Dependable Erection

Friday, August 01, 2008


Gary's post on the threatened demolition of three buildings in the 100 block of W. Main St. has really got me thinking about the sorry state of our downtown.

It's about 4 years ago Sam and Dave first tried making a go of turning the Mr. Shoe space into a performance room a la the current BCHQ. That lasted long enough for me to get this shot of Dom Casual on a late September evening in 2004, but not much longer than that.

Since then, there was the Anchor of Hope project in 2005, and not much else done with those buildings.

Aren't these exactly the kind of storefronts that you want filled with ethnic eateries, small galleries, or boutiques, to make a lively and walkable community? What are we going to get in their stead? And how long are we going to wait for it?

I went into town last night to see some friends perform at the CCB Plaza, but the show was inexplicably canceled. I guess the rain earlier in the day was enough to scare Parks & Rec off the site, but there wasn't a single notice anywhere in the plaza about what was going on. So Mrs. D and i met for dinner at Toast which was, as usual, lovely. I think we knew someone at almost every table. During one conversation with a friend of a friend, i was asked, "Don't you love living in Durham?" That's usually a no-brainer. Of course i do. But i found myself inhaling deeply and thinking before answering. "Well, yes, but . . ."

Two nights ago i was in Raleigh, in the Glenwood South district, and there's a lot there to like. There's some new construction going on, but most of it seemed to be well scaled. There are street level businesses and, as i mentioned, a coffee shop operating out of an old bungalow. Everything was walkable. And there were people around. Lots of people.

Sitting in front of Toast last night, i could see the row of empty storefronts across 5 Points where Safari and Peacefire used to be. It's been a year since the city finished up its streetscape project, and Safari is still empty. How could that be? Walking back to my car along Chapel Hill St., at 6:45 pm, we were the only ones on the street. There's hundred yard long stretches of empty brick walls, roll up garage doors, and veneer surrounding the ground floor of a parking deck. And a linotype machine marking the spot where a thriving local newspaper once operated. Four years ago, it seemed as though street-level (in every sense of the word) entrepreneurs were giving downtown Durham a go, and the future was bright. Have they all been sucked up into the Greenfire maw? Is American Tobacco, with it's inward facing courtyard and mediocre restaurants, really the best we can do with our downtown?

"Don't you love living in Durham?"

"Well, yes, but . . ."

The bloom, shall we say, is off the rose. This town could be great, can be great. I'm no longer certain, though, that it will be great.



  • I remember that show at Mr Shoe, by the was hot as ballz...but it was a cool space. I hated to see it shut.

    I've been working in Burlington for the last 4 years and I remember asking Jamie McLendon (former Graham resident and Burlington worker) what the hell happened wit their downtown?

    what he told me is what puts me in the mind of this greenfire situation. He siad that their downtown renaissance was literally on the horizon and people were buying homes downtown and just excited about it being the next big thing.

    Then Labcorp happened. Seems they have managed to buy virtually all of Downtown burlington, and have managed to either leave everything empty and desolate, or use spaces as offices for themselves, or set the prices so high that no one would want to take the risk.

    the downtown, thus, now has plummetting property values, higher crime rates, and makes these new cookie cutter developments and gated communities so much more desired by locals and made the town just as bland as the next.

    dont know how much it really connects...but its an interesting thing to observe from the other side.

    By Blogger Vera, at 1:57 PM  

  • Looking for houses in Palo Alto? Their downtown is bustling.

    By Blogger toastie, at 5:44 PM  

  • Warning: rambling thoughts follow --

    As I wander the world and, in more detail, the US, I can't help but compare what I see elsewhere to what we've got back in Durham.

    Not to be accused of cherrypicking, but I see a lot of great things elsewhere that I wish we had in Durham. Of course, everything happens in context, and I can't just pluck, say, the Salt Lake City Public Library, San Francisco's walkable streets, Amsterdam's bike lanes, and Honduras' lovely Rio Cangrejal and plunk them down in Durham.

    Then again, I don't want to import Salt Lake City's incredible lack of ethnic diversity, or Honduras' crime rate, Amsterdam's weather, or San Francisco's real estate prices to Durham.

    More than anything else, I guess it's attitude that makes a town. I'm not very skilled at sizing up people's attitudes, nor their attitudes as a mix or aggregate.

    I like being in places where people feel that tomorrow is likely better than today. Almost everywhere I've lived has had that attitude.

    What I've been increasingly troubled by in Durham is seeing groups of people (whether families, nonprofits, companies, towns, or countries) whose attitudes look like, "oh, this is good enough" or "I don't think we can do any better, so why try."

    Now and then in Durham I run into a "good as enemy of the great" problem. Also often, I run into a "complacent or non-recognized mediocrity is the enemy of everything".

    Most important things need a critical mass of enthusiasm -- whether many people with a little bit each, or a few people with a lot.

