Revival imperils Durham’s hip DIY District

jwise@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2014 

  • Others imperiled

    Since 2010, the Preservation Durham has published an annual Places in Peril list to draw attention to Durham’s architectural history, promote public support for its protection and suggest what to do. Besides the Foster and West Geer Streets National Historic District, this year’s imperiled places are:

    •  Maplewood and Beechwood cemeteries: The two city-owned cemeteries were the subject of a February consultants’ report that described widespread deterioration in both and estimated they need almost $6 million worth of maintenance and repair.

    •  Historic streetscapes: The oak trees and granite curbing that grace the streets in some old neighborhoods are threatened, the trees by old age and the urban environment, the curbing by concrete replacement when streets are resurfaced or repaired. Trees need protecting and/or replacement. Preservation Durham is applying for grant money to do a long-term cost-benefit analysis of granite versus concrete.

    •  Gregson Street between the railroad and Chapel Hill Street: The Medical Arts building has been empty and boarded up for decades and there is talk of replacing it and the Victorian-style apartment building at the Gregson-Chapel Hill corner with a parking structure, Hillis said: “The worst thing that could happen there. ... That’s just way too prominent a corner to have that kind of stuff going on.

    •  Police headquarters: The city plans a new police station at an undetermined location, using the sale of the present headquarters – built in 1959 for Home Security Life Insurance – to help pay for it. The building is an example of mid-20th century Modernist design, but could be demolished by a new owner or by the city. (See sidebar.)

— Thanks to enterprises such as Motorco, Fullsteam Brewery and Geer Street Garden, the Central Park district is just about the hottest, hippest place in town.

According to Preservation Durham, it’s also a place in peril.

“That is now a hot area to invest in, and that’s great. It’s a hot area because there have been these businesses that have created this buzz over there,” said Wendy Hillis, the preservation society’s executive director.

“The fear is ... how do you keep it from cannibalizing itself?” she said.

Preservation Durham issued its 2014 list of “Places in Peril” last week, including the Foster and West Geer Streets National Historic District – aka “Central Park National Historic District,” the “DIY District” and “NoCo” (”North of Corporation Street).

In those rapidly reviving blocks near Durham Central Park, success has bred development pressure that threatens the “distinctive industrial feel” – as the Places in Peril website ( puts it.

A seven-block area there, with 46 structures built between 1927 and 1963 – including Durham Athletic Park and King’s Sandwich Shop – went on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, but several historic buildings currently face demolition or radical reconstruction.

Most notably among those is the Liberty Warehouse across Foster Street from Durham Central Park, and Preservation Durham’s concern is “kind of fallout” from that, Hillis said.

Tax credits are available for developers who renovate in keeping with a building’s historic character, but Preservation Durham isn’t confident that “carrot” will work in the Foster-West Geer district.

“So far the interest and the attraction seems to be to existing buildings and to propose projects that might tear them down or affect them,” Hillis said

“I think that they have a point,” said developer Bob Chapman, whose office is in a Geer Street building he renovated.

”The charm of the DIY or the NoCo district is the walkable urbanism, the one-story buildings that have been converted from auto dealerships and parts warehouses and plumbing companies and so forth to more interesting and exciting places,” he said.

“The fact that it’s been sort of spontaneous has made it more fun,” and it’s an example of a nationwide trend called “lean urbanism” in which small businesses, galleries and nightclubs lead an area’s social and economic revitalization, said Chapman, a long-time proponent of “new urbanist” building and design.

But, he added, that’s just one phase in the process revitalization takes once in motion.

“It’s a wonderful phase,” Chapman said, “but I also think that the downtown is going to grow. ... It’s a matter of incremental development and probably these buildings are going to go from one story where they are now to three and four stories over the next 10 or 12 years.”

Four- and five-story buildings going up in a district characterized by single-story and livened by people on the streets is one of preservationists’ worries.

“That adds into the mix when people are looking at the economics of their developments,” Hillis said. “The discussion is really about how do we retain the character we have.

“How do you evaluate what’s around you and use that to develop something that’s not historic?” she said. “We don’t want something that’s Disneylandish, but how do you take the context and intelligently translate that into something that’s very modern?”


Wise: 919-641-5895

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