How Downtown’s Development is Shaping Durham’s New Landscape

How Downtown’s Development is Shaping Durham’s New Landscape

Where you'll work, live, play, shop and dine in the next few years



Sedrick White and his father, Cliff White, discuss downtown’s rapidly changing skyline at Sedrick’s new office in the Chesterfield building, where Cliff himself worked from 1976 through the late ‘90s. Photo by Briana Brough

Among the thousands of new workers who’ve arrived in Durham in the last decade, with an estimated 20 more joining us every day, Sedrick White appears pretty typical, and in some ways he is. He is college educated, works in a technology field, and the growing company that employs him recently chose to expand – because they outgrew other downtown space – into one of downtown’s classic industrial buildings that has been given a top-to-bottom renovation, creating modern, high-tech office space.

But Sedrick’s relationship with this new-old building – the Chesterfield at 701 W. Main St. – is multi-layered and rooted in Durham’s storied past.

In fact, the Chesterfield itself represents a transition for Durham’s new landscape. Much of the office boom of the last decade that fueled the city’s revitalization was the redevelopment of tobacco- era buildings like the Chesterfield – American Tobacco Campus and Golden Belt. Currently, there’s about 3 million square feet of office space with about 17,500 employees working downtown, according to Matt Gladdek, director of policy and planning at Downtown Durham Inc. But a string of new, ground-up developments are under construction that will bring about 1 million square feet of office space to downtown in the next few years. In the massive Durham.ID project, Duke Clinical Research Institute has already laid claim to 350,000 square feet of real estate. Other large office spaces coming online include 555 Mangum and One City Center.

The arc of downtown’s growth parallels Sedrick’s family history. He started at Nutanix – a California-based tech services company that employs more than 250 in its Durham office and continues to grow – in mid-2016, and soon learned that the company had signed a lease to take over the top two floors – approximately 70,000 square feet – of the 284,000-square-foot Chesterfield.

A tobacco factory for Liggett & Myers for more than 50 years, the Chesterfield closed in 1999 and stood vacant since, a stark symbol of Durham’s decline from a mid-century manufacturing city. But in 2013, Baltimore developer Wexford Science & Technology bought the Chesterfield for just over $7 million and announced plans to spend another $80 million-plus converting the seven stories into offices. Nutanix, and Sedrick, moved in at the end of September.

“I thought, ‘Chesterfield, why does that sound familiar?’” says Sedrick, 41, a Durham native. “Oh, wait! That’s where my dad used to work!”

Cliff White worked as an electrician for Liggett & Myers at the Chesterfield for 23 years, almost half of the building’s life as a factory. He was hired in 1976 as the company sought to increase the number of African-American workers on staff. Already a union electrician, Cliff had bounced between union jobs, including well-paying-but-out-of- town temporary gigs as far away as Baltimore. He jumped at the chance for a steady job with a major employer like Liggett & Myers. (One thing Cliff said he never did, on or off duty at the Chesterfield: smoke.)

When Liggett closed the Chesterfield plant in 1999, Cliff took a buyout, worked another 10 years in RTP, and then retired for good. Sedrick, meanwhile, was already pursuing computer classes, first at Durham Technical Community College, and then at East Carolina University. He returned to downtown about 10 years ago for a job.

“When I worked for the Mechanics and Farmers Bank on Parrish Street, there were a lot of abandoned buildings. The architecture was there but no [people],” he remembers.

Soon after Nutanix and Sedrick moved in last month, Cliff visited his son’s office, his first time inside the building since it closed. As he took in the open work spaces, six-story atrium and pingpong table in the break room, his eyes drifted to the windows – and the view of downtown.

“To come up here and see the changes that Durham has made,” Cliff says, his voice trailing off for a moment. “It’s amazing.”

And it’s expensive and getting more so. Currently, the downtown commercial space that has been transformed into Class A office space generally starts at $25 per square foot. While another 1.5 million square feet of office space is coming over the next few years, it can’t come soon enough. Seth Jernigan, executive vice president with Real Estate Associates Inc., which has been leasing commercial space in Durham since 2003, says that with occupancies at or above 95% downtown, demand remains strong, though challenges remain. “For years, Durham has been saying that we don’t have the big, Class A headquarters space, if a company wants to relocate,” Seth says. “Now we’re going to have the space, and the question is, how many headquarters are there?” – Matt White

A rendering of the rooftop at One City Center. Courtesy Austin Lawrence Partners


There are hopes to add thousands of jobs, more than 1 million of square feet of office space and dozens of shops and restaurants to Durham’s booming downtown in the next few years.

