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Streetscape Project Brings Durham Back to Life

By Marc Barnes, The Kings English

Renovations of downtown Durham's streetscape sparked increased interest in renovating historic buildings, with second-story living spaces over classic storefronts.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc


For downtown Durham, North Carolina, the outdoors was key. Both the private sector and government envisioned the former tobacco town as a model of New Urbanism, a place where people could live, work and play in places that were within walking distance to each other.

But getting there required more than rehabbing old buildings from the late 1800s by turning warehouses into loft apartments, business offices and retail space. It meant that the old, traffic-defying streets had to be redirected to invite drivers back. It meant that sidewalks had to be turned into places that invited visitors to stop and linger; plazas with tables and chairs for a quick lunch or an outdoor concert on a summer night.

A center city plaza replaces a former parking lot left when a luxury hotel was imploded more than 30 years ago.
Photo by: Rick Fisher

Today, after more than a decade of work and more than $1 billion in investments, Durham has come a long way back. Downtown is attracting new residents and workers, while the nearby American Tobacco Historic District has converted more than a million square feet of former tobacco warehouses and manufacturing space into a mix of residences, retail, office and research laboratory space.

Redirecting traffic flow, building new sidewalks and installing new lighting as part of a new streetscape design has successfully invited people back to downtown Durham.
Photo by: Rick Fisher

A promising past

It used to be that the streets of downtown Durham would be crowded on a weekday summer afternoon: Workers from nearby tobacco factories would walk a few blocks for lunch; secretaries would head to the bank to make a deposit, a mom and son would head into the Young Men's Shop to get school clothes.

That was in the late 1960s. In the years since, Durham would stretch and grow its boundaries toward Raleigh and Chapel Hill; and office parks and shopping malls and new subdivisions in outlying areas would move the town gradually away from the city center.

Downtown plummeted. By the mid-1970s, the once-luxurious Jack Tar Hotel was imploded, leaving a parking lot in the middle of downtown. By the 1980s, shrinking demand for tobacco products effectively spelled the end of more than a century of cigarette manufacturing, idling thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands of square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. Buildings emptied and few businesses took their place.

Durham Rising, a celebration to unveil downtown Durham's new streetscape in the summer of 2007, had this bull as a centerpiece. The bull represents Durham's long association with Bull Durham smoking tobacco, became known as the "Bull City" and is the home of the Durham Bulls baseball team.
Photo by: Rick Fisher

Downtown was clearly in trouble

Matthew Coppedge, director of marketing and communications for Downtown Durham Inc., the economic development agency that's charged with promoting development in downtown, said that one of the keys to the recent redevelopment efforts in the City Center District has been the downtown streetscape.

In addition to refurbishing buildings, traffic patterns were redesigned to bring visitors to downtown Durham. The previous traffic pattern was confusing and tended to lead people away from the city center.
Photo by: Rick Fisher

Efforts to clean up and renovate downtown over the decades since have come in fits and starts. What seemed like a good idea at the time sometimes made things worse, as confusing traffic patterns, a lack of parking, and the perception of crime downtown led to a mass exodus.

. . ."We really had to promote the idea of bringing people back into the downtown. That was the whole impetus to get everything going.""Todd Ireland, a senior design associate with Kimley-Horn and Associates

Primarily, a loop that was meant to make less traffic on downtown streets worked too well and effectively forced drivers to leave downtown altogether. One-way streets made finding a parking space next to impossible. Then, there were the white concrete planters, 15 feet long and four to five feet wide, placed near the curb and spaced too close to each other. Pedestrians crossing the street sometimes had to hurry up and find a space in between the planters or risk getting run over.

"They really weren"t useful," said Coppedge. "They were really a barricade between the street and the storefronts. We needed to make the storefronts more visible, but these things were bunkers, blocking the stores from the streets."

Smaller plantings in an urban environment, coupled with clay brick pavers and improved lighting, lend themselves to a cleaner look as part of a makeover for downtown Durham.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

Changes over the years in downtown were essentially paved with good intentions.

"It was 40-year-old infrastructure and it took the life away from downtown," said Coppedge. "Everybody went out to the suburban areas, because it was easier to get around. If you came to downtown it was difficult to navigate. And parking can be a challenge in downtowns if people aren"t used to coming down. In the 1960s, it was projected that by 1980, downtown would need about 20,000 parking spaces. But that didn"t take into account the rise of suburban development. Downtown currently has about 4,500 parking spaces right now."

