Program – Mixed Use in Durham

Some of the best programs that we have had in the last several years of excellent programs are those that give us a peek into what other people do for a living, what problems the have to solve, what obstacles are in their way and what makes them toss and turn at night.

Rotarian Rob Everett introduced and then wrapped up one of those presentations on Monday. The topic was mixed-use development inDurhamand he was accompanied by Patrick Young of the City/County Planning Department and Dan Jewell, an activist for progressive planning and landscape architect with offices in Downtown Durham, our most visible mixed use triumph.

What this team was doing was campaigning for revisions toDurham’s current mixed use rules.Durhampioneered mixed use in the state in 1996 and improved the tiers in 2006. There are a number of proposed changes that are currently under review by the City/County Planning staff. Mr. Young pointed out that the issues involve appropriate location, the range of uses, parking and overall density.

Mr. Jewell and Mr. Everett then provided a little history of Erwin Terrace, the mixed use development acrossErwin Roadfrom Duke atLaSalle St. This is on property that has been in theEverettfamily for generations. Two of the five planned buildings have been completed and are occupied. The very popular Nosh restaurant and several other eateries are in one and I can attest through experience that parking can be a problem in this kind of development. However, the longer range plans include a parking deck and two additional buildings await a better economic and financing climate. The fifth building is unlikely to be built because of watershed concerns at the back to the development’s site.

Although there are certainly folks that resist the impulse to continually modify and control what gets built and what doesn’t though zoning, the lack of zoning almost guarantees ugly. I chose not to move toDallas thirty some years ago because nice homes were often built literally across the street from chain-linked industrial buildings.

Much of the uproar caused by the explosion ofNorth Carolina’s pork industry was caused when I-40 was opened fromRaleightoWilmington. People from both cities were buying 5 acre corners from farmers along the way for their dream homes in the country when suddenly commuting to the city became possible. What they didn’t realize is that most of those rural counties had no zoning at all and when that same farmer who sold him the lot built a hog house with the necessary waste lagoon next door they suddenly gained an appreciation for zoning.

One of the appeals of mixed use development is that it creates an active urban environment.  In a relatively small city it is hard to imagine a much more attractive urban environment than Downtown Durham has become. But the sale is not yet complete. As several developers have learned the market for residential units has not taken off. Part of it is the recession but part of it is marketing. Many people want to live downtown and in other mixed use developments but still don’t understand why they should pay more for an 800 square foot loft unit than they would for a 1600 square foot home in a subdivision like Hope Valley Farms.

The answer of course is that you are paying NOT to have to care for all that extra space. In Downtown you don’t need a home library, gym, guest room, well tended lawn, or garden. You have THE library, the YMCA, the Marriott, the DBAP, and the farmers market and you don’t have to clean them up. And then there are the DPAC, many fine restaurants, bars and music venues all within a few walkable blocks.

As Mr. Everett pointed out, the goal is to create attractiveness and value in mixed use is to focus on community and not commodity. This, he noted, creates the distinction between mixed use and just a mix of uses.

Durham  is fortunate that the planning professionals such as Mr. Young, the design professionals represented by Mr. Jewell and developers like Mr. Everett can work closely to achieve this vision.

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