered questions that raised hostility the first time were sometimes -- though crucially, not always -- answered in this second go-round.

Most crucially, residents got to see the developer's projections on the impact their Latta Road improvements would have on the congested road's traffic flow. It was an argument, backed by simulation data, that seemed to get murmurs of assent from the crowd, but follow up questions from two residents asking for before-and-after vehicular volume counts were pointedly left open.

The developer also put forth a working site plan and likely renderings for the commercial district, along with examples of single-family detached homes that Durham-based homebuilder Cimarron Homes is proposing for the site. 

There were again clear opponents in the audience -- though this time, met by what appeared to be, based on who was applauding, an equal number of proponents. 

Proponents noted their complaints over the lack of retail (or the poor quality of current retail) in north Durham, the corporate track record and store experience of Publix, and the positive impact to traffic flow from the road improvements planned.

Opponents shared their love for the quasi-rural nature of the northernmost city limits, concern on adding more retail where strip centers exist down the Guess and Roxboro corridors, and a reminder to residents that City legislative action is still needed and the project isn't a done deal.

All of which has a Durham Planning Commission and City Council hearing window targeted to summer 2016 looming as the project moves forward.

Continue reading "Developers unveil site plan, more details on controversial Publix center for north Durham" »

Under scrutiny, Durham Co-op withdrawing referendum on worker shares, governance

Faced with a public backlash over a change to the Durham Co-op Market articles of incorporation, the stores'  board of directors won't hold a vote on worker governance as planned. The vote, which is open to all co-op members, has been going on for nearly two weeks; it was scheduled to end tomorrow.
As we reported yesterday, members were being asked to vote on whether to strip co-op employees of their governance rights. This includes the ability to buy a separate class of shares, and to elect two people to the 10-member board. However, many members did not fully understand the ramifications of their vote; the board's explanation of the proposed change—that it reflected "best practices" was both vague and potentially misleading.
According to documents we obtained, 11 employees have requested to buy worker shares, which could allow them to receive a share of co-op profits. However, as board president Frank Stasio told us yesterday, the board can elect not to issue shares.
Profit-sharing, though, is important because most of the co-op's rank-and-file workers earn less than a living wage, starting at around $9 an hour. 
This is the email the board sent to members:
"As you probably know, the board of directors of the Durham Coop Market asked you to vote on a proposed amendment to market’s articles of incorporation (AOI). In talking with many of you over the past couple of weeks, we’ve realized that we erred in offering such and important choice with so little time for consideration and discussion. Therefore the board has decided to withdraw the referendum. 

Moving forward we will create opportunities for our owners to hear from experts on all sides of this issue and engage in dialog. This full and robust conversation should make a sound foundation to decide whether you would like to re-consider the issue and put forth another referendum.

Please know that the board acted in good faith. We have very worked hard for many years to make the dream of this market a reality. You have always shown great faith in us. With your help and confidence, we opened the store that is on the path to success.  

We want to boost that success going forward by continuing to work closely with all of you to maintain the strong sense of collaboration and unity that has brought us this far.

Please join us at our Annual Meeting tomorrow (Sunday) at 6 pm at the store. 

The Durham Co-op Market Board of Directors


I Walk the Line: Protecting affordability near Buchanan Boulevard

Murray 2

Old warehouse, now part of the Duke Transportation lot, Buchanan Boulevard  Photo by Lisa Sorg


Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via .

 Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.



Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.

Read more about this neighborhood and its potential affordability challenges.


Res ipsa locavore

Update: Gray Brooks announced on Oct. 9 that the restaurant won't be named "Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain" -- see the comments for more detail.

If it's Wednesday, it's DCVB-press-release-on-a-Pizzeria-Toro-project Day around here.

Partners Cara Stacy, Gray Brooks, and Jay Owens, the team behind downtown Durham’s Pizzeria Toro, have announced plans to open a small, dinner-only restaurant at 110 East Parrish St., formerly home to Monuts Donuts. The opening is projected for winter 2016.

“We’ve been a fan of this space since Monuts was operating out of it,” Brooks said. “We’ve always loved the sort of super small neighborhood restaurants that, somewhat ironically, you only ever really seem to find in really large cities. There a sort of intimacy, a grown-up informality, that it’s hard to get in a large space.”