Developers knew the problems well. What was needed was a new way of looking at downtown. Streets needed to be re-aligned and changed from one-way back to two-way. More on-street parking and parking lots were needed. The planters needed to be taken out. And worse yet " as bad as the street looked on the surface " everything underneath " all the plumbing, storm drainage, gas, water and sewer lines " was crumbling, didn"t meet code, or was illegal. It needed to go.

Todd Ireland, a senior design associate with Kimley-Horn and Associates, a civil engineering consulting firm, said the $13.5 million project covered about one and a quarter miles, or 13 city blocks, and took 25 months to complete.

Outdoor plazas have been designed to complement old historic buildings, drawing pedestrian traffic to the once neglected area.
Photo by: Rick Fisher

Ireland said that from a design standpoint, the challenge was to mold the ground to fit in with the needs of those who would be living and working in a revitalized downtown. In addition to changing street direction and removing the planters, several new plazas were planned, for a classic appearance that would fit the streetscape in with the surrounding brick buildings, made from clay mined in North Carolina's Piedmont, that dated from the late 19th or early 20th century.

The idea, Ireland said, was to make the new streetscape complementary to the old buildings in terms of color and texture " and the best way to do that was to use clay pavers, made from clay found in the same region. Pine Hall Brick's Full Range clay paver was specified for the field, with soldier or double soldier courses in its contrasting Iron Spot, which effectively added definition and depth.

From its beginnings, the revitalization of downtown Durham depended on a streetscape design, which both improved the surroundings and caught people's imaginations.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

"We really had to promote the idea of bringing people back into the downtown," said Ireland. "That was the whole impetus to get everything going."

Durham largely escaped the trend during the 1980s of tearing down old buildings, which aided in the success of this project.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

A construction challenge

A big part of the landscape design that is on site today depended on the construction and preparation work, which turned out to be a bigger challenge than anyone could have predicted. As construction began in March 2005, a backhoe dipped into the ground " and into more than 100 years of history. And as it turned out, digging up history isn"t easy.

Again and again, the bucket would hit something that no one knew was there. Most notably, the bucket hit a 40,000 gallon fuel tank that had been underneath the Jack Tar Hotel. When the building was imploded in 1975, the pile of rubble was excavated to two feet below ground level. Everything below that, including massive concrete columns and structural steel, was left in place.

Walter Hudson, vice president of the Raleigh-Durham region of Triangle Grading and Paving, which had the contract for digging out the ground, still shakes his head over the tank.

"Rather than dispose of it properly, they let the debris fall into it," said Hudson. "We had to go in and clean it out and cut the top off. We pressure washed it and filled it with sand and left it there."

Hudson's crews found two other fuel storage tanks " and in all, a total of 42 basements, that extended out from the fronts of buildings underneath the sidewalks and into the edge of the streets.

The streetscape was designed to fit in with the surrounding brick buildings, made from clay mined in North Carolina's Piedmont, that dated from the late 19th or early 20th century.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

'some of them, we knew were there," said Hudson. "And some, we would dig in the ground and fall right into the basement."

Depending on the property owner, some of the occupied spaces were left in place. In some, a new structural wall was built in line with the front of the building and material that could be easily excavated was used to fill in the basement. Tracking down property owners " and relocating water meters and electric panels that had been in the basements " added to the delays.

Hudson's crews found multiple natural gas lines, some live and some abandoned and old trolley car tracks that were encased in a three-foot thick foundation. Sometimes, the crews would run into bad soil, which had to be bridged over to put a street back in.

Contrasting surfaces in concrete, asphalt and brick provide visual interest to the renovated downtown streetscape (above). The pavers used on this project were new but designed to look worn " a key component in historic preservation projects (below)
Photos by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

Part of the effort had to do with environmental or safety concerns.

Lead pipe joints, which are no longer legal, had to be removed, as did water supply lines that no longer held sufficient water pressure because of sediment inside the pipes. And everything " from the old concrete planters to the asphalt that was in the street itself " was hauled away to be recycled.

Jaime Hicklin, project manager for ValleyCrest Development of Durham, the firm that installed the streetscape, said that the delays, especially in old downtown districts, come with the territory. It meant that work crews were in kind of a dance.

