Cary developer Chatham Street Commercial purchased a strip shopping center last month for almost $2.4 million with plans to renovate it to fit the new look of modern downtown Cary while adding a touch of Brooklyn.
One of the new tenants in the renovated space will be a spin-off from an iconic New York City pizzeria — Di Fara Pizza, which has been open in Brooklyn since 1965. The New Yorker, The New York Times, Zagat’s and the late chef Anthony Bourdain have all called Di Fara the best pizza in New York.
This will be the restaurant’s first East Coast location outside of New York City, confirmed Greg Norton, nephew of Di Fara founder Dom DeMarco. Norton and his wife moved to Cary four years ago.
“We ended up loving the area, downtown Cary,” Norton said. “We knew we wanted to open up a restaurant. My cousin Michael Angelo, the first son of Dom DeMarco, him and I decided to open up a restaurant.”
The new Di Fara Pizza, slated for early 2020, will be both a tavern and a pizzeria and will be a separate brand from the original restaurant, though serving pizza in the same family style.
The 9,500-square-foot Chatham Plaza at 111 E. Chatham St. was built in 1968 and is one of the last remainders of older downtown Cary. Chatham Street Commercial bought the property through a partnership with MacKenan Property Group. The new project will be called The Center.
The developer says new storefronts will be built with refurbished awnings and sidewalks will be redone to improve the walkability of the site. Jordan Gussenhoven, CEO of Chatham Street Commercial, said the goal is to give The Center a “storefront presence” where pedestrians will have walk-up access to restaurants, including Di Fara.
Renovation work will begin as early as November and continue for approximately five months, according to the developer.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Gussenhoven said. “The urban revitalization movement is well-enforced, and we’re frankly playing a little bit of catch-up here in downtown Cary.”
Gussenhoven told The News & Observer in 2015 that his company was “drinking the Kool-Aid” on downtown Cary development.
His company renovated the mixed-use Mid-Town Square property along with an adjacent shopping center on East Chatham Street across from their office and is currently building Chatham Walk, a collection of 33 condo units in downtown.
“We just want all our projects to help contribute to the sort of revitalization that’s going on down here, from an aesthetic standpoint,” Gussenhoven said.
Plans for the renovation include spaces for two new restaurants, and construction has begun on space where Di Fara will open next year.
Chatham Street Commercial’s plans will have a gentrifying effect on the eight businesses already in the shopping center. There will be rent increases, and three businesses are expected to close on the center’s corner to make room for a restaurant that will have outdoor patio seating near the street. Gussenhoven could not disclose the future tenant.
One of the current businesses is La Nueva Mexicana, a Mexican convenience store that has been in business for over 20 years.
“It is what it is,” said Juan Mendoza, 21, a Raleigh native who helps run the store, which is owned by his mother, a Mexican immigrant. “I basically grew up here. It kind of sucks because we’ve been here for, like, 10, 20 years.”
Mendoza said La Nueva Mexicana has customers who have remained loyal since the previous owners were there and before his mother took over. He said it is the main store for Mexican goods on that side of Cary, where people buy groceries, snacks and piñatas, and send money earned here back home to Mexico. They will stay open until their lease ends early next year, leaving them only with their second location in Apex.
Owner Virginia Jiménez, 50, says it’s unlikely they will be able to open a downtown location again, because changes to the area — with businesses like breweries and restaurants — have meant higher property costs.
“I don’t think it’s an area anymore for a Mexican store,” Jiménez said in Spanish. “It’s a little sad, because we’ve been here for so many years. I didn’t expect to be it this way.”
For his part, Gussenhoven said Chatham Street Commercial works to be responsible when it purchases properties with tenants by being cordial with them. Their preference is not to relocate them.
“It’s a tough decision,” he said.
He said his business has only come across places in Cary in “dire need” of change.
“For the most part, I think everybody we talked to is excited to see some new life breathed into the center,” he said.
The rest of the businesses — a Boost Mobile, a pawn shop and the Taipei 101 restaurant — will have their rents increased.
Trifonia Suryana, 51, a Bolivian immigrant, has owned a beauty salon at Chatham Plaza for 18 years and said she will renew her lease, despite the $600 rent increase, because she has been there so long. However, she’ll have to look for a new location if rents increase too much, she said.
“Since downtown Cary is changing, I’ll have to look for a new place,” Suryana said. “Investors are investors.”