Durham looks to renovate, keep small-town charm

By Rachel Follender
On May 3, 2013

Among the various artifacts in Todd Selig's office on 15 Newmarket Road, a rectangular wooden frame holds a panoramic scene of Main Street, Durham circa 1988. Selig points out that the photograph and present-day Main Street are identical - a comparison, up until recently, symbolic of Durham's history.
As the town's administrator since 2001, Selig said he has encountered, first hand, the need for redevelopment within the community.
"Other than the last few years, the only new development Durham has seen is the reconstruction of Libby's Bar and Grill after a fire," Selig said. "If you drive through downtown today there is a lot of new construction taking place."
The building boom comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes, from various housing development projects to commercial expansion in the downtown area. With a changing economy and housing market, many people believe the time is right-and right now-to foster a more effective relationship within the town of Durham, between its residents and business owners with the university and its students.
"It's like the saying goes, 'you need to change and grow or die.' There's some truth to that," Director of Planning and Development Michael Behrendt said. "I do believe if you don't change at all you slowly wither away."
The need for redevelopment, both in physical construction and community relationships, is not atypical of New Hampshire college towns. Plymouth, N.H.'s code enforcer and building inspector Brian Murphy said that in the past, the town of Plymouth and Plymouth State University have struggled to collaborate efficiently.
"For years, the town and Plymouth did not get along. The administration would blow us off," Murphy said.
City Manager of Keene, N.H., John MacLean, on the other hand, commended his city's ability to work so well together, and to develop a bond between the town's administration, residents, and Keene State College.
While Plymouth's student population of roughly 5,000 matches that of the town, the residents of Keene nearly quadruple the 6,000 students that attend KSC. Approximately 15,000 people attend UNH, outnumbering Durham's inhabitants by 2,500, give or take.
Despite the fact that each of these New England campus communities thrive and function in different ways, they've all faced the same problems. Durham is in the midst of tackling some of these issues head on - bringing about a wave of revitalization that could propel Durham, and New Hampshire's largest university, into it's golden age, or years of tension.

A Changing Economy

2008 became a pivotal year for Durham after the economy tanked and the recession took hold. As off-campus student apartments aged, the corresponding value for the price of rent fell into decline. The fact remains, however, that students need a place to live, and in an underdeveloped rural college town, housing markets become a cash cow. Durham Code Enforcement Officer Tom Johnson explained how over the years, this economical pattern turned into a vicious cycle.
"Part of the problem is that there is no stiff competition," Johnson said. "Students are willing to sign a lease, so there's no incentive for landlords to do major renovations."
The trade-off for close proximity to the bars and campus could mean lack of insulation and energy-efficient appliances, meaning that students footing their own utility bill might have an unnecessary additional expense each month, on top of an already overpriced rent.
"If you live on the first floor of one of these older buildings and you're paying the heating bill, you might just be paying to heat the tenants living above you," Johnson explained.
Every September, Johnson gets calls from disgruntled parents who are angry with him for letting their children live in structures that haven't undergone inspection. He added that in his 11 years as Durham's code enforcement officer, he's seen far too many students sign leases for the wrong reasons.
In the past, Johnson couldn't inspect apartment buildings in Durham unless certain circumstances prevailed, such as medical calls being made and EMTs reporting poor living standards, or a referral from the fire or police department. While Johnson categorized most of these incidents as "accidents," he offers a valuable service that he urges students to take utilize.
"Any student can call the health officer, fire department, plumbing or fire inspector if they feel their living conditions are unhealthy or unsafe," Johnson said. "We will come and do an inspection as a service for the tenant. A lot of students don't take advantage of that."
Less than standard off-campus student housing in Keene is an issue MacLean is familiar with as well. The city implemented a voluntary inspection program - landlords who have their properties inspected are put on a list published and advertised by the college, allowing students and parents to see exactly which apartments meet their expectations. According to MacLean, the system has been extremely successful due to strong collaboration between the town and college.
Due to Durham's large student population and little availability for off-campus housing, the town's approach has been more demanding.
In January, a new housing inspection ordinance was passed that is drastically changing the shape of downtown Durham. Now, landlords are required to have their rental properties inspected once a year to ensure certain standards are being met. If living standards have fallen too far into disrepair, proper renovations must be implemented in order to rent out apartments.
The new guidelines have received a great deal of negative backlash from the Durham Landlords Association, which is threatening lawsuit. But with an overwhelming amount of landlords receiving failure notices to fix, Johnson said they are beginning to reevaluate whether they want to stay as owners and put in the money to renovate, or sell their properties.
The new ordinance hasn't been the first damper on business when it comes to the older units. In the last several years, larger developers have taken note of the high demand for student housing in Durham. An endeavor that on a large scale can turn huge profits.
Some of these large-production projects include The Cottages on Technology Drive as of last summer and Bryant Park West out on Mast Road as of 2006.
Bryant Park West Developer Perry Bryant in particular has led the way when it comes to the direction in which Durham's residential growth is headed. Bryant wanted to bring a project to town that would directly meet the needs of UNH students looking for places to live off campus.
"I did a market survey with UNH students and that's what prompted me to build this," he said.
Bryant Park apartments are fully energy efficient, and come with utilities included. Bryant said that in the past, students hadn't been getting what they expected in terms of quality, and his priorities of meeting those expectations became one of the first steps in the changing housing market.
"Students are the economic engine when it comes to investment," Bryant said. "If UNH wasn't here, there wouldn't be any apartments. I think sometimes the town forgets that."
With newer, nicer and energy-efficient apartments filling up rapidly, it quickly became clear that a simple upgrade in quality and standards could be beneficial to investors. And after the implementation of the 2013 inspection ordinance, the demand for housing similar to Bryant Park began to grow.
After The Cottages rented out completely months before construction was even completed, other larger builders began to notice Durham and the one factor that hadn't yet been capitalized on: location.
With less-than-ideal housing availability, students have been forced to relocate to the faculty neighborhoods and surrounding towns such as Dover and Newmarket. That meant commercial establishments lost business, and