Apartment building boom latest downtown revival chapter

May. 25, 2014 @ 10:32 AM

An item in a recent emailed newsletter from the Durham Rotary Club grabbed my attention.

Scott Selig, Duke University’s vice president for real estate, gave the club an enthusiastic report on the downtown revival in which he and Duke have been major players.

The latest chapter in that revival has featured a long-anticipated residential building boom, a phase delayed by the Great Recession and the lending caution that flowed from it.

But as anyone casually passing through downtown can’t help but notice, apartments are shooting up.

At Rotary, Selig said that “17 percent of the apartment construction now taking place in the state was happening in the mile and a half between Downtown and the Duke Campus,” according to Rotarian Jay Zenner’s lively program report.

Selig “predicted that condo development wouldn’t be far behind when banks lost their post-recession fear of financing them,” Zenner wrote.

Think about that. One out of every six apartment units being built right now in North Carolina – a state of nearly 10 million people – is being built in and around our downtown.

That apartment boom, another downtown leader mused over coffee the other day, is going to continue the transformation of downtown in very noticeable ways. Restaurants and bars – even as they continue to multiply -- will be a little more crowded. Pedestrian traffic will begin to thicken – intersections where a few people may cross at every green light may see from time to time shoulder-to-shoulder crosswalk crowds.

And parking spaces, once so depressingly easy to find, will become even dearer. Selig caught the once-unlikely nature of that in response to a question, according to Zenner’s report: “Mr. Selig threw up his arms and declared with joy, ‘Can you believe it; Downtown Durham has a PARKING PROBLEM!’”

Duke has contributed to that, of course, in a good way. A decade ago, Duke leased about 70,000 square feet of office space downtown – today, it leases more than 1 million square feet. About 2,750 Duke employees work downtown and, unlike the early days, many clamor to be there.

The next wave, Selig told the club, will be employees in the life sciences – a sector about to take off in downtown. Duke has renovated the Liggett and Myers Research Building and the Carmichael Building nearby for life-science work; the soon-to-begin renovation of the Chesterfield Building will be geared toward life sciences, and Measurement Inc.’s Hank Scherich is targeting life-sciences for a new complex in the Central Park area.

It is those activities and similar ones throughout the region that prompted PNC Financial Services Group to conclude in a recent “Raleigh Market Outlook” that the greater Triangle region’s “economic recovery remains one of the strongest within PNC’s footprint.”

The region’s “bright long-term outlook is supported by strong population growth,” the report said. “The agglomeration of corporate offices, high-tech, educational and research institutions attracts migrants, usually from other Southern metro areas. The workforce is educated as well, which entices firms to expand employment in high value-added industries.”

Downtown Durham is just a piece of that, but a vital and exciting one.  Selig reminded Rotary that Enrico Moretti, in “The New Geography of Jobs,” cites Durham, San Francisco and Boston as “brain hubs, with workers that are the most productive on the planet.”

This city, which prospered in the manufacturing economy, is poised to do even better in the knowledge economy.

While Zenner, who moved here in the mid-1980s, observed “some of us old timers are amazed at how far we have come,” he added that Selig “promises ‘we’re just getting started.’”

It’s a great time to be in Durham.

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