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Downtown Durham booming, but can it stay diverse, keep homegrown talent?

Finding the right mix and location of parking. Protecting racial and economic diversity. Growing office space to keep homegrown talent in town.

These are some of the challenges in Downown Development Inc.’s draft master plan, now available for public review and comment. The organization has been working for more than a year on the plan, the first update since 2008. You can read it at downtowndurham.com

DDI released the plan last week at the 21C Museum Hotel. The event also introduced DDI’s newest chief executive officer Nicole J. Thompson, who was announced as the successor to interim CEO Lew Myers in January.

Downtown Durham has changed dramatically since the last master plan was released.

In the last year alone, 15 new bars and restaurants opened downtown as well as 10 stores – and the city expects to add over 100,000 square feet of retail space in the next three years.

The number of people living downtown has also shot up. Currently there are 1,700 residential units in downtown, and another 1,300 units are expected in the coming years — including the Van Alen, which will add more than 400.

Office space is also growing quickly with 1.2 million square feet expected to be added in the coming years, which represents a 40 percent increase. That growth is much needed as JLL estimates the Bull City has a small 1.1 percent vacancy rate for class A office space and a 2.3 percent vacancy rate for all office.

The master plan is meant to present a vision about how the city can best adjust to that coming growth.

The plan is 53 pages long and addresses the city’s future vision, connectivity, logistics, design and, for the first time, diversity “by far the most sensitive section receiving the most passionate of all feedback.”

‘Transformation’

Thompson, who has been in the job for four weeks, joined DDI after working as executive director of the Lake County Economic Development Corporation in Leadville, Colorado.

A graduate of UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, Thompson interned at the Durham-based N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development while in school. She said that when she visited Durham for an interview last year, it was the first time she had been in the city since the 1990s.

“I was absolutely amazed by the transformation,” she said. “I agree, wholeheartedly, that we do not need to look back and to not compare ourselves to where we’ve come from, but I will say that my first half-day here, I was that tourist (with her) mouth open, walking around like, ‘really?’

“That (transformation) is just amazing.”

Thompson told the crowd, which was made up of business leaders and politicians, including Mayor Bill Bell, that diversity will be a big component of what DDI is going to focus on this year along with fine-tuning its master plan.

“Downtown Durham's growth and development can only continue,” she said. “We need to make sure that everyone is there and that we listen and hear and incorporate all of those thoughts.”

Thompson comes to Durham having worked at small town of 7,500 people in Colorado, but she has also worked in Fairfax County, Virginia, which has a population of more than a million people.

She added that she moved to Colorado because she wanted something different, and that one reason she is returning to the east coast is to be closer to family.

She warned that the city cannot marvel at how far its come, rather it must continue to alert the country to its uniqueness.

“We still need to shout from the rooftops that we are a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

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