"Every time he would hit a basement or a tank or something, the site guy behind him stopped and then we stopped," said Hicklin. "We had to do a lot of rearranging and we were not always where we thought we would be the next day. As we got going, there were places where we could reroute the crew."

(above) The new area plaza is anchored by Durham's mascot " a bull. The downtown area is only .751 square miles, but more than $1 billion has been projected for the refurbishing project. (middle) During construction, crews routinely dug into 100 years of Durham's history. Crews found a 40,000-gallon fuel tank, trolley car tracks and 42 basements, that extended out from the fronts of buildings underneath the sidewalks and into the edge of the streets. (bottom) One key to the downtown renovation was to make both pedestrians and motorists feel welcome to visit, while designing surroundings that would invite them to linger.
Photo by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

Hicklin said that flexibility, in terms of diverting crews to other projects when needed and putting more crews on the job when the site preparation goes faster than expected, coupled with a good working relationship with other companies on the job site, is how a project gets done successfully.

"Dealing with what is underground, that's the main challenge with any streetscape job," said Hicklin. "But it turned out beautifully."

Coppedge agreed. "The nicest part is the new brick sidewalks, which replaced ones that were 40 years old and outdated," said Coppedge. "Putting in the new sidewalks and new lighting really made the place look cleaner and made people want to come downtown."

Progress begins with ballpark, American Tobacco campus

The renaissance of downtown Durham began, in a way, with baseball. The minor-league Durham Bulls, immortalized in the movie, "Bull Durham," built a new ballpark in 1995 near the edge of downtown.

The new Durham Bulls Athletic Park was designed by HOK Sport + Venue + Event, architects of Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field in Cleveland and Coors Field in Colorado, among others, according to the Durham Bulls Web site. The $16-million brick ballpark opened in 1995 and was expanded to a 10,000-seat capacity for the 1998 season, the year the Bulls began playing in the Triple-A International League.

(above) Designers of Durham's new streetscape specified clean lines and contrasting materials to tie old and new together. (middle) Prior to this project, the Durham streetscape had not been updated in 40 years. A new sense of pride has been developed as a result of the project. (bottom) Pavers in this section of sidewalk have been laid in a herringbone pattern to provide a background for this planter.
Photos by: Downtown Durham, Inc.

The ballpark takes its design cues from old-time ballparks, along with the historic architecture in downtown Durham. A 32-foot-high wall stands in left field 305 feet from home plate, which resembles Fenway Park's Green Monster, down to the old-style manual scoreboard.

Coppedge, the spokesman for Downtown Durham Inc., said that the ballpark spurred interest in the adjacent American Tobacco Historic District. The site, a rambling campus of tobacco warehouses and processing plants built between 1870 and 1920 has been transformed into more than a million square feet of restaurants, residences and Class A office space.

On the street side, the building is brick and glass. Inside, landscape architect Jean Aldy has created an expansive and serene courtyard with two key features, a waterscape named "Bull River" and an inviting hardscape that ties together decades of industrial construction history with distressed brick and concrete.

Aldy is an associate with Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates Inc. of Atlanta, and heads the firm's landscape architecture group.

"The owners wanted a designer who could come up with the big idea to "activate the campus" and turn it into something fun and livable that would draw tenants for weekend family as well as business," said Aldy. "The structures are all brick, the earliest built in the 1850s. The company expanded and kept growing for different requirements. The last building was finished in the early 1900s. So there are 75 years of difference in brick color, brick texture and architecture."

"When we started looking at the components that would make up the campus, we knew the two materials would be concrete and brick."

The clay brick pavers are specially made to look worn, which is ideal for historic preservation. Aldy also specified that the new concrete be distressed. Even though the materials look worn, both brick and concrete surfaces are smooth enough for catering carts for special events and wheelchair access to all areas.

The campus is manicured and tidy, but there's nothing sterile about it. Aldy managed to maintain a sense of wildness to tie the eclectic "build as you grow" diversity of architecture.

"The theme was to reclaim an old tobacco mill that had developed over 75 years and was built by craftsmen of the company," said Aldy. "We wanted to put yet one more layer to what was already there, not change the environment."