    One thing about Durham is that we have a mixed kind of pride about our "warts and all" personality. We celebrate the good part of our diversity, which is great. What disturbs me is that we sometimes seem to "celebrate" the bad parts of our diversity, including our "amusing" School Board meetings, our prominent derelict landlords, and our "superiority" to other nearby towns that don't have to manage the same problems.

    If we lived with a leaking nuclear waste dump, would we make that a point of pride, saying "we're tougher than other towns that don't have to wear lead underpants!"? I don't think so.

    And yet, subtly, I think that many people in Durham do just that when they confront the problems we do have. Instead of taking the one extreme end of being full-time outraged, they take another "pragmatic" extreme of saying, "this is Durham, we can live with it."

    I know that the writer of this blog doesn't think this way, and I suspect that many of this blog's readers don't, either.

    And yet... I sometimes perceive a community fatigue. A unrecognized but still real sense that "we don't deserve better, so we'll take whatever half-good comes along."

    That makes me very sad.

    As I wander around the planet, I wonder whether I'll end up back in Durham, and how well I'll be able to dedicate myself to things I believe are important, if I wonder whether "it's worth it" or whether I'd be happier somewhere else where it's easier to feel like efforts are better leveraged and eventually rewarded.

    But then again, that's the sound of someone living on the basis of probabilities and statistics instead of principle, isn't it? Pardon my ramble and pessimism. When it comes to deciding to pick a place to live and a way to live, I would do well to re-read my own blog quoting Viktor Frankl on What Life Expects of Us.

    By Blogger Marsosudiro, at 9:54 PM  

  • kinda off-topic, but how was that Safari place? Even since the Ethiopian place in Lakewood closed I've been unsatisfied with the local options (Palace is OK but nothing special, and I heard Chapel Hill's Ethiopian joint just closed).

    By Blogger dcrollins, at 12:19 PM  

  • Amen. I've had similarly pessimistic thoughts for a while now. Like Barry, I would rather see a small pizza joint open up than another high-end restaurant, but it ain't happening. Why? Will something like Parrish Street Grill ever open up downtown again? I honestly can't imagine it, and that's so depressing.

    There is no shortage of visionary, talented people in this town who no doubt would love to open businesses. Drive up Roxboro Street between I-85 and Lowe's and check out the incredibly explosive growth of small businesses from the Spanish-speaking communities. That area is now thriving (or at least *active*) almost from end to end, where there used to be huge dead spots where there were no businesses at all.

    Why there? Perhaps a large customer base lives in the vicinity, sure, but also, the rents are probably affordable. It's not rocket science.

    In the case of the Safari (which I thought was great), the City of Durham owns that parcel. What are they waiting for? For the other parts of Five Points to build up so they can sell it for a profit? Why not sell it now, or at least rent it out so some entrepreneur who will DO SOMETHING with it? This seems like a no-brainer to jump start that area, sheesh.

    It's an oft-repeated thing, but downtown is not following the typical progression--seems like owners and developers want to go from abandoned to Big Money, and that just ain't how it's done. Efforts like the Mr. Shoe, Parrish Street Grill, the West Main Street Deli--little guys--need to be able to have a crack at the area. Ain't gonna happen as long as people that own the parcels hold out for the Big Payday. Whatever.

    It's sad, frustrating, disappointing. Maybe this year's downtown party should be called "Durham Deflating."

    By Blogger hovercraft, at 1:37 PM  

  • To be fair to the city, the inability to get tenants into vacant spaces in the 5 Points area is equal opportunity. The Edge/Blaylock space has been vacant as long as Safari, if not longer.

    The utter lack of vision, though that's a leadership thing.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:10 PM  

  • The Edge/Blaylock is a huge frickin' space, though--not really suitable for a small storefront business like the 3 buildings that Greenfire wants to raze are, or even the Safari space.

    Is the city trying to rent out the Safari space? If it is, there sure aren't any signs in the window advertising that.

    I'm trying to think--have any new businesses opened downtown in the year since "Durham Rising"? I can think of at least two (RxR CDs, Ringside) that have closed...

    By Blogger hovercraft, at 4:27 PM  

  • Toast.

    and 5 Points Cafe.

    Although that doesn't really count.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:46 PM  

  • And Blaylock's would make a perfect venue for a brewpub, if you ask me.

    Unfortunately, the owners want to lease it, not sell it. And the numbers don't seem like they're going to work as a rental for a space like that.

    By Blogger Barry, at 4:48 PM  

  • I've been kicking around ideas for my quixotic state senate campaign, and I think I have one even Barry can support: permanent exemption from property taxes for contributing historic structures. Kinda like a california-style homestead exemption, it would be means-tested so as not to benefit the slumlords of the world.

