Places in Peril 2012: Driver Street Storefronts

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Why It’s Important:
The 300 block of South Driver is one of only a few intact early-twentieth-century retail blocks in outside of downtown Durham. This once-thriving commercial block anchored the eastern limits of the Durham Light & Traction trolley system as Ninth Street did to the west of town. Surrounding neighborhoods packed with families of mill workers and merchants could find in a single block the East Durham branch of Fidelity Bank (designed by Rose & Rose in 1921), the A&P Food Store, D.W. Brown Dry Cleaners, Ferguson Grocery, the East Durham Post Office, Lynette’s Restaurant, and Marion’s.

Why it’s in peril:

Like many neighborhood retail centers, the area declined throughout the latter part of the century with the loss of nearby manufacturing jobs, the abandonment of the trolley system, and the advent of the automobile and the suburban shopping center. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, most of these buildings are vacant, several boarded and padlocked. At least two are occupied by storefront churches, a land use that can help protect abandoned commercial buildings from vandalism, but does not contribute to the critical mass of regular foot traffic needed to sustain a retail district.

What’s needed:
Preservation Durham supports immediate stabilization of the buildings to protect them from ongoing deterioration. In the short term, the storefronts should house community spaces, art studios, and temporary retail shops, generating street level activity and raising awareness about the value and potential of the area. In the long term, the buildings should be fully renovated and populated by a mix of retail sales and services needed by the surrounding neighborhood. State and Federal tax incentives available to contributing structures in the East Durham National Register Historic District could help offset some of the renovation costs.

Preservation North Carolina and Preservation Durham are collaborating on Project RED (Revitalize East Durham) – an effort to restore and rebuild work force housing throughout East Durham, and Self Help Credit Union is planning a $10.4 million renovation of the nearby East Durham Graded School building. At the same intersection, Joe Bushfan has opened a preservation-award-winning restaurant and coffee shop. As these and other efforts spur East Durham’s renaissance, the 300 block of Driver Street could once again become the vibrant commercial center of a thriving neighborhood.