Ashley: Downtown becoming a neighborhood

May. 04, 2013 @ 10:53 AM

For all of downtown Durham’s exploding renaissance in the past decade or so, there’s been one area lagging a bit more than downtown’s many fans and boosters would like.

Keeping the area vibrant seven days a week, on evenings and at night when restaurants are winding down or there are no special events, depends on having a critical mass of people living there.

You want to see folks out strolling, walking their dogs, walking to work or home from their favorite bar, club or dining spot.

The pace, as Downtown Durham Inc. and others have been pointing out, is picking up.

And what a wonderful affirmation of that those who took Preservation Durham’s Old Durham Home Tour last weekend saw first-hand. (In full disclosure, I’ll note that I serve on the board of Preservation Durham.)

It wasn’t just the 11 homes on the tour that reinforced the realization that more and more people are living downtown. It was the chance to see the many clusters of occupied residential units springing up.

One visitor, glancing down the hall while standing in the doorway to the 204 Rigsbee Ave. condominium on the tour, was pleasantly surprised to notice the half-dozen doorways indicating other units on the same floor.

(The building, for aging Beatles fans, has an especially evocative name – the Eleanor on Rigsbee).

The homes on the tour showcased the variety of downtown living options, ranging from compact spaces with only a few hundred square feet to a two-story, penthouse condo with two living rooms, two bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms.

Some homes featured that increasingly popular amenity in downtown’s multi-story buildings – rooftop decks or patios. The view from the Snow Building’s penthouse unit is among the best in Durham, with sweeping views of downtown.

The Snow Building itself is one of downtown’s treasures. As Preservation Durham’s tour book notes, “it is recognized as one of the best examples of art deco architecture in the state.”

Another set of great views is a couple blocks east on Main Street, the Kress Building – another wonderfully saved building where Durham residents and visitors shopped for clothes and housewares in the pre-shopping-center heyday of downtown retailing.

The conversion of the upper floors of the Kress to luxury condominiums helps assure the preservation for many years to come of a building that reflects not only the retail but also the social history of Durham. Its whites-only lunch counter was the target of frequent protests in the 1960s, and Kress eventually closed the counter rather than serve African Americans.

With the nearby Woolworth’s – another site of historic protests against Jim Crow laws – long gone, Kress preserves our ability to see tangible reminders of both the shameful period of segregation and the courageous movement to end it.

There are many great narratives surrounding the homes on display last weekend – the young couple that has restored the three-story building at 106 W. Parrish St., for example. They have transformed the third floor into a delightful home, and will have offices on the second floor and a coffee shop and bar on the ground floor.

Downtown Durham Inc. counts about 1,500 people living downtown today. It probably will need to be double that to begin to reach a critical mass.

Projects in the works will go a long way to get there, and bring more new-construction options for those who want to live downtown but can’t find or aren’t drawn to an historic conversion.

Downtown is well on its way to being truly a neighborhood, its ghost-town feel of the 1980s becoming a thankfully fading memory.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at