Shopping in Durham

Elmos DinerMany people reacted to the announcement of a new mall with skepticism as in “the last thing the world needs is another mall.” We had two, one north and one south of the city’s core.  As malls go, Southpoint has certainly exceeded the expectations of many. In fact, it quickly became a regional attraction. For the upscale customer it included, among other things, the first Nordstrom’s in North Carolina. Someone who probably knows better than I told me that our Nordstrom’s only carries their “B” lines here in North Carolina but, as a big man, I sure like the idea of being able to buy a 18 ½ – 38 dress shirt without having to special order or sacrifice quality. And then there are the shoes…

As Southpoint became a shopping destination for the whole region it attracted other retail developments and residential neighborhoods. This included “firsts” in terms of national chain restaurants such as PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory and Ted’s Montana Grill. But it also had the impact of drawing the better tenants and customers of South Square, one of the original malls. Eventually, South Square closed and citizens watched in fascination, if not despair, as huge machines tore the mall down and hauled it away.

At first the demise of South Square seemed like one of those steps backward in the march of economic development. Before Downtown development took off, South Square was often referred to as the “new downtown.” In 1986 a Dallas developer with a son at Duke tried to bring a little bit of Texas to Durham and built a 17 story skyscraper across Chapel Hill Blvd from South Square.

Incongruous as it was towering over everything in the area, it quickly picked up all sorts of nicknames including the Green Pickle. Still, it is actually quite a lovely building especially at dawn or dusk when the sunlight is at the right angle. As the tallest building in the city it is the primary landmark for the area. From the University Club on its top floor, where once you could see the roof of the mall now you can see the roofs of a Sam’s Club and a Super Target.  You also see several new office buildings. The recession delayed some development in the area and closed some of the auto dealerships but the area is again on the move.

The other regional mall in Durham is called Northgate. Northgate is locally owned and even though it is older it has been upgraded several times over the years. Northgate serves the north side of town, as well as Trinity Park and other neighborhoods around Duke’s East Campus. Since it is right on I-85 it is also the most convenient mall to areas just west of Durham including Hillsborough, Mebane, and Efland. Northgate has over 160 stores and is anchored by Macy’s and Sears.

Shopping in Durham may never be the same experience it is in New York or other metropolitan areas, but, hey, half the pleasure of shopping in New York is making the trip. Right?

Cross the floor to the other side of the University Club and the view to the northeast consists of a green canopy of trees and the spire of Duke Chapel at the heart of the Duke University campus. Part of that canopy is literally a forest known as Duke Forest that is owned by the University. The neighborhood named Duke Forest is also under that canopy.Brightleaf Square

You could make the argument that Durham’s revival began with the development of Brightleaf Square,  which turned two large Liggett Tobacco Warehouses in to upscale retail, restaurants and, some office space on the upper levels. For several years highly produced street operas, sponsored by the Arts Council were preformed in the courtyard. Several blocks to the west on the western edge of Duke’s East Campus, Ninth Street flourished as a funky and fun shopping and eating area. Ninth Street has gradually become more upscale but it still retains it college town charm. Nearby Broad Street has a busy Whole Foods store. Harris-Teeter, Kroger, and Food Lion dominate the supermarket spaces in town but Fresh Market has open a store near South Square.