What We Can Learn From Durham

[Mr. Bull]Apparently I was quoted in the News & Observer after last week's information session about UNC's proposed redevelopment of University Square. I didn't notice that story, but today a colleague said something to me about a cartoon in the Independent Weekly. Wha? After some hunting I found this V.C Rogers illustration "Mr. Bull" which features my statement that "Durham has been kicking our ass, Chapel Hill has to catch up."

While I'm not especially proud of how articulate that one (out of context) quotation was, I do stand behind it. Seeing the way the Indy cartoon twisted my point made me want to expand or at least explain a little more.

I think Durham's success has a lot more to do with a great self-supporting food scene, and smart redevelopment of its many urban spaces. Durham is full of opportunity right now, but Chapel Hill is just full.

Chapel Hill is already known for some of the best restaurants in the state, but we just can't decide if we can slum it with food trucks. (We can!) And we're terrified of changing a single part of downtown lest it no longer look the same as the day we came to UNC as undergrads. We need to look forward to the small city in our future, not the village of the past. (Cue reminder about Chapel Hill 2020.)

The new University Square isn't going to save us, but it will help a lot if it supports this kind of vision. It sounds like it will, but we have hardly any details and even less commitments from UNC about that at this point.



Great explication Ruby. We do have so many things to look forward to - once we can shed ourselves of the notion that we are a sleepy university town and realize our potential as small, vibrant and creative city...

I'd like to know your definitions here - on one side of a T please place the "sleepy university town" characteristics and on the over side of the T please place the "small, vibrant and creative city" characteristics. As a born and bred southerner, I like shade in the summer and city to me means cement and heat reflecting from it. 

I'd like to continue this conversation because I don't think that people who move to CH secretly prefer to live in Durham. Our town's brand is pleasant neighborhoods with children playing together, good schools, trees, park benches, yes a more reflective kind of life than other places. A place for children to grow up more slowly and neighbors to get to know each other. Trees. The campus as center.  Creativity requires mental space to create. I think if your goal is to turn Chapel Hill into a small city that is bustling and focused on large box retail you will tarnish the Chapel Hill brand. People come and go from the health care sector and from RTP, but the great liberal arts university of UNCCH is the sustaining core of our uniqueness and our brand. Let's not ruin our brand. (and I'd like to add that this is not my original idea, but the thought of many people I know who are not, right now, expressing themselves). This is why people are willing to pay more to live here. Not to go shopping and have their yards shadowed not by trees but by 9 story buildings. Let's preserve our brand and change very very slowly.   

I'll leave it to Ruby or someone else to talk about the other assumptions (i.e. "small city" =/= "focused on large box retail"), but I would like to point out that we have lots of trees in Durham. Lots and lots of trees. I invite you to come visit on a nice sunny afternoon & take a walk down the tree-lined streets of Trinity Park, Old North Durham, Watts/Hillandale, Old West Durham, or many of our other pleasant neighborhoods.


Ross Grady

I love Durham - My last response was not a comparison with Durham but a comparison of CH now and what I think it will become if we are not careful. 

I don't think anyone is suggesting that we should try to turn Chapel Hill into Durham or any other place. The thing about change is that is happening whether we like it or not. Because of all the reasons we love this community, other people keep wanting to live here. We can't just throw up the gates. (I moved here in '73, can I kick out everyone who came after? That would be most of my friends!)We do have some control over how we manage this growth, and I for one, would like to see the Chapel Hill of the future be a place that still values and protects greenspace, alternative forms of transportation, cultural diversity, affordable housing, walkable face-to-face community, intellectual stimualtion, etc. This means no more cul-de-sacs and a lot more apartments, townhouses, compact neighborhoods in general.The things that Durham (and Ann Arbor) have that we don't is a lot of underutilized, centrally-located spaces. We don't have any warehouses to turn into new offices or housing. And as you probably know, we're already nearly built out to the limit set by inter-local rural buffer decades ago. I don't want us to sprawl out into the beautiful farmland that surrounds us, I'd much rather work to fit more people in the space we have more efficiently.

