Pivot point on downtown growth?

Jun. 01, 2013 @ 02:25 PM

Have you been to the Ninth Street area lately?

Buildings going up and renovations underway or complete are changing the look and feel of the neighborhood significantly.  Soon, the area will house more people and a wider variety of stores and services. 

In downtown, some long-dormant projects are underway or appear likely to finally get off the ground.

On the western edge of downtown, a new apartment project will soon rise from the site of the long-deteriorated and now demolished former Holiday Inn.  The Diamond View III office building next to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park has taken shape. The lengthy construction of Durham County’s Human Services complex is nearing completion.

The new Durham County Courthouse is open for business and making its mark on a skyline beginning to have a stronger profile.

That skyline will get another exclamation point when Austin Lawrence Partners builds its 26-story mixed use project on the site of the old Woolworth store at North Corcoran and West Main streets. At nearly 300 feet, it will be almost half again as tall as the iconic SunTrust building across Corcoran.

And Liberty Warehouse, its life as a historic landmark officially over, will essentially disappear to make way for a new project, albeit one that retains some of the most visually arresting exterior marks of the last remaining tobacco auction house in town.

All this suggests Durham’s downtown and nearby areas are at a pivot point.

For more than a decade, rehabilitations of historic warehouses have been major projects shaping downtown’s emerging new vitality. A host of smaller renovations have helped breath new life into a streetscape long moribund.

New construction, certainly, has figured heavily – first the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the first two Diamond View buildings and the enormously important Durham Performing Arts Center, a year-round magnet to downtown.

Increasingly, activity will be dominated by such new building.

So far, most of the new has only reinforced the visual landscape and scale of our historic architecture.  And new buildings, with a richer array of residential options, retail offerings and offices are what we’ve sought, and laid the groundwork for, with the private-public energy that has brought us to this point.

We’ll have to be vigilant, though, to keep the character that has made our downtown – and areas like Ninth Street – so widely admired and such a draw for residents and visitors alike.

Some of that tension has surfaced in varying views of the Austin Lawrence project, but it passed muster by a convincing 6-1 vote with the Historic Preservation Commission. That commission’s sometimes Byzantine- approval process – and the minute scrutiny that can come from a combination of that process and the passion of the commission’s members – has raised eyebrows and ire in some quarters.

It’s highly likely that the constraints of downtown’s status as a Local Historic District, and a premier one, at that, will cause more friction with new-development interests. But in Durham, we’re accustomed to robust dissection of proposals, and familiar with forging an outcome that encourages innovation and progress while preserving our uniqueness.

We’ve made some colossal mistakes, not least the loss of our Victorian train station – along with historic neighborhoods – to urban renewal in the 1960s.

Balancing many competing and worthy interests as downtown takes off to the next level of growth won’t be easy.

But if we do it right, it certainly will be worth it.

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