(above) New lighting and a cleaner and safer overall design makes downtown Durham as welcoming after dark as it is in the afternoon. (below) Old buildings and new streetscape design come together in the renovation of downtown Durham.

The manmade Bull River begins on a reclaimed loading dock at the highest elevation of the campus, where water gushes over former rail lines into two concrete waterfalls at 90 degree angles to each other. The water winds down through the campus, helping define distinct outdoor rooms with deep quiet pools and turbulent rapids and at the end, a final waterfall over a water wall into a canyon outside a health club's picture window.

Underneath an original water tower bearing a retro Lucky Strike logo, Aldy created a hardscaped island of pavers encircled by the deeper still waters of the river.

The decision to specify Rumbled" clay pavers from Pine Hall Brick was mostly aesthetic. Said Aldy: "When we got to the brick component, the decision had to be made about matching the color. Would we try to match the brick of the buildings in the area? Or would we choose a brick for the entire campus that would blend with everything? Ultimately, our decision was to choose a palette that could be used throughout."

A successful effort

Why has downtown Durham come back? Coppedge, the downtown promoter, says a number of circumstances worked in Durham's favor. For one, Durham largely escaped the trend during the 1980s of tearing down old buildings, at a time when the New Urbanism movement " the idea of carving offices, homes and businesses out of old buildings in urban centers " was just beginning to take off.

"You really can"t find old warehouses like this anywhere", said Coppedge. "We have almost 30 old tobacco warehouses and a huge stock of other old, historic buildings, that people are willing to redevelop into lofts, offices and retail space."

For another, downtown Durham's in a good neighborhood, close by Durham-based Research Triangle Park; bordered by Duke University and North Carolina Central University and a short commute to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Sperlings BestPlaces ranked Durham as the 15th best place to live in the country in terms of safety; Forbes rated it seventh in the U.S. for the best place to pursue a career.

And Durham has been fortunate to have private investors who were willing to step up to the plate. Capitol Broadcasting invested $100 million in the American Tobacco Company campus, which gave government a comfort level in investing in parking decks to support the effort. For its part, governments were willing to invest in the streetscape projects, which demonstrated to the private sector that they wouldn"t be going it alone.

Coppedge said that investment in downtown Durham has so far amounted to $770 million in private investment and $314 million in public monies.

Into the future

And the future? The most prominent project is likely a 2,800 seat performing arts theater and complex, now under construction at an estimated cost of $44 million, which will be managed by Nederlander, the same company that manages nine theaters on Broadway. Near that project is a series of parking decks, wrapped on the outside edges with planned apartments and retail spaces, with outdoor plazas and seating areas.

Also underway is the Durham Transportation Station, which is between N.C. Mutual Insurance Company and the American Tobacco Campus, which is being built at a cost of $12 million. The national headquarters of Minor League Baseball will be moving to the Durham Athletic Park, the classic old-school ball yard that was the predecessor to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the set for the movie "Bull Durham," at a cost of approximately $5 million.

But the biggest project will involve the old Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. property, which will involve 350 apartments, office space, retail and research labs across six former tobacco warehouses, all coupled with new streetscape improvements and plaza areas outdoors, which will cost an estimated $148 million.

"The American Tobacco Campus is currently the largest historic renovation in North Carolina, but once completed, the West Village project (old Liggett & Myers tobacco factory) will overtake it," said Coppedge.

Through it all, working on the outdoors " especially on the streetscape projects " has captured the imagination of developers and residents alike. Coppedge said that up to this point, many of the projects were historic renovations that took place on the interior of buildings, where few have seen the kind of progress that they see when new sidewalks and plazas are built.

"We hadn"t updated the streetscape in 40 years and this project really cleaned it up," said Coppedge. "It makes private investors feel better about the community and about the downtown area and it certainly helps in recruiting new businesses. It also helps increase the value of the property."

For those who come into downtown, it helps slow traffic, making it safer and helping potential customers realize that there are retail businesses and restaurants in the downtown district that they would like to visit.

"Given that most of the recent projects in downtown were historic renovations, the streetscape project was one of the first projects where the community could actually see things happening and construction taking place," said Coppedge. "It gave them a sense that everything was moving forward and it was really exciting. It has certainly created a positive "buzz" in the Durham community. People feel good about it and they feel very proud of their community."

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June 17, 2019, 8:44 am PDT

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