Downtown’s evolution

Jun. 06, 2014 @ 04:48 PM

Ten years ago, downtown Durham was vastly different. On Main Street, once you crossed over Duke Street heading east, businesses became sparse, and, after 5 p.m., people did, as well.

Contrast that with today’s downtown, where businesses are plentiful, and you find people living and playing.
American Tobacco’s rebirth, the Durham Performing Arts Center coming online and housing becoming available helped spur some of the changes in downtown’s composition and vibe.
Downtown Durham is again on the cusp of a change that will alter it significantly.
Longfellow Real Estate, Duke University and Measurement Inc. founder Hank Scherich have partnered on a vision to create an Innovation District that would put life sciences and technology companies in proximity with university research labs and offices. It is an idea that taps into Durham’s rich intellectual resources.
It also is an idea that has a large footprint, potentially covering 10 acres.
There is much to like about the proposed project, which is in the planning and feasibility stage. It involves an area bound by Fernway Avenue, Morris Street and Liggett Street. That area is somewhat of a no-man’s land now, hidden behind the old Department of Social Services building at 300 N. Duke St. and West Village as people travel down Duke Street. It’s an ideal location to bring new development.
The composition of the project would bring a different type of business to downtown, which now is home to law firms, government agencies, restaurants and nonprofits. The Innovation District would add workers with scientific backgrounds to the mix, further diversifying the types of businesses and people populating downtown.
The plan envisions, in addition to the biotech and technology companies, a residential component and street-level shops and restaurants. Parking – a huge challenge and potential hurdle to downtown’s continuing momentum – will be addressed with construction of parking decks on existing lots.
Scherich notes that this is a long-term project, and Durhamites should not expect to see lab space sprouting up immediately. In fact, the build-out may take as long as 10 years. 
In those 10 years, we expect there will be many conversations about what the scope and nature of this project will mean. The success of downtown will bring with it issues that need to be addressed, including gridlock, parking and service demands. But we also need to have conversations about the import of this project to Durham’s economic health and continued upward arc as a desirable place to live and work. Downtown has been reborn. Now it’s time to begin to shape it for continued success and work to ensure that success doesn’t create liabilities.