Blue Coffee, downtown development & unequal incentives

I just sent this letter to the Durham City Council:


I read with some interest this article in the Indy this week about Blue Coffee:
In particular, my attention was captured by these paragraphs:

“It’s ironic that Blue Coffee is being displaced by the very forces it nurtured. Austin Lawrence Partners, the new owner of the former Jack Tar Motel, is renovating the building into a boutique hotel with a rooftop bar, street-level retail stores and restaurants.


It’s also ironic that the city and county awarded Austin Lawrence Partners $7.9 million in tax breaks for its City Center Project, 26-story tower at Corcoran and Main streets and the renovation of several buildings in that area, but a city grant program to help small businesses like Blue Coffee is out of money.

Mathews may have been eligible for a Retail and Professional Services Grant, but according to the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, no funds are available through that program. City Council appropriates money for it.”

Last time I emailed you all about downtown development and the character of Durham, Steve responded asking for my suggestions about how the Council could work to maintain the character that we all appreciate.

I made some general observations, and then I asked if you all had a tally of the economic incentives that had been granted to small locally-owned businesses, and whether they were in any way comparable to the huge incentive package promised to Austin Lawrence.

Judging from this quote in the Indy, it sounds like the tally wouldn’t really measure up.

So here’s my suggestion: perhaps the fund to support small locally-owned businesses could be shored up via a tax on new large-scale development, particularly of the variety where teardowns of existing buildings take place, or where zoning or other variances are granted. Or perhaps a per-space tax on new privately-owned parking structures.

Because from where I sit, right now it looks like we’re funding these large out-of-town developers on the backs of locally-owned, tax-paying small businesses. And that seems backwards to me.

Warmest regards,

Ross Grady

Blue Coffee, downtown development & unequal incentives

Talk about burying the lede

Talk about burying the lede


November 3, 2014

I emailed City Council about my post from day before yesterday, and I got a response from Steve Schewel, who is also an old friend/mentor. He said:

Thanks for your thoughtful email in reaction to Reyn’s equally thoughtful post.

What do you think it means to “be prepared” for the growth to come?
What kinds of policies or solutions does that imply?
Do you think the City will be able to manage growth or rather soften its effects at the margins? If you think we can manage growth, what does that look like?

I would appreciate hearing your ideas on these difficult issues.


I just got done writing a response. Here it is, in full:

I think Reyn nailed it when he talked about a second wave of developers who are attracted by the momentum achieved, through hard work and investment, by the initial wave of developers who were (perhaps entirely of necessity) sensitive to the local environment & culture.

What Reyn was talking about in the second half of his post was whether Council is prepared to shift from growth promotion, to growth moderation – and since you asked, I think preparation is partly about figuring out the answers to all of your questions, and partly about recognizing the impending inflection point far enough in advance.

Here’s what I find interesting about Durham: the vast majority of the economic recovery in the downtown area has been the result of local investment. Local developers (or developers with local roots), local industries, local retail & restaurants. Duke + Measurement + McKinney + Bronto. Jim Goodmon. Scott Harmon & his partners. West Village (well, before that partnership imploded, at least). Scientific Partners. Greenfire, bless their hearts.

Mateo, Rue Cler, Pizzeria Toro, Toast, Scratch, etc. Literally the only chain restaurants anywhere near the downtown loop are one McDonald’s and a Subway in the old courthouse (if it even still exists).

Near as I can tell from walking around (and/or trying to get a table at Mateo or Toro pretty much any night of the week), people seem to appreciate what we have here. I’m biased, but I don’t think anyone who lives here who was surveyed about downtown would say “well, it’s OK, but what it really needs is a Chipotle and a Starbucks.”

So how do you as Council harness that Durhamite good will towards locally-owned businesses? Or, more to the point, how do you keep that good will from being soured by an influx of insensitive out of town developers who *do* believe that what we need are more chain stores?

You only have a couple of tools: incentives & regulations.

It seems to me that it would be hugely problematic to try to legislate restrictions on business ownership. So that’s probably out.

However, there are some things that I think these less-sensitive developers have in common. They like big developments, they like to build from the ground up, and they rarely like to pay more than lip-service to things like historic design districts & commissions.

Contrast that with the most successful local developments – Brightleaf Square, West Village, all the single-building re-use downtown, Mateo, Scott Harmon’s renovation at 5 points, Roger’s Alley, Fullsteam/The Pit.

If I look at the three developments that concern me most – the 605 West building on Chapel Hill St, the former Liberty Warehouse, and the impending 26-story tower downtown – one thing they have in common is that they’re essentially teardowns enabled by active neglect on the part of the previous property owners.

