DURHAM, NC — Downtown Durham’s population is expected to grow by about 150 percent in the near future, and the organization that guides area development is revamping its master plan for the first time in seven years.

Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI) held its annual meeting Tuesday — in which it recapped downtown’s commercial and residential growth in 2015 — but it also looked ahead to future challenges, such as affordable housing and office space.

“By all accounts, (what’s) happened in the past 12 months would be something that another downtown would strategize for a successful five, six years, yet here we are,” said Geoff Durham, president and CEO of DDI. “Development is here, that’s a great thing. It’s what we’ve all been working for decades, so we’re thankful. But it becomes an informative discussion moving forward.”

Durham unveiled early plans for DDI’s downtown master plan, in which he said the outreach component has been expanded exponentially from the 2008 plan, as the organization seeks input from more than 1,000 community members.

DDI has broken the aspects of the plan that will guide downtown development for the future into four themes: connectivity, logistics, diversity and design.

Connectivity is concerned with how people get around downtown, with recommendations such as converting the loop from a one-way to two-way lane structure, Durham said, while logistics makes recommendations on how “to make downtown better functioning” in areas like parking, programming and communication for community benefits and events.

Durham said the diversity portion has received the most impassioned responses in the public input process, and this section will cover ways to protect and nurture Durham’s racial and economic diversity and local businesses.

“We must pursue the implementation of inclusive re-development strategies and explore various development incentives to ensure the appropriate mix of uses will be incorporated into future projects,” he said. “Downtown must remain a community priority as a shared asset; downtown must reflect the identity of the community as a whole.”

And Durham said the final design section is concerned with how downtown looks and feels, and will focus on not only aesthetic but also on better ways to use spaces and connect activity hubs throughout downtown.

But as downtown continues to grow, community members, city leaders and business owners have raised concerns about challenges this may pose.

“The question is not only living downtown, but who can afford to live downtown? And that’s really become one of the concerns that we on the city council have,” Mayor Bill Bell said at the meeting. “I think what’s important as we talk about how Durham grows is the diversity of our city … not just diversity by race but diversity by income.”

Bell said the city council will be working on several initiatives over the coming year related to affordability, especially in the downtown area, which will potentially include things like a rental assistance program for individuals who make 60 to 80 percent below the median income.

However, affordability is not only a concern for potential downtown residents, but also for the hundreds of Durham startups who need office space as they grow.

“At (American Underground), what we’re thinking about is going from 250 startups today to 500 companies in the next five years,” said Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground, adding that issues like affordable housing and affordable office space are on the minds of many entrepreneurs as they grow their companies and want to remain in downtown Durham.

Durham said downtown Durham has 2.5 million square feet of office and lab space, with an occupancy rate of more than 94 percent.

“While that might sound like something we should be proud of, it’s not necessarily a good thing,” he said. “When we do get phone calls from (businesses) who want to relocate or open up a business here … we don’t have that space to place them. What could probably be even more damaging is if we can’t retain some of our homegrown companies and industries that are here right now.”

But Durham said “help is on the way” with developments coming online that will bring more than 1 million square feet of downtown office and lab space into the pipeline, such as The Chesterfield and the Durham Innovation District.

“These spaces are needed yesterday, not just tomorrow,” he said.

Source: Herald Sun by Alex Dixon