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An ambitious urban redevelopment project in Durham caters to artists. Will they come?



The Golden Belt Manufacturing Company's textile factory on East Main Street on the east side of Durham's downtown has been shut down since 1996, leaving the historic five-building complex boarded up and effectively abandoned for a decade. Now a Durham development company, Scientific Properties, is moving forward with plans to restore and revitalize the site for mixed-use development with a focus on artists' studios and live/work apartments. "The hope is that Golden Belt becomes a new artistic center for the Triangle," Audra Ladd tells me during a visit to the development, currently in what she laughingly calls "the demolition phase." "We want it to be a place where artists who want to be inspired, and work alongside other artists, will go."

The live/work apartments are planned to start at $850 a month; the studios will be begin at $250 a month including all utilities. (Due to a tax credit that is being taken for historic preservation, property can only be rented rather than bought for the first several years of operation.)

Reservations are being taken now.

Last summer, Scientific Properties (which developed the Venable building, where the Independent's offices are located) paid $2.625 million dollars for the property, which was once sold to the Durham city government for $1. Plans for the site include approximately 38 live/work studio apartments and 35 work-only studios, as well as arts-focused retail, an open-air market, restaurants and a live-music venue (with a capacity still to be determined) that will feature a wide variety of musical acts. The parking lot is being designed with no curbing to provide a staging area for festivals.

Office space in one of the buildings will help keep the cost of the artists' studios low. A final building on the site has yet to be programmed; depending how the property evolves, it may become something like a printmakers' or sculptors' collective.

But it's the artists that are ultimately at the center of the project. "We've made a conscious effort to develop this specifically for artists and artists' usages. It's not a temporary thing—this is what we're building, what we're designing all the systems around."

According to Ladd, all of the buildings at Golden Belt will have their "warm shell"—the outer wall, windows, utilities and electric—completed by the end of the year, and the residential buildings will be ready to build out for tenants, with occupancy ready in April 2008. Plans are still being drawn up for the interior of the buildings, which is why Scientific Properties is so interested in gauging enthusiasm from local artists this early in the process. They will be able to adapt the plans based on who they expect their tenants to be, potentially providing additional amenities for specialized groups of artists, such as a darkroom if they know the building will have a group of photographers.

Ladd sees Golden Belt as a forerunner of a new style of development both in Durham and, she hopes, across the nation. "Cities and towns are really starting to recognize that it's not just cultural tourism, but also art and innovative thinking that is important to retain," she says. "It's partly because young, cultural people like to have cultural things to do and see—but it's also a different way of life and way of thinking that infuses innovation and creativity into everything.

"All across the country and the world, cities are being smarter about trying to retain or attract creative people," Ladd says.

The property, she adds, will have benefits for the surrounding community as well. The Edgemont neighborhood has recently been the recipient of new condominiums partially funded by the HOPE VI federally housing subsidy, and on a street nearby Golden Belt, Habitat for Humanity is currently building seven houses. The property is being left open with ample sidewalk access; Ladd assures me that they're very conscious that it not become a "compound" or enclave.

"We've gone down to a couple of working groups in the neighborhood, talking about the project, and there was a lot of excitement," Ladd says. "It's a huge area that's going to be stabilized and interesting and provide them with things to do, and it's going to raise the valuation of their homes as well."

Gary Kueber, a research associate at North Carolina State University's College of Design who blogs about Durham development at endangereddurham.blogspot.com, agrees with Ladd's assessment of Golden Belt's potential, describing it as "the kind of development East needs," providing the surrounding neighborhood with desired amenities. However, his optimism is cautious, fearing that the city government's actions in East Durham will continue to move in the wrong direction: "I think this kind of development can be the seed for neighborhood revitalization—and with HOPE VI, Habitat, UDI [Urban Development Institute], etc., houses in abundance, there is little risk of displacement with rising housing values. But the revitalization will be chopped off at the knees if various entities (NIS and the county) continue to demolish houses/ buildings and build nothing but shelters, social services, low-income housing and parking lots.

"People who actually live in that community want the same things that anyone does—grocery stores, laundries, park space, entertainment," Kuebler says.

That impulse, Ladd says, is exactly what Golden Belt is aiming for. "This project's really fun," she says, "because we get to look at Durham and ask, 'What are we missing?'"

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