If we want to encourage adaptive reuse (which has, in Durham, historically turned out pretty well so far), and discourage big teardown projects, then perhaps Job One is to work harder to eliminate the kind of neglect that leads to buildings that are only suitable for teardown in the first place.

This could include more frequent inspections of unoccupied structures, a harsher penalty structure for neglect, and (for buildings within certain districts), a higher level of review than what we already have before demolition is an option.

Maybe I’m naive, but the history of adaptive reuse in Durham to date suggests that the developers who are good at it also tend to be developers who are more interested in fostering an economic climate that supports locally-owned businesses. That may just be a coincidence, but if so, it is one that has been a major economic driver in Durham.

I’m harder pressed to come up with a good answer about the 26-story behemoth we’re about to have visited upon us. I literally have not met one single Durhamite who both knows about it and approves of it. That of course may be a function of the folks I know around town – but I know a lot of people, including many business owners inside the downtown loop. Most of them are more concerned about a 12-18 month disruption in their business than they are excited about the potential for a couple of hundred additional potential customers.

I’m not sure what I would suggest from a regulatory perspective (although to be honest, I’m not convinced that Durham yet needs the degree of density downtown that requires a 300-foot ceiling for new development without any kind of review).

However, I *would* like to ask you about the city & county policies around incentives. Y’all are giving Austin Lawrence $4 million in incentives for that building. How does that compare to incentives given to local developers? How much in incentives has Scott Harmon received for his 5 Points and Church & Main buildings?

And in nailing down the incentive package for Austin-Lawrence, how many binding agreements did they accept? Are there metrics in place to measure their compliance?

In other news, word came today of Tom Magliozzi’s death. I know people who like to gripe about everything on NPR, including Car Talk, but I’m not one of those people. I loved that show, and I’m sad to hear of Tom’s passing.

My father is a highly methodical person – he’s a scientist, by trade and by disposition – and he taught me a huge amount about logic and about troubleshooting. But I still have to give the Car Guys huge amounts of credit for honing my troubleshooting instincts. I have always enjoyed problem-solving (and I’ve been lucky to have a career that afforded me plenty of opportunity for it), and both my dad and the Car Guys deserve a huge amount of credit for sending me down this path & for nurturing me along the way.

November 3, 2014

October 31, 2014

Reyn Bowman was the leader of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau for many years, and even after his retirement a few years ago, he has continued to share his thoughts & wisdom via his blog. The other day he posted a long entry that contained, among many highlights, these two paragraphs:

Organic “real places” aren’t created as much as enabled by developers when they are sensitive to scale and work with a light touch so as not to disturb sense of place or force out small, local businesses such as the developers of Durham’s Brightleaf Square did there and then along Ninth Street.

Developers without those sensibilities are drawn to these areas but without officials who are attuned to activist neighbors and small businesses and who are unafraid to say no, places can be quickly overwhelmed, relegating historic structures to little more than an amenity.

I read that yesterday, the morning after I’d had a txt exchange with a friend regarding the imminent move of Blue Coffee, the local black-owned coffee shop downtown, which is moving because the decrepit motel in which it’s located is about to be renovated by a Colorado-based company, the same company proposing to build a 26-story tower downtown.

In that txt exchange, I said something like “I’ll be crying quietly when the ground floor of that building winds up with a Starbucks and a Qdoba.”

I know I am via my very existence a gentrifier – I’m a white upper-class male (a DINK, even), living in a new-ish condo building that’s just 2 blocks from a working-class neighborhood on the edge of downtown. There’s probably a difference of only a few degrees between me and the people who’ll be living in the next wave of condo buildings, the one replacing the Liberty Warehouse, and that 26-story building downtown.

But I don’t think it’s naive of me to say that I moved to downtown Durham explicitly because the businesses in the downtown core are predominantly locally-owned, and I have done my best to support those locally-owned businesses. Which hasn’t been difficult, because they make delicious food & drinks, and show good movies, and do good work.

So I think I’m allowed to express my apprehension & concern, like Reyn, that the next wave of development that is already beginning has the potential to mark the beginning of the end of the Durham that I moved here to be close to.

(When the developers of that 26-story tower showed off their renderings to a crowd of interested, not-quite-friendly Durhamites last year, one of the street-level elevations showed a retail space occupied (via not-so-random whim of the architect or developer) by a Godiva shop. Oh joy.)

I hope that Reyn is wrong when he writes:

The problem isn’t as a respected friend recently prophesied that revitalization efforts have reached the “tipping point,” but that Durham officials seem totally unprepared that the greater challenge will be to manage success.

Mayor Bell, and City Council, are you listening? are you prepared?

October 31, 2014