The team is excited about the small scope of the space. “We’re envisioning maybe 30 to 35 seats, mostly reservation, but with a small bar and food counter that we’ll hold for walk ins. Sort of a cross between a neighborhood restaurant and a date restaurant. We’re not even sure if we’ll have a phone; we may just take reservations by email.

The team plans on naming the restaurant “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain”. Brooks explained, “The name comes from an amazing woman who took care of my sisters and me growing up while my mom was at work; basically working for next to nothing during times when my mom couldn’t afford to pay for her. She used to call me Mr. President, until Robert Kennedy was shot. I was two at the time, and she decided that that wasn’t really a safe aspiration to have for me any longer. So she started calling me ‘Captain’ instead.

“She’s the person who taught me how to hit a baseball; she taught me how to collect things. Mostly I think she just taught me how to make a full and rich life out of next to nothing, lessons that I’ve carried with me, and have definitely put into cooking.”

Brooks said they will begin sharing information about the restaurant over the coming months. “Cara says I’m crazy to try to take this on with the Jack Tar taking shape. She’s probably right.”

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Live blogging today's Durham City Council meeting, Sept. 24

We're going through some perfunctory consent agenda items now.

1:09:  The light rail letter of support is on the agenda only so that it can be moved to the General Business Agenda on Oct. 5. This is after Go Triangle's Oct. 1 public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

1:24: Related to the Mayor's Poverty Health Task Force, we've learned that fewer Durham landlords are accepting Section 8 vouchers (also known as Housing Choice). Several years ago, 900 landlords accepted them; that number has decreased to 700. L'Tanya Gilchrist of the task force is discussing a woman, a Type 2 diabetic, who has a voucher, but can't find a property owner to accept it. If she can't find a landlord, she will have to surrender her voucher.

Councilman Steve Schewel: This is an emerging problem in Durham. There's especially a shortage of 1-bedrooms.

[This issue came up at last night's Durham Housing Authority meeting.]

1:35 Bob Klaus of the Durham Performing Arts Center is giving a report:

DPAC set an attendance record in the past year: 448,998 

Wicked sold out 24 shows

Half of all DPAC shows (112) sold out, including three performances by Dave Chapelle

Two-thirds of all attendees come from outside Durham County 

2:10 Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson is speaking about the special events process in regards to street closures. This has been in the works for two years, he says.

BF: "We have a process failure, not a failure of the people running the process. As our city and our events have become more complex, we haven't given the people the process."

Today's discussion: What went wrong? How to improve it? What direction do we need from Council?

BF: Two years ago, an event came through town that stakeholders downtown deemed as unsuccessful. How did it get it approved? Why?"

"We had very little in city ordinances or administrative policy to give District 5 police personnel criteria they needed. There weren't criteria for trash cans and restrooms, for example. Our stakeholders, especially downtown and for road races, have a higher expectation for communication."

"There was a wide variance in event organizers. Some knew our process very well. Others knew nothing and tried to have an event without telling us.  We are proposing to manage special events within existing personnel."

How to improve: 

Continue reading "Live blogging today's Durham City Council meeting, Sept. 24" »

Pizzeria Toro team plans diner for Jack Tar, while developer says tower gets underway real soon now

The big-hole-in-the-ground downtown isn't a 21c Museum-Hotel art project or Major the Bull's swimming pool (though the latter would be a sight to see.) It's the future site, we've been told, of Austin Lawrence Partners' city-center tower, on the old Woolworth's site formerly controlled by Greenfire Development.

The developer also bought the old Jack Tar Motel next door from the widow of Ronnie Sturdivant, the early downtown investor killed at his other property on Chapel Hill St. some years back, to provide additional tower parking while maintaining the original hotel use of the building.

This week brings rumblings of what's to come at both sites.

This morning, a press release from the Durham Convention and Visitor's Bureau revealed plans for a diner in the Jack Tar -- with the restaurant taking and preserving that name even as the hotel finds a new moniker.

Meanwhile, the Triangle Business Journal this week tackled public records and Greenfire-cum-ALP staffer Paul Smith to address a question that's been buzzing in some corners of the downtown crowd: does Austin Lawrence have their financing, and can construction begin?

Continue reading "Pizzeria Toro team plans diner for Jack Tar, while developer says tower gets underway real soon now" »

Developers pitch Publix/mixed-use development to skeptical North Durham neighbors

As we speculated here on Saturday, developers are indeed proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center and residential development in North Durham.