    The basic idea is to prevent the bad side of gentrification by allowing little old ladies to keep their homes given rising rents and property taxes. NIS could not demolish a property as long as it is owner-occupied. (I'd also propose a one-year moratorium on demolitions in historic districts.)

    By Blogger dcrollins, at 6:33 PM  

  • given the discussion, I thought I'd look into what Durham does for people who want to start a small business. I ended up here
    and it is the perfect illustration of why some of us Durhamites feel so frustrated with this city we love. go to the page and start scrolling and you will see what I mean. Please,somebody help them fix it before someone has a seizure.

    By Blogger Kendra, at 9:33 PM  

  • I've got a longer rejoinder to this over at BCR, but a few contrary thoughts:

    1) If rents are the problem, why are retailers successfully paying the same rents or higher at Brightleaf and American Tobacco as are being asked in the city center?

    2) While a downtown pizzeria would be great, why did at least two fail in the 90s when rents were probably half of what they're asking now? Is it a problem with the rents -- or not enough traffic?

    3) What can make downtown so attractive to high-end restaurants if a pizzeria fails? And how can we get better, more eclectic storefront retail as a result?

    To the question Kendra raised: I for one am really glad that employers, even small businesses, need licenses and permits, need to provide unemployment insurance, etc.

    That's just the cost of doing business. Sometimes we're quick to blame rent levels when perhaps the question is having a solid business plan and knowing how to do little things like meet code requirements.

    Readers of this blog (and mine) are rightfully outraged when a warehouse opens in a CN district, or when businesses go under without paying their employees, etc. I don't mind government making sure businesses take care of the basics, which is what these regulations you cite seem to do.

    By Blogger Kevin, at 8:38 AM  

  • I am very curious as to what the city is doing in the business of slum lording. They own that whole slot.

    You know why Safari Cusine left? they wanted a longer lease (the city said no) then the Fire Marshal showed up within a few weeks of that and said they needed 10k+ of sprinklers installed. They asked the city again for a longer lease so that they could recoup the $$ they would have to spend on fire safety. The city said no and would not pay to upfit the property themselves. They left and focus on their successful restaurant in Raleigh. They had an amazing goat curry.

    Peacefire? - They left for New York after the city PARKED their heavy machinery in front of their shop for 2 months right after the street scape project began. They went to the city and asked for lower rent or at least to have the machinery moved to be in front of one of the vacant buildings. The city said no. They had a thriving business but would not stay because of the way the city treated them- after of course being lured away from their original location on Broad St.

    I agree with Phil. I don't think people in Durham hold each other or their city government to a high enough standard. I am not someone who expects the city government to make things happen in areas that are struggling, however, when an area is taking off, I do expect them to not stand in the way of people making it happen.

    By Blogger Natalie&Harris, at 10:52 AM  

  • Kendra, I don't see your point. Getting a business license, operating in a place that's zoned for your business, and complying with labor and tax laws is pretty standard practice anywhere. Most of the regulations listed are state and federal, not city. The website is from the Chamber of Commerce, which is a non-profit, not a branch of government. The links at the bottom of the page include a lot of resources, like the CED and the small business center, that are not available in a lot of places, and that are free or reasonable.

    As far as the fire marshall goes, the floor above mine has a massive fire a year ago, so I count my blessings that my studio barely escaped fire and/or water damage. I'm quite OK with the fire marshall enforcing the codes.

    I started a business downtown (not storefront retail) 4 years ago; I didn't expect the city to "do anything to help" me. I have a number of beefs about Durham and about downtown, but it's been an OK place to run a business.

    By OpenID mrsdependable, at 7:35 PM  

  • Mrs D,Sorry I wasn't more clear. I don't I don't have a problem with the rules and regulations for a small business in Durham - though I would like Durham to be more friendly to small business by not throwing away the small business loan program to fraud, not blocking traffic with excruciatingly long construction projects, and not putting onerous rules on independent businesses - no, I don't have a problem with the contents of the Chamber's site, just the design of the site. While it may seem that I am being nit-picky, this (the Chamber's site as a whole, which shares the problem) is one of the public faces of Durham, and it is a huge visual turn off. The sides of the page flash as you move down the page, if you just open the page and don't scroll down you won't observe the problem. To me this says our chamber of commerce didn't care enough or didn't know enough to get a professional job done.
    I brought it up because it is an example of how Durham has this problem of getting in its own way. I think that's what we've been discussing here. I think the lengthy downtown construction that caused businesses to close is a prime example and I think that is "standing in the way of business" and is exactly the opposite of what the city should be doing.
    Just think about the energy gathering about downtown. Now think about the current financial situation - how many new businesses will be starting in the next year? Now let's go back to those businesses that closed due to lengthy construction, if they had stayed they would be becoming established parts of the community, drawing people into downtown and making an easier environment for others to break into.

    By Blogger Kendra, at 1:21 AM  

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