Dependable Erection

Monday, September 13, 2010

Death of a strip mall

Don't get me wrong, i don't have any nostalgia for, or special attachment to strip malls in general, or this one in particular. But whenever developers come before public decision making boards talking about how their new development is going to be bringing much needed jobs to the community, this is inevitably the result. That our decision makers fall for this bullshit every time says as much about us, who keep voting for them, as it does about them.

This particular shopping center is called Hillsborough Commons. This one is before my time, but judging by the architecture, i'd guess it was built in the early-to-mid 80s, during one of Wal-Mart's big expansion phases. I'm sure it was sold to the county as a job creation engine, enough so that Hillsborough eventually annexed it into the town. Wal-Mart built their big new job creation engine about 2 miles away on the other side of I-85 (i'm guessing outside of town limits again) a couple years ago. The center has been slowly losing customers while the old Wal-Mart sat empty. Earlier this year, Orange County social Services became the new occupant of most of the Wal-Mart space.

Last week, employees and patrons of Lowe's food store were surprised to discover the store locked up tight when they showed up to work and shop. Sonny's, one of the relative handful of lunch spots in Hillsborough, packed it in the next day.

I don't know what the net gain/loss of jobs is now between the new and old Wal-Mart centers, and i don't know what the eventual cost to the taxpayer is going to be to either decommission the center, or just keep it from deteriorating until someone figures out how to make that land profitable, or what the environmental costs of having about 10 acres of more or less useless impervious surface in the watershed is, but i know that whatever those numbers are, they weren't used by any decision makers when it came to approving the new Wal-Mart location.

Which is a valuable lesson for Durham, and its empty big box stores on Roxboro (Wal-Mart and K-Mart) and 15-501 (Circuit City and Ashley).



  • It's the spitting image of the Lakewood Shopping Center (though I think that one dates back further), which holds on by a thread (Food Lion).

    Shopping centers are interesting things. They haven't been around all that long, and they've gone through (and continue to go through) rapid evolution with respect to what people view as "good design." As long as there's land available, we'll continue building them and throwing them away when the next iteration shows up to replace them. Problem is, when you throw one of these things away, you're left with a rotten carcass that takes a lot of time and money to dispose of properly.

    By Blogger Jeremy T, at 2:38 PM  

  • Yep. I lived on Long Island through much of the 70s and early 80s. I could take you to literally dozens of abandoned strip malls. Many of which, 25 or more years later, are still just weed-strewn expanses of cracking tarmac, shitty graffiti, and empty bottles of motor oil and cheap wine.

    By Blogger Barry, at 2:44 PM  

  • So, the city has a minimum commercial code now, which is a loose version of the minimum housing code. When a property (let's say an abandoned HoJo on the edge of the city) doesn't meet this code, the city will inspect it and determine whether or not it meets the code. If it doesn't meet standards, the city can tear it down.

    Is it possible for the city to sue the property owner to recover the funds spent by the city to investigate violations, demolish buildings, and revert the property a nice grassy lot? I know that when it comes to shitty landlords, the city can only put a 7-year lien on the property, which simply forces it to sit vacant for that time while the landlord crosses his fingers and hopes for a huge appreciation in land costs.

    In my hypothetical example, who would pay the cost to tear down the HoJo?

    By Blogger Rob, at 3:08 PM  

  • In my hypothetical example, who would pay the cost to tear down the HoJo?

    Not so hypothetical, is it?

    Based on personal experience (please don't ask), when the city tears down a building, they put a lien on it which is recoverable when it's sold.

    To my knowledge, Durham has a rather substantial sum of money hanging out there in uncollected liens.

    By Blogger Barry, at 3:33 PM  

  • I was under the impression that these liens could only be enforced for 7 years. That is why the city tried (did they accomplish it--I don't remember) to change the law to allow property owners to donate their land to an affordable housing provider in an effort to avoid the lien. The city figured that they weren't going to get the money in either case, so they sought the change.

    Of course, I could be mistaken on this.

    By Blogger Rob, at 5:08 PM  

  • I've been meaning to do a similar photo project featuring Lakewood Shopping Center, Wellons Village, Carmike Plaza, and Forest Hills, complete with crime hot spot maps. (Spoiler: they all show up hot.) That's where Homestead Market and Woodcroft Shopping Center are headed if the 751 project gets built.

    By Blogger Michael Bacon, at 12:06 AM  

  • It's my understanding that while the city can levy fines for non-compliance, if those fines are paid they go to Durham County Schools. All fine money (or a goodly percentage of it) in NC has to go to the school board.

    Which becomes problematic when you calculate the amount of staff time and tax dollars spent to make a few big time assholes and many small time slumlords actually... you know...obey the law.

    Although, if we do face a funding gap, perhaps DPS could hire some warrant officers and go to town on our slumlords.

    By Blogger Natalie and Harris, at 8:35 AM  

  • Hmm.. our school board is short on cash right now. Perhaps they could just hire some moonlighting zoning or inspections officers to help replace mentors in that successful-yet-axed new teacher program.

    By Blogger Rob, at 9:13 AM  

  • The way i hear it, it's not the issuing of the fines that's the problem, it's the collection. Although, looking at some of the houses along Avondale Drive and the Green Street corridor in my neighborhood, i have to wonder how many notices of violation actually get written. There's certainly no indication that, if they're written, they're ever acted upon.

    By Blogger Barry, at 9:20 AM  

  • You can look them up in the land development system. While you cannot see the results of the case (you have to email NIS for those) you can see where the citations have been written.

    By Blogger Natalie and Harris, at 11:30 AM  

  • I'll have to check that out.

    Over the past 4 years i've toured the neighborhood twice with an NIS inspector and participated in a ComNET survey with, at best, modest results.

    For example, there's still a 3 house stretch in the 1700 block of Avondale whose front yards are entirely devoted to parking. There may not be cars there all the time, but a row of gravel/hard pan front yards at one of Durham's gateways sure is a welcoming sight for visitors.

    By Blogger Barry, at 11:45 AM  

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