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:

Ross,
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.

Best,
Steve

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

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