Construction dwarfs the remaining brick facade at Durham Central Park
Last Saturday, I went to an event on Development in Durham at Pleiades Gallery across the street from the Bakery. About fifteen people attended, including some local journalists, activists, small business owners, and artists who had contributed to the gallery's eponymous theme of hung and sculpted art. Speaking that day were Urban Durham Realty (UDR) agents Susan Herst and Mary Rae Hunter. Their spiel was basically how much they love Durham and all the charitable works that UDR participates in on behalf of the Durham community (note: I bought my home through a friend and UDR agent). During the Q&A period, some tough questions arose regarding gentrification, renter displacement, and the changing urban fabric that comes along with building a 26-story skyscraper inside what was recently a gritty post-industrial Downtown. More than half of the condos in 1 City Center have already been sold for between $300,000 - $1.6 million. And what says "city center" like a rooftop pool? How is this complementing the city?
The UDR folks were a little bit on the defensive, given that the clients that they represent are more typically the monied class that can afford to buy rather than rent. It felt a little disingenuous that they were speaking of how they educate new homeowners on working with banks and their credit scores when these clients are far more wealthy than the renters who may be forced to move due to rising prices around Downtown. They don't want the Cheesecake Factory, they want Durham's own original and independently operated version of it. The idea that Downtown now has legitimately swanky places to eat and drink (with more on the way) is a selling point for a real estate agent or a developer, and for many folks in the room, that felt like it is going to bleed the city of its guts. We don't want to build a better smarter tastier Raleigh here.
One of my chief complaints about the UDR defense of Durham development are the changes to the urban fabric that have already occurred and those that are on the way. It is perhaps ironic that the urban durham that Susan and Mary Rae love has taken some shots in the ribs with recent generic-looking high-rise condos being built like 605 West, West Village Phase 3, Station Nine, Crescent Ninth Street, Whetstone Apartments, and 300 Swift to name a few. Again, these condos/apartments are ugly, generic, and look like they were last seen in a quick and easy cookbook for urban development.
Small businessowners are excited about all the new tenants that will supposedly be filling these spaces, but on the flip side, many will be put out of business the next time their lease turns over. Development on Ninth Street was referenced several times. How hard will we need to work to make sure a chain like Subway or Tequila Flats never enters the Downtown Loop? Now that there is a Harris Teeter and a bunch of regional chains on Ninth Street, rents can now go up and above $30 a square foot, which would be unsustainable both for NSB and a number of other Downtown businesses.
The question of renter displacement was handled in a really off-handed way by Susan and Mary Rae, saying that there now exists more rental stock in Durham for renters to move into should they be displaced by gentrification and higher rents. This doesn't address the issue that renters may have been living in their detached or subdivided homes for quite a long time -- they would have to give up their neighborhood and house that they like for one that might be in an entirely different place or one that they don't like or that is more expensive than what their rent used to be.
Ultimately, the event ended as a bitchfest without anyone in power to bitch at. No city councilors or developers were present. Even if 1 City Center is the Second Coming of Durham, will the $85 million building have any effect on the poverty in East Durham that its tenants will have such a good view of? How are these new tenants, some of whom are paying cash, helping Durham? Is this the kind of investment we need or is it the laziest and most opportunistic form of gentrification?