But where will everyone live?

While downtown began the year with about 1,700 apartments or condos, that number is set to double in the next two years. Durham’s next generation of residents will be able to choose from glamorous high-rises like One City Center, the Van Alen and 555 Magnum, rehabbed buildings that recall Durham’s history as a tobacco town like in the Liberty Warehouse, or new-urban, mixed-use areas like the The Brannan on Hunt Street near Durham Central Park or in the rapidly changing Brightleaf District just west of downtown.

But as the rush of big-ticket projects race skyward around downtown, Durham architect John Warasila is a developer betting on a smaller approach. John has spent two years rehabbing a building in Trinity Park, just off Duke’s East Campus. The project, which he’s calling the Wheatland, is just 10 residences, barely a ripple on the flood of new places to live in Durham.

ChloëSeymore has been the listing agent for Wheatland’s condos and says the size of the project has actually been a selling point. “It stands apart from other new construction particularly in regard to scale,” she says, adding that she sees no lull in demand in Durham. Liberty Warehouse, which opened this summer, has seen strong interest in its rental units, and most of the still-under-construction buildings with luxury condo offerings report strong pre-sales. “There is real demand right now for for-sale condos,” Chloë says. “We are in the midst of an inventory shortage, particularly downtown.” – Matt White

Photo by Briana Brough


The cool thing about Durham in the future, when it comes to fun and interesting activities, is that there will be no shortage of options. The city is growing and downtown’s physical footprint is expanding, particularly to the east. But it’s also deepening, as existing arts and entertainment institutions branch out and become more established.

So let’s imagine it’s a Saturday morning a couple of years in the future, and you’re sitting around with some friends, or maybe the family, planning the rest of your weekend. What are you in the mood for?

If literary programming or kids events are on the schedule, head over to the Durham County Main Library. Thanks to a $44.3 million bond referendum, the building is being stripped to its bones and rebuilt, 25% larger. The new library will have a modern vibe and lots of glass – the “exact opposite” of the old one, says library marketing manager Stephanie Bonestell. Tech options will be top-notch, and the library’s popular MakerLab will be vastly bigger, with an inter-generational focus.

Or maybe you have something more physical in mind. On the south side of downtown, on Morehead Avenue, the new Miracle League ballpark will offer opportunities for kids and adults with special needs to play on baseball teams, and for others to serve as volunteers. Located just south of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the $2 million ballpark is slated to open in the fall of 2018.

Alternatively, you could wander or bike along the Durham Belt Line, a 2.2-mile linear park that starts at West Village and uses an old Norfolk Southern rail line to meander north and east through the city. Created through community visioning and N.C. Department of Transportation funding, the Belt Line will be reminiscent of New York’s High Line or Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park, with benches, highly landscaped areas and public art.

West of downtown, The Scrap Exchange will offer a multitude of options. Following the purchase of a 10-acre strip mall last year, the organization aims to put in a skate park and adventure playground, expanded community garden and permaculture park, and mosaics by Durham artist Gene Dillard.

Photo Courtesy Durham Smart Vision Plan

As evening comes on, visit the Golden Belt complex east of downtown. Bought by LRC Properties this summer, the former mill will go through a $30 million renovation and solidify its reputation as an arts hub, complete with around 8,000 square feet dedicated to artists’ studios, a large exhibit space, and a 300-seat black box theater for music, film and comedy shows. The first spaces will open mid-2018. LRC also plans to create a large outdoor plaza with a stage, fire pit and hookups for food trucks.

There are a couple of other arts spaces to check out. One is a still-secret location east of downtown on formerly city-owned property that, it’s rumored, will become a large theater complex. The other is the Durham Fruit and Produce Company, aka The Fruit, a 22,000-square-foot warehouse space at the eastern edge of downtown. After an $800,000 renovation that will wrap up this fall, owner Tim Walter hopes to welcome dance, theater, music and installations in the 3,000-square-foot black box space and larger, warehouse-style performance space. “It’ll be a gritty, artist-focused space supporting high- quality art and also pre-commercial stuff,” Tim says.

