2017 was a year that was dominated by new construction and potentially transformative projects. Across Durham and Chapel Hill, high-rising cranes sprung up and large developments opened, offering high-price apartments, needed office space and new places for retailers to set up shop.
But it wasn’t just the flashy new buildings that got all the attention here. Readers were also very interested in the status of companies that have been longtime institutions in their communities, rising rents and pie-in-the-sky ambitions of bringing Amazon’s second headquarters to the Triangle.
Here are some of the most read business-related stories of the year as well as some that caused the most discussion among readers.
Surge of development gets off the ground in downtown Durham
At the beginning of the year, One City Center was just a hole in the ground. Twelve months later, the 27-story building, which is still under construction, dominates the Bull City’s skyline.
And it’s not the only large development to get kickstarted this year. It seems like everywhere you look around downtown, you can now find a crane poking into the skyline. New projects around the city will significantly increase the number of apartments and the amount of office space available, an increase that developers hope will match the projected population growth for Durham.
More new projects are anticipated to get off the ground in 2018, and many plans have yet to be revealed, such as what Capitol Broadcasting hopes to do with a former car dealership adjacent to the American Tobacco Campus and what the city plans to do with several properties that it owns downtown.
Will more apartments help stabilize rising rents in downtown?
One of the biggest concerns of the year was housing affordability. It was one of the most discussed topics of the 2017 Durham mayoral election and a frequent online lament. The new apartments that propped up around downtown often drew the ire of this crowd as a symbol of rising rents that working-class Durhamites couldn’t afford.
Yet could building more and more apartments help solve the problem of rising rents? That is what some believe, as increased competition among apartment complexes could lead to more attractive rent offers. By the end of 2018, more than 1,300 apartment units are expected to open in downtown Durham, nearly doubling the number of apartments to 2,891, according to Downtown Durham Inc.
M&F Bank and NC Mutual contemplate their futures
M&F Bank and NC Mutual – two of Black Wall Street’s most iconic companies – both admitted they had the same problem in 2017: young African-Americans weren’t using their services as much as previous generations had.
The bank, along with NC Mutual, made up what was known as Durham’s Black Wall Street, a grouping of black businesses in downtown that became an economic engine for the city’s African-American community during the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination.
But M&F has seen its struggles in recent times. Its average customer is around 60 years old and the total number of deposits at the bank fell 9.9 percent in the past year. NC Mutual has seen its own struggles as well, with the oldest black-owned insurer losing a combined $4.9 million during 2015 and 2016. The company’s iconic sign atop the NC Mutual building in downtown Durham is also set to be taken down at some point in the future, as the building’s current owner looks to redevelop the 1960s-era office tower.
The two firms believe the solution to their woes is to bring in younger customers. M&F Bank is creating a “Millennial Advisory Board” that will reccomend changes to its marketing and banking products, and NC Mutual underwent a rebranding this year in an attempt to reintroduce itself to younger customers.
The rise of the Blue Hill District in Chapel Hill
Perhaps nothing has drawn the ire of The Herald-Sun’s readers this year as much as the creation of the Blue Hill District in Chapel Hill.
The Blue Hill District, formerly the Ephesus-Fordham district, is a part of east Chapel Hill that was rezoned to increase redevelopment of several strip malls. The district covers 180 acres targeted for redevelopment and reinvestment, from South Elliott Road and East Franklin Street, to Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road.
Proponents say redevelopment of the area will make it more walkable and attract younger workers through increased housing and restaurant options, while some said it made the area too corporate and led to the construction of apartment complexes that are too big and not affordable.
What’s not in question is that more changes are still on their way.
Duke helping transform a Durham mall struggling with retail collapse
It was an up-and-down year for Northgate Mall in Durham. Like many malls across America, the north Durham mall is facing pressure from shoppers turning to online shopping over traveling to the store. Its problems were worsened at the beginning of the year, when one of its two biggest tenants, Macy’s, closed its store at Northgate as apart of a larger shuttering of stores.
The mall has attempted to diversify its offerings in the months that followed to make it less dependent on retail. Some tenants there now include a gym, the offices of Measurement Inc. and the N.C. Collection for the Durham County Library.
The mall received an early Christmas gift this year when Duke University Health System announced that it would be turning the former Macy’s space into offices and health clinics. The former Macy’s space will become the largest single office for Duke Health that is not currently on one of its three hospital campuses, with the potential to house more than 1,000 Duke staff, doctors and patients.
“We feel like (this redevelopment) really will redefine Northgate for the next decades,” said Scott Selig, Duke’s associate vice president of real estate.
Carolina Square opens on Franklin Street
One of the most anticipated openings in the area this year was the mini Target at Carolina Square on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
The $120 million Carolina Square development has left a large impression on Franklin Street, bringing several multi-story buildings, hundreds of apartments and new shops and restaurants. In total, the project added 43,000 square feet of retail space – half of which is occupied by Target – along with 159,000 square feet of office space and 246 apartment units.
By the end of the year, Carolina Square will have leased 85 percent of its retail space, while the neighboring 140 West Franklin development looks to fill space, as its largest tenant Old Chicago Pizza closed its doors earlier this year.
The future of Durham Police Headquarters
A big and consequential real estate question going into the New Year is what will become of the Durham Police Headquarters after it moves across town next year.
The city of Durham has targeted the four-acre property and the 1950s-era building on it for redevelopment into office space, new retail, residential units or all three combined. The size of the property leaves a lot of possibilities for a developer and the city to transform the project into something significant.
One of the biggest question surrounding the redevelopment of the police station is whether or not the actual police headquarters will be torn down or renovated. Several groups have called for it to stay, citing its historical significance. Another question is whether the city will look to put affordable housing on the property as well.
Durham (and the Triangle) throws its hat in the ring for Amazon
When Amazon announced earlier this year that it wanted to find a home for a second headquarters, it kickstarted a national competition between the country’s largest metropolitan areas. With potentially 50,000 well-paid employees and $5 billion in investments coming with a second headquarters, it isn’t hard to see why the competition would be intense.
Durham, along with its Triangle economic development partners in Raleigh, was quick to throw its hat in the ring for consideration. Many of the region’s economic development leaders threw their support behind doing whatever it takes to get the e-commerce giant to come to the region, but some question whether the Triangle, already struggling with transit issues, could handle that kind of growth.
Amazon is set to decide next year where it will put its second headquarters, and many people believe the Triangle could be a dark horse candidate to land it.
Churton Street changes
For small retailers dependent on foot traffic, one of the worst things that can happen is street construction.
The retailers on Hillsborough’s quaint Churton Street found that out this summer, when some business owners said they lost thousands of dollars in sales and had to lay off employees after the town did extensive sidewalk construction.
After many delays, business owners are optimistic that the changes will improve the street for the better and hoping to bounce back during the holidays.
“When the street gets repaved and everything looks really, really sweet, it’s going to be really beautiful,” Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens said. “But I think this fall and during the Christmas season, it’s going to be just lovely because the construction will be done.”