Ruby, I so respect what you are saying and I understand the and especially sympathize with the issue of affordable and diverse and density - but I do think that there is a "brand" that Chapel Hill has - we even won the "best cities" award for being able to "live in a forest". it is easy to go denser, higher, more urban, it is impossible  to go back again. If you drive around Chatham County you will see the sprawl already and it is amazing to behold. We moved here in 1988 from LA and I hated it. I loved LA and the density and diversity of Pasadena. We were working on infill there too - lot by lot. I just know that so many folks I know of middle (liberal arts professor salaries)income love raising children here and believe they have the best of both worlds. UNCCH is our primary employer and I think there should be housing to serve the needs of their employees - and then others. I really don't know how to make those decisions but I look forward to growing and learning. I like the idea of duplexes in place of single family when there is rebuilding rather than middle class homes being redone as mansions.  

We can't (and don't want to) stop people from wanting to live in our wonderful community so we need to have managed growth or we'll have totally unmanageable housing prices.  So what I don't get is where you intend to put all the people if we don't go up (density) or out (sprawl)?I don't think anyone is proposing unlimited density or skyscrapers, but I think we can have more townhouses, more compact single-family homes, and yes some taller buildings in certain places all without losing our Chapel-Hill-ness.

Is being completed now and is a good example of density at a moderate level for the community.The Lakeshore (Eastwood Lake) area is moving from middle class housing to tear down and mansions. That makes other areas carry a disproportionate share to the density. I'd like to see zoning that would encourage duplexes to be built when there is a tear down in that area. The Edge proposes 600 apartments. No one knows when we will have a drought. We must conserve water and not build out to the max water usage if we want the area to have a future. This part of NC really doesn't have a lot of water. Maybe everyone can't live here. They may come, but when we are all used up, they will go away. I'd like us to stay at a slow growth area. 

Growth can happen responsibly and intelligently.  But, I also believe that it is possible to lose our "brand" as Suzanne suggests.  So, Ruby, you say"I don't think anyone is proposing unlimited density or skyscrapers, but I think we can have more townhouses, more compact single-family homes, and yes some taller buildings in certain places all without losing our Chapel-Hill-ness."At what point will we know that we have reached the limit?  There has to be a defining moment when we will say we are "built out."  How will we determine it?  I'm not pushing an agenda-I'm really interested in hearing suggestions! Del Snow

My impression is that a fundamental difference between Durham and Chapel Hill is that in Durham at least, the story is still unwritten. It's not so much about taking what you currently have and changing and adapting it to be something else, it's more about a blank page. It encourages Durhamites to jump in and create the culture in a participatory way, rather than being handed a menu of selections from the "cultural gatekeeepers".

The engines of this century will run on innovation and creativity. Creative people are drawn to places where there is more cultural freedom - those random occurences of running into people you don't know - being inspired by graffiti under a train bridge - hearing a street piano - buying ice cream from a school bus. And the fact of the matter is, this happens more in urbanized spaces. It's a messy process and simply put it doesn's suit the history of some places.

A side note: I'm always struck by the language people use to articulate their vision of the future - how often it includes phrases such as "I don't want", "It shouldn't", "We can't have" vs "We should", "We need", "I'd like to encourage".

Ruby and I are agreeing on a lot nowadays.  Personally I liked your quote.  It was short and to the point.  I'll put an OP sticker on my car if you'll put one of my bumper magnets on yours!

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree some neat things have happened in Durham that Chapel Hill hasn't done. I just don't know how much of that is the city's doing. As far as downtown is concerned, maybe I'm hard to impress, but I haven't seen dramatic differences. The food scene is obviously great, both from a truck and restaurant perspective, and I love the civic pride that Durham engenders in its residents, but it's unclear to me how much it's something that Durham has done and something that happened organically.Plus, there are some negative marks on the ledger. Talk about all that Durham has done to reviatlize its downtown, but Durham is also home to Southpoint and Renaissance Center, both of which are the antithesis of sustainable, urban, pedestrian-friendly development. (Not to mention the shopping center with P.F. Chang's in it.) Even if you accept that we need Targets and other big box stores, the design of both places seem to be almost purposely pedestrian hostile.  There's no effort made whatsoever to integrate the huge apartment complexes scattered throughout the site, and any pedestrian hoping to make it there to do some shopping has to cross these high speed parkways. It's like they didn't even try.So let's take what Durham has done well and import it, but remember that they've built an entire second commercial and residential area that is the opposite of good design.