Just want to hang out downtown? Thanks to the Durham Arts Council, a range of public art options will be coming to downtown in a $10 million project funded by the NC Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The first project is a giant mural wrapping around a parking deck near Corcoran Street that will link downtown with the American Tobacco Campus, but eventually other art installations, strategic lighting and landscaping will be installed throughout some of Durham’s commercial areas to unify them. “This is not just an arts initiative; we’re utilizing the arts to drive economic development,” says Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council. The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development is also adding sculptures, painting and photography throughout the central business district.

Perhaps what’s coolest about all the new arts and entertainment options coming to downtown is that the growth is largely homegrown. Most of the projects on the horizon are the product of Durhamites who are working with what’s already here, while simultaneously taking new risks. Which means that one of the very best things about this city – its uber-local creative spirit – will only get stronger. – Amanda Abrams

Bungalow, located at downtown’s busy Five Points, is among the city’s newest retail shops. Photo by Briana Brough


The development of retail downtown is perhaps the biggest unknown among all of the various sectors.

“Our independent retail scene is flourishing,” says Ryan Hurley, who co-owns the clothing shop Vert & Vogue with his wife, Nadira; the store just consolidated operations at its Five Points storefront, moving out of Brightleaf Square. “The challenge is that while we have a significant number of shops, they are not as densely congregated together and not as easy for visitors to discover as would be ideal.” Additionally, he says, “far fewer people frequent downtown during the day than they do at night.”

But that’s changing.There are a number of condo and apartment buildings on the horizon that will bring hundreds of residents to downtown in the next few years. Meanwhile, a number of mixed-use developments—including One City Center, which is slated to open in fall 2018 with 25,000 square feet of retail; 555 Mangum, with up to 15,000 square feet of retail space; and Durham.ID, which is composed of two buildings and has 20,000 square feet of retail space – are coming to downtown, and will add more shopping options.

That increased density could finally start to turn the area into more than just a dining and entertainment hub. But there’s no news yet about what might come to some of the higher-profile buildings; rumors of an Apple store opening in One City Center are said to be unfounded.

Meanwhile, intrepid business owners are gradually beginning to fill in some holes downtown to provide basic goods and services. Bungalow, a home and gift store, opened this summer, as did the boutique Mansion, and a dry cleaning service.

Will there ever be a big chain grocery store downtown? That’s hard to answer, says Nicole Thompson, president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc. “A lot of people have been asking about it,” she says. “But there are a lot of other things at play with a grocery store,” including the tricky issue of parking. In the meantime, residents have wonderful options like Bulldega and the Durham Co-op Market.

Retailers like Ryan say there is a unique, generous vibe downtown that continues to strengthen and improve. “Our local retail scene is only going to get better and more packed with eclectic, authentic shopping experiences in the years ahead,” he says, “especially as we have such a supportive community that believes in buying local.” – Amanda Abrams

Saint James on West Main Street near Brightleaf. Photo by Briana Brough


There’s always a new restaurant coming down the pike in and around downtown – it’s par for the course these days. Some are imminent, like Maverick’s Smokehouse & Taproom, which recently opened in the former Alivia’s space under the same ownership; It’s A Southern Thing, in the former Motto space; Kaffeinate Cafe, open now where Respite Cafe once was; and Chef Matthew Kelly’s newest restaurant, Saint James. All are within a few blocks of each other on West Main Street in the Brightleaf district.

“We’ve had a lot of restaurants open,” Chef Kelly says, “We’ve also had a lot of restaurants close,” noting the aforementioned transitions and even his own seafood restaurant, Saint James, which took over the Fishmonger’s space after it closed in 2015. (Saint James is now open, serving sustainable, seasonal seafood including crab dip, New Orleans barbecue shrimp, clam chowder, gumbo, baked oysters, fresh grilled and sauteed seafood dishes, calabash platters, low-country boils, shrimp and grits, and a 12-foot raw bar with between six and 12 different oysters available.) “Honestly, it’s kind of nerve-racking,” he says. “We hope that [this project] is going to be 100 percent, but when you see that, you don’t take anything for granted. You just make sure you and your team are ready to be flexible and just work hard, be gracious and practice the craft of hospitality.”

For the owners at Maverick’s, the growth of the downtown dining scene was an opportunity to revamp their own business. “After watching the skyline of downtown change over the last 10 years, and with the addition of more restaurants, we wanted to make some changes to grow along with the evolving landscape,” says co-owner Jason Sholtz. “Our goal is to touch upon all styles of barbecue across the South, and Chef Brian Stinnett is a seasoned barbecue man with lots of experience,” adds co-owner Fergus Bradley.

