Four developers and a Duke University official gave a bullish forecast for Durham’s future last week for an audience of students and others interested in the real estate business.
“We are in the beginning stages of the biggest transformation probably since tobacco came to Durham,” said Scott Selig, Duke’s head of real estate. “What’s happened in Durham is literally the tip of the iceberg. We are past the tipping point. You can all feel it.”
Selig was part of a panel speaking on “Innovative Development in Durham,” sponsored by the Duke Real Estate Club, an undergraduate organization meant to connect members with local developers and foster town-campus connections, club member Jack Parker said.
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“There’s a lot of interesting redevelopment projects,” Parker said. “Especially housing some (research and development) stuff that’s pretty exciting.”
Selig was representing the university’s 1 million or so square feet of owned and leased building space downtown, and most of the talk and the projects presented and the bullish forecasting pertained to a city center they see building up, spreading out and getting more expensive – with “affordability” both for residents and business owners a pressing concern.
‘Craving more and better’
Besides Selig, there were:
• Josh Parker of Wexford Science & Technology, which is renovating the Chesterfield Building (bit.ly/1xqtt8w
), former Liggett and Myers cigarette factory;
• Greg Hills of Austin Lawrence Partners, building the 26-story City Center building (bit.ly/ZhRvVa
), remodeling the Jack Tar Motel and thinking about projects for the South Bank property at Five Points;
• Scott Harmon of ReVamp Durham and Center Studio Architecture, who has the Church + Main condominiums (bit.ly/1rt0gGo
) under construction and a “micro-flat” apartment project on the drawing boards;
• Rick Bagel of Wetrock Resources, who wants to build a residential subdivision with an organic farm in northern Durham County (bit.ly/1rAOgTD
Each of the four described his own projects and, with Selig and Duke economist Charles Becker, who moderated, offered opinions and answered questions. All saw current trends continuing, with a technology-based economy drawing a growing and affluent population.
“There’s a limited supply of class A office space, we feel the Triangle lacks a supply of upscale urban apartments and condos and ... people are craving more and better retail,” Hills said.
An expensive downtown could be a positive thing for the rest of Durham, too.
“Downtown is transforming, it’s going to continue transforming, it’s going to be much higher-income,” Becker said. “There’s going to be a lot more gentrification, that’s inevitable.
“However, on the plus side, there’s a lot of tax revenues being generated that can be used by the city and county to enhance some communities on the immediate outskirts,” he said. “I personally believe that ultimately downtown will extend to (N.C. Central University) and beyond.”
Harmon mentioned the Motorco-Geer Street area “no one would go to ... 10 years ago” that has become “an incredibly thriving area.
“Now it’s going to get priced out, which means some things in East Durham and south Durham that are desperately in need of economic activity are going to start having some opportunity. That organism(-like) development of the city is actually natural.”
Entrepreneurs figured into the future visions. Parker described the Chesterfield with open-plan office space and laboratories where scientists and engineers “interact and solve problems that they wouldn’t necessarily know existed,” and Hills speculated on a “food lab” at Five Points, where “creative entrepreneurial chefs” could test their ideas in a food-court sort of setting.
Capitalizing on the market for locally grown food is part of Bagel’s Wetrock Farm project, where a professionally managed organic farm would supply produce for the homeowners and sell to in-town residents and restaurants.
“The project is out in the county but it ties into what’s going on downtown,” Bagel said. “This is a development that will literally feed into the city.”
Harmon, whose latest project is small apartments with rents within reach of “the people who are making the coffee at the Beyu Cafe,” was the panelist who brought up affordability.
“Do we want to intend that there is a diversity of affordability in our downtown or not? And, if so, how are we going to do it?” Harmon said. “It’s an important conversation we need to make sure we’re having before it’s too late.”
Hills said in his hometown, Aspen, Colo., “They determined it was in everybody’s best interest that developers needed to provide affordable housing as part of their entitlement process. ...
“It’s a political, philosophical change,” he said. “For developers it’s not going to be popular because it makes projects more expensive.”
He also had advice for downtown business owners experiencing sticker shock as their rents go up with rising downtown vitality.
“They’re going to have to be able to re-invent themselves in a manner they can afford a space that they’d like,” he said, and Harmon added:
“The hard part is to get businesses that are used to the current economic environment to transition to a much heated economic environment where the customer-service demand and the requirements of the market are much tighter and greater,” he said.
“I’m just hoping that Durham’s fundamental funkiness is going to survive the incredibly powerful economic forces that are coming to bear on it.”