As I said above, I'm not saying "Let's copy Durham," just that we can take some tips from what is working well there. And Geoff, I'm not sure if you were living in the area 10-15 years ago, when downtown Durham was on a very different path, with lots of vacant storefronts (and a few gems like the Carolina Theater) and very little to eat or do even for workers in the middle of the day, not to mention people with kids or patrons of the arts. 

We shouldn't forget the fact that Durham's renaissance got a very healthy kickstart from its elected officials."April 2003: Durham city and county officials approved spending $43
million to build three parking decks and other infrastructure in and
around the American Tobacco Campus, according to the News &

The last time I was in downtown Durham, which was about a year ago (at a presentation given by the great Edward Tufte), I wasn't overwhelmingly impressed. I'll be at the Carolina Theater for a concert next month and I'll try to take a tour around the area.On a related topic, I note that the small mixed-use Charterwood development was before Town Council again and once again received a mixed reception. Goodness, if a small development right along the town's major transit corridor has trouble getting approved, what hope is there for any sort of development? (On that note, hope to see you all at the Chapel Hill 2020 kickoff event tomorrow!) 

The changes in Durham aren't just physical, they're cultural. Check out one of their food truck rodeos or http://carpedurham.com/ to get a sense of the local food scene. Also http://www.bullcityrising.com/http://endangereddurham.blogspot.com/, and more... 

Amercan Tobacco Campus is a wonderful repurpose,redesign.  We don't have a derelict factory district in Chapel Hill to redo like that.  Carrboro's Carr Mill is also awesome.  These spaces already existed and didn't need much rezoning to work (and their towns' infrastructure streets, parking space, water, etc. already existed).  Chapel Hill's proposed "mixed use village" development projects are seemingly plonked down here and there wherever developers can buy terrain, on sparser street grids. Despite all that's said about "transit-friendly," Charterwood is a 25-minute drive from UNC campus and the hospitals (the major employers in town) , but close to I-40 and thus very car-friendly.

What other employment opportunities are growing in our area these days?  Without increased job numbers, how can Chapel Hill realistically increase its number of households?  


Deborah Fulghieri

Deborah, I think you've hit the nail on the head. The answer is to not necessarily to increase households (and I phrase it that way since I certainly don't think we should declare a moratorium or residential development).  Rather, the answer is to increase employment.That (among many other reasons) is why the Chapel Hill 2020 process is so important.  We, as a community, absolutely must stop relying on residential property tax for our funding.  The university, while certainly our largest employer, has been a crutch for us for far too long -- and when budget cuts result in job losses, we may not ever be able to replace those jobs (and, honestly, in some cases - shouldn't.  We all know that there are departments that are completely bloated.)  While I love, support, and work with many of our local restaurants and retailers, and they are critical to the character of our community, we desperately need to increase our commercial tax base.The 2020 process will help us (again, among many other goals) identify what we want in this community from land use, econ development, etc..  Think UNC Hospitals is critical?  What if there was a medical campus filled with "feeder businesses" to the health care sector?  What about the life sciences spin-offs, that for years have been heading to the RTP or, more recently, American Tobacco and Centennial Campus?You're absolutely right about Durham -- and here's the ugly truth: Downtown Durham had it much easier than we do.  Most people can remember how flat-out bad downtown Durham had gotten; the reality is it is much MUCH easier to build from nothing than try to "fix" something mid-stream.We're very lucky -- we already have the "cultural infrastructure" (housing, parks, arts, sports, character, history, etc) that potentially relocating businesses do and will find attractive.  Now, in planning what we want, where we want it, and how we're going to get it, we need to figure out the tools to provide the economic infrastructure to lure new employers to our market.  It won't be easy; but, last I heard, the important stuff never is.


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