A heartening trend among all the growth is the fact that a lot of these businesses are started by locals, many of whom already have businesses in and around the city. East Durham Pie Co., started by east Durham resident Ali Rudel, just had permits approved for her cafe and bakery at 406 S. Driver St. Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter and Neomonde Deli, both opening in the next couple months in the Unscripted Hotel, are extensions of the owners of Pizzeria Toro and Littler, and the Neomonde locations in Raleigh and Morrisville, respectively. The owners of Kaffeinate have been Triangle residents since 1993, and “are especially delighted to be a part of Durham because of its inspiring culture of diversity, inclusivity and innovation,” says Manager Diana Lee. “We hope to be able to highlight the local talent and spirit of Durham through the offerings and events at Kaffeinate, … from our locally roasted beans to our locally crafted pastries and housemade waffle batter, we are dedicated to being a shop that honors the history of North Carolina while showcasing the progressive, sustainable and loving culture its people have embraced today.”

Chef Michael Lee of M Sushi and M Kokko is still on the hunt for locations for his M Kogi and M Taco restaurants, and is hoping to open both mid-2018. He knows they will be downtown, but wants to make sure the “location and ambiance complements the concept and themes like M Sushi and the basement area does.” He’s been testing out new menu items at his two restaurants, like Ishiyaki barbecue, which is a tableside cooking of Wagyu beef, served with smoked salt and shishito pepper chimichurri, at M Sushi, and a taco with spicy Korean barbecue chicken at M Kokko. “The downtown restaurant scene is going to be epic in the couple of years from now,” Chef Lee says.“And [dueto] the fact that almost all of the restaurants are local and chef/owner-driven, the level of quality and passion is amazing. I think Durham building and project owners … understand the importance of having quality vendors and restaurants for their spaces. I know there are many great new restaurants coming up in just the next few months, and I am super stoked to see what other great talents and passionate individuals come and make this one of the ultimate dining destinations.”

Gray Brooks, owner of Pizzeria Toro, Littler, and the soon-to-open Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter, agrees, but says there’s more at play – the types of restaurants present a diversity that’s unique. “I think the food scene in Durham right now is the best that it’s been, both in the variety of what’s out there, and in the quality,” he says. “One of the tricky things about a restaurant scene growing too quickly is that it can just sort of balloon without purpose or direction, and you wind up with a couple of people who figure out a formula that works, and a ton of other people doing the same thing. The thing that always seems to have been woven into the fabric of the restaurants in Durham is this underlying encouragement to keep trying different things.”

While many eateries are slated to open in the next few months, there are other interesting ventures that are in the works, set to open over the next year. County Fare, a permanent spot for food trucks to park with a bar on-site, set just outside of downtown at 1920 Chapel Hill Rd., has “been pushed back considerably at this point,” says co-owner Mattie Beason, noting that “permitting never goes exactly according to plan. I would say at this point we are looking at March of next year.”

The Durham Food Hall is also making progress, as owner/operator Adair Mueller has solidified the 12 vendors – 11 chefs and a coffee barista – who will occupy the nearly 16,000-square-foot space that includes a central bar area, biergarten and private event space, as well as a stage for entertainment.

“We’re sourcing organically farmed produce – that is a requirement of the hall,” Adair says. “I want people to be able to walk in and to know that everything they’re eating – no matter what vendor they choose – is pesticide-free, non-GMO, organic, local and really high quality. We’ll be composting and recycling our grease; I’ve said I’m going to jokingly have really tiny trash cans because we really won’t be producing much waste at all.” She’s shooting to be up and running by next summer.

“We will be really able to slide into that fast-casual niche, which I think is something that we don’t have as much of in Durham,” Adair says. “I’ve been trying to figure out the ways that I can make the space inclusive. Each chef will have a menu item that is $5 or less so that we can try and help on a monetary basis, but I’m going to do what I can to put up bilingual signage and include gender neutral language. I really want everyone to feel welcome.

“Because I’m born and raised in Durham, I’ve seen the transition of the city and I’ve seen everything that’s brought us to this point. … I understand the melting pot that is Durham, and I really want to highlight that. And it’s doable. It’s definitely doable.” – Amanda MacLaren