Urban Density: The Case Of Durham, NC

by | December 17, 2019 |

I didn’t intentionally set out to chronicle the changes that have been occurring in Durham, NC in the past few years. I more or less fell into the project. That’s because I’ve been traveling and leaving Durham for months at a time. Thus when I return I’ve been amazed by the continuing increase in urban density. And I’ve want to capture the changes.

Today’s latest installment results from the fact that since August I’ve been living in Miami. When I returned to Durham last week for winter break, the changes – even in these few short months – were visible.

Urban Density: One City Center

The title image is of One City Center, which faces Corcoran Street and occupies the entire block from Main to Parrish Streets. It opened in August 2018. So it isn’t entirely new to me or anyone else. But it is the case that it now soars in a space that had sat empty since 1972. The original Geer Building went up on the spot in 1915.

This location is the very center of the center of the city. It originally had a Woolworth’s. For over 35 years its emptiness served as evidence of a forlorn downtown. And the best the city could think to do was to cover the lot with grass.

Durham Historical Society – photo from the 1980s

I took the title photo from the same corner as the image, above. Almost hard to believe.

Unfortunately, empty lots remain. This one is bounded by Parrish, Roxboro and Main Streets.

Once upon a time this corner was occupied by a building whose main attraction was a Walgreen’s. You can see the edge of One City Center in the upper left. So this empty lot is in the heart of downtown. A pathway surrounded by grass with a few scattered tables and chairs doesn’t cut it.

My point is: When you’re in an urb, density is desirable. Not empty lots. Not parking lots.

Textured skylines do exist:

Here, at least, there’s an illusion of urban density.

Urban Density: The Blue Light

Now we go a mile or more west on Main Street and turn left on Erwin Road.

Old-time Durham fixture Sam’s Quik Shop sits – that is, sat – on the corner of Erwin Road and Pettigrew Street.

urban density

Historical photo

Sam’s got started as a gas station in 1946. It added The Blue Light drive-in grill in 1949. The name changed to Sam’s Quik Shop in 1974. The establishment closed at the end of 2018.

Here’s what’s there now:

And here’s what it’s going to be:

I took this picture at the leasing office for The Blue Light on Ninth Street, a block up the street from the construction zone

Because The Blue Light sign stayed up all the years of Sam’s Quik Shop, everyone in town has always known it by the older name. So now the apartment complex is bringing it back officially. I heard that the target audience will be Duke students. The location is perfectly located between East and West Campus and convenient to Broad and Ninth Streets.

The view from Ninth Street:

Urban Density: South Bank

Back to downtown. Aspen, Colorado-based Austin Lawrence Partners who did One City Center own another sizable chunk of property downtown. Namely, South Bank. Here’s where it is in relationship to OCC.

South Bank is in the foreground. 21C is the building in the middle. The view looks east down Main Street. The green traffic lights, lower right, are at Five Points

South Bank sits on one of the points of Five Points. Main and Chapel Hill Streets criss-cross here with Morris Street radiating north, thereby creating the five points.

I heard that this very odd intersection developed from old cow paths.

Urban Density: My Hope & Dream

For me Five Points has always been the heart-breaker of downtown Durham.

I’ve just said that South Bank anchors one point. Another point has M Pocha, a Korean street food restaurant that opened recently.

The view is east on Chapel Hill Street

In the image, below, the buildings on the right fill in a solid third point. However, the center of the image – let’s call it the fourth point – is another empty space. It serves as a “park” and a parking lot for the bakery in the building obscured by the trees.

The building in front of OCC is 21C.

The heart-breaker is this:

Main Street goes to the right, Chapel Hill Street to the left

An original flatiron building! It was the Five Points Drug Company which morphed into the Piedmont Building:

21C is visible rising behind the middle right of the Piedmont Building

Oh, man. If Durham still had this building, it would be golden. Even more, the fifth point of Five Points is another empty lot crying out for a flatiron building:

The view is west down Chapel Hill street on the left. The truck stopped at the light is heading east on Main Street

Okay, it’s not entirely empty because it’s partially used by Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub for outside seating. Nevertheless it’s general emptiness is clear evidence of a lack of urban density. Let’s call it urban sparsity.

My hope is for one flatiron building. My dream is for two.

See also:  Durham, NC: The Old and The New, Bull City, NC

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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