The 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street in downtown are currently dominated by government buildings, churches and parking lots.
But two parking lots there could become the next apartments or grocery store where downtown residents could pick up essentials like a gallon of milk.
The Durham County commissioners are looking for a private developer to help them develop the parking lots located at 500 E. Main St. and 318 Liberty St.
The lots have been targeted for redevelopment for the past few years. Now the county has brought on the Development Finance Initiative (DFI), a subsidiary of the UNC School of Government, to help find potential private partners. On Tuesday the commissioners began their first public discussions with DFI on the project.
The timeline is expected to move quickly with DFI looking to make recommendations a little more than six months from now, according to its presentation. Potential ideas raised Tuesday focused on how to combine new parking decks on the two sites with affordable housing and retail options, such as a grocery.
“I think the possibilities are really exciting in terms of the county playing a really positive role in activating the streetscape along East Main Street,” Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said, noting the need for affordable housing in downtown, especially as rents there have risen quickly in recent years.
The county isn’t the only one looking at turning downtown property into other uses.
The redevelopment of the East Main Street parking lots comes as the City of Durham begins public conversations about what will become of the current police headquarters at 505 W. Chapel Hill St. once it moves to its new headquarters on East Main Street.
The commissioners told DFI to keep in mind the city’s potential plans for the police headquarters while making recommendations for East Main Street.
“I am thinking about how can we can maintain a thriving diverse ecosystem, to keep downtown vibrant and make sure that everyone is benefiting,” Jacobs said.
“You hear all the conversations related to affordable housing and making sure we have workforce housing downtown for government workers (and) for millennials who work at all these new companies,” she added. “We are starting to hear about a lack of affordable office space for nonprofits, for new companies, a lack of artists studios and a lack of affordable retail.”
DFI representatives told the commissioners they would study how new affordable housing could also interact with nearby public housing options in the 600 block of East Main Street as well as eventually at Fayette Place off Fayetteville Street.
Tuesday’s discussions also touched on incorporating workforce housing near a stop on the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. The 500 East Main Street parking lot will be located close to a potential light rail stop on Dillard Street.
Jacobs also noted that the proximity to the light rail line could also make the project eligible for federal transit funding. She said the county has already begun conversations about how to tap into that potential funding.
“We thought it was important to keep top of mind the potential for transportation options given the conversation about affordability and how that would impact any folks who would be using public transportation in this area,” David Summers of DFI told the commissioners.
DFI will be spend the next several months meeting with community groups and leaders. Once it develops a site plan for the lots it will present its recommendations to the commissioners.