Success’s challenges

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 05:20 PM

Two decades ago the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park signaled, if not necessarily the end of downtown’s long decline, at least the beginning of the end.

A decade ago, as businesses moved into the American Tobacco complex, one of the most extensive historic preservation projects in the state, the decline’s end was pretty clearly behind us and significant rebirth had begun.

Throughout that period, business, government and civic leaders had every reason to worry whether we could ever restore downtown to the vital city core it had been for generations.

Now, almost inevitably, a new worry may be on the horizon – admittedly, a far better one to have than whether we could rescue our central city from the dustbin of history.  The new concern is not uncommon as cities or neighborhoods rebound.

Will success become its own antagonist?

We’ve mused before about the fact that the very heart of downtown is on the cusp of a new phase of redevelopment which could alter its character. New, high-rise, high-density construction will generate yet more dynamism, creating more jobs, more 24/7 activity and more excitement.  In the face of that, will the funky atmosphere created by classic buildings with deep ties to the city’s history survive, adapt or be overwhelmed?

Now those questions are beginning to surround the Central Park District, where an explosion of entertainment and dining/drinking venues surround the wildly successful farmers’ market pavilion. With East-West Partners’ plans for a major mixed-use development on the site of Liberty Warehouse as the immediate spur, several other projects are being contemplated.

Potential projects include redevelopment of Motorco, one project that spurred the explosion of activity that some call NoCo, for “north of Corporation Street.” Its owner, Alex Washburn, an architect and urban designer from New York City, correctly says “that corner has become sort of an epicenter of activity and enjoyment of the city.”

While Washburn’s plans are tentative and still vague, he has indicated he plans to retain the iconic building that houses Motorco. We hope that’s true, as we hope that development retains the flavor and historic structures of the area.

On a practical level, the next wave of development in the district almost certainly must deal with parking which is in scant supply and threatens to be a roadblock especially to residential development.

Larry Tilley, whose Acme Plumbing and Heating Co. has been on Foster Street for 30 years, marvels that “now a plumbing business is in the hippest part of Durham.” He’s encouraged about the development potential, but sounds a cautionary note.

“If we were to come in here and knock everything down and put in a Disneyland kind of place – I don’t think that’s what Durham wants,” he told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz. “We just need to keep it funky, keep it dirty.”

We think he is right on target.