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


New glass finally added to what will be the Durham Hotel at 315 E. Chapel Hill Street!

I don’t quite understand why the new glass looks to be so much closer to flush with the vertical elements. It looks funny compared with the more recessed previous glass. Or maybe my memory is faulty.


October 21, 2014

Some fun conversations on Twitter after some folks read my Sunday diary entry.

This is such an interesting observation. I’m sure Durham has its share of racist white people, but I can only assume that there are also a ton of white people who are, to greater or lesser degrees, feeling partially paralyzed by guilt, self-consciousness, reflexive discomfort, whatever. So much easier to just cling to 9th St. and the “DIY District.”

Dear White People [god I can’t wait until that movie opens around here – I hope it plays the Northgate & not the Carolina]: there are black folk who feel the same way. Let’s all try harder to just say hi to each other on the street & whatnot. The little things add up, y’all.

[Side note: Seeing Django Unchained at the Northgate with a predominantly black audience totally fucking ruled.]

Circumstances conspired to keep us from going to a screening of Kiss Me Deadly at Duke tonight. I met Mickey Spillane once, in high school, during the summer when I was at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts. (for all you fact-checkers: It’s a residential program now, but was a summer program at Furman University when I was a kid)

Spillane lived in Murrell’s Inlet, SC, and had for years & years – which is, I assume, the only reason they invited him to the GSA to talk to students. Noir was making a comeback – Black Lizard had just debuted the year before – but it was all Thompson & Goodis, and critical reevaluations of Raymond Chandler. Serious attention hadn’t trickled down to Spillane. Has it ever?

Anyway. Like any good thrift-store haunting freak weirdo high school student in the mid-late 80s, I had a fedora, so of course I took it with me to class & had Mickey Spillane sign it. “Some Mike Hammer,” he wrote. Later in life I guess my value system got skewed way out of whack, because I no longer have the damn hat.

October 21, 2014

October 18, 2014

Firmed up the details enough to announce the Know Your Poll Party, a get-out-the-vote rally & concert sponsored by WXDU, the Pinhook, and Democracy NC (and organized by the tireless & endlessly persistent Reid Johnson).

Next Sunday, October 26, from 2-7 p.m, with bands playing both inside the Pinhook and outside on Main Street. Early Voting will be happening that afternoon just a few blocks away, at the recently-relocated Durham County Board of Elections, which is now at the corner of Parrish & Roxboro.


Shirlette Ammons
Daniel Bachman
Hammer No More The Fingers
Some Army
Midnight Plus One
DJ Direwolf

(not necessarily in that order)

We are VERY EXCITED about this show & I hope everyone (especially parents!! no excuses!!) will stop by, see some music, and then walk over & vote.

The rest of the day was kinda meh, so much so that a trip to Target was actually a welcome diversion. Another welcome diversion: buying two of the last four bottles of Fidencio mezcal left in Durham County, since apparently it’s never coming back.

A measure of just how generally meh the day turned out to be: we had dinner at the Whole Foods hot bar.

But! That was because we needed to eat in time to go to Baldwin to see The Bad Plus, augmented by Tim Berne, Ron Miles & Sam Newsome, blasting their way through Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album, a record which I have never heard.

I was pretty exhausted, so I spent the entire show kind of drifting in & out of focus – not really dozing off, but definitely drifting, which let the music do all kinds of weird things to my brain. Not a bad way to take it all in, really, even if I wasn’t completely following every line.

The piano was kind of hard to hear, but all three of the horn players were very audible and pretty fucking mindblowing. I’ve seen Tim Berne a few times before, and I remain a fan – he was able to channel Coleman’s emotive feel without overtly aping him. Cornetist Ron Miles was a revelation & I want to seek out more of his work.

I still find whole sets of balls-out frenetic everything-a-16th-note nonstop flailing free-jazz drumming pretty hard to take, though, especially when there are extended passages of simultaneous two-handed wailing on the cymbals. I’m a notorious cymbal-hater.

That room is a tricky room, too – it was redesigned beautifully to be a space for chamber music, which means it projects sound out from the stage rather moreso than in a club. Sit too close for a loud/amplified show, and you risk an unbalanced mix. We were getting a LOT of drums out in the 4th row, even on the opposite side of the stage.

I need to remember that when buying tickets for loud shows in Baldwin. It’s an amazing space for quiet music, though.

October 18, 2014