Celebrating downtown

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

It was a time for cheerleading Wednesday at Downtown Durham Inc.’s annual meeting.

And with good reason.

As speaker after speaker noted, from many different perspectives, downtown’s renaissance has surged past the tipping point and is continuing to move forward at a rapid pace.

 But there also was a note of caution, one that it’s important to keep in mind as our downtown continues to be an ever-more-sought-after destination for living, working and playing.

Tucker Bartlett, DDI’s outgoing board chairman, summed it up well.

“We are moving from a downtown of desperation to a downtown of choice,” Bartlett said as he reflected on his tenure and prepared to turn the leadership of the group to incoming board chair Joni Madison.

But with that transition -- and with projects such as Austin Lawrence Partners’ “upscale urban residential” tower proposed for the old Woolworth site – retaining both affordable housing and an environment characterized by locally owned and Durham-centric business will be a challenge.

That mild warning aside -- and acknowledging it is an important step to avoiding the pitfalls -- the meeting’s tone was one of unbridled enthusiasm. “The sky’s the limit,” DDI’s slogan for the meeting proclaimed, and that optimism was very much evident.

Matthew Coppedge, DDI’s chief operating officer, noted that 86 street-level businesses have opened downtown since 2010, addressing what remains a concern. Too many storefronts still are empty, but the number is down sharply. Downtown’s 1,000 residential units are on track to double by 2014, with projects underway or in the planning stages.

And in a moment that underscored Durham’s emerging “creative class” role, Coppedge shared a quote -- that DDI first tweeted in September -- from the book “New Geography of Jobs.” Describing what he labels “three Americas,” author Enrico Moretti writes:

“At one extreme are the brain hubs -- cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Durham --with workers who are among the most productive, creative, and best paid on the planet." That is, to say the least, pretty good company.

Downtown is far from the only reason we might be considered a brain hub. A major private research university, a world-class medical center, the oldest state-supported historically black university and the Research Triangle Park have played a major role in achieving that distinction.

But downtown’s energetic vibe, its unique, adaptively reused architecture dominated by former tobacco and textile warehouses and factories, and its tolerance and diversity are all important ingredients of our magnetism for bright, innovative workers and investors.

It’s hardly news anymore that downtown is a resounding success story. 

Two decades ago, it would have been hard to find anyone who would predict what downtown has become today, much less what it’s almost certain to be another decade from now. That surprising transition didn’t happen without the vision, persistence and investment of many people gathered at Wednesday’s DDI event.

They deserved to be celebratory.