Neighbors got their first chance to offer feedback in a meeting tonight at Easley Elementary School. And unsurprisingly, residents in the largely-suburban environs north of the Eno River weren't hesitant to share a range of concerns -- notably traffic, but also including worries over property values, impact to area character, and duplication of commercial activity elsewhere on Guess and Roxboro.

An overflow crowd that appeared to number 250 residents or more strained to hear updates from Florida-based developer Tom Vincent from Halvorsen Development, Morningstar land-use attorney Patrick Byker, and a number of project team members working on traffic counts, site planning and other topics.


A real estate program manager from Florida-based grocer Publix confirmed their intent to open a store on site, while staff from Cimarron Homes confirmed they would plan up to 70 residential units on the site in keeping with mixed-use requirements.

We weren't able to take an exacting account of opinions, thanks to standing-room only ergonomics and a back-of-room vantage point; if we were to take a swag, the crowd was generally as much as three parts opposition for every one part proponent and every one part what we might call "accommodator" -- the latter being residents who saw lemons but posited lemonade, like asking the developer for extra traffic improvements or wondering about possible help to property values.

Byker projected the project won't make it through City Council's legislative process for between six and twelve months, while more detailed design work takes place. Yet neighbors are already girding for an opposition campaign, with literature from one opposition leader encouraging residents to begin contacting Durham Planning Commission staff with their thoughts.

Continue reading "Developers pitch Publix/mixed-use development to skeptical North Durham neighbors" »

On Ninth Street, and Durham's never-ending search free parking

I can't help but have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when I read the fast-multiplying news headlines these past few days about parking in the Ninth Street area.

Mind you, I'm writing these lines while midway through a two-week business trip to China, in the sprawling Shanghai-Suzhou metroplex in China's fast-modernizing eastern provinces.

In the latter -- a New York City-sized metropolis that comparatively few westerners have ever heard of -- the shiny new Metro is practically clean enough to eat off of and, at about three dimes for a one-way ride, crazy affordable. 

Sure, cars flock to megamalls like the city's new Aeon complex on its eastern side, where a Chinese hypermart and an entire floor catering to neonatal and natalist young families sits cheek-by-jowl with a Burger King and the globally-inescapable, freakishly same-tasting Starbucks. But Aeon is also steps from a bustling subway system, with quick connections to buses that run with 10-minute headway.

The edge-city where my work is based also has 15-minute headways on an excellent, easily-parsed, cheap (16 cents/ride) bus system. The terminus of that system is the high-speed rail line, where electric bullet trains depart every few minutes for downtown Shanghai and its domestic airport and to other parts of the country. A few dollars can get you across 30 miles of congested, 25 million-soul metropolitan landscape in less 18 minutes flat.

Meanwhile, in Durham, it will take transportation planners, federal and state officials, and elected representatives twice as long to even get a half-assed aboveground light rail system through the design and planning stages. To say nothing about how long it will take to fund it. Or to build it - if it's funded.

Is it any wonder, then, that in a city as self-congratulatory as we Durhamites and Chapel Hillians can be, that we're still obsessed with keeping parking free and building as much of it as we can stomach?

Continue reading "On Ninth Street, and Durham's never-ending search free parking" »

Wexford, Durham.ID seek incentives for renovations and parking decks in special City Council meeting today

The front page of today's Herald-Sun neatly captures two items that are both newsworthy and, quite unintentionally, at odds with each other.

On the one hand, we have the arrival of Walk [Your City], a campaign with philanthropic backing to encourage downtowners to "park and walk" by reminding us all just how close so many of Durham's urban amenities are.

And then on the other hand, we have this afternoon's special City Council meeting, intended to get City Council approval for City economic and workforce director Kevin Dick to negotiate economic incentives to pay for the renovations, along with new parking decks. 

So how are we getting to Durham's future? Behind the wheel, or on foot (or bike, or transit)?

It's an easy and somewhat false dichotomy; for now, the iron-triangle between commuters, their employers, and property owners likely means new developments still need copious surface and structured parking. 

But, what's the role that local governments should or should not play in subsidizing downtown development, at this point in Durham's expansion?

And, with car interest on the decline and technological change looming, is a future that contemplates so much parking akin to hoarding scythes in the dawn of the mechanized combine age?

Continue reading "Wexford, Durham.ID seek incentives for renovations and parking decks in special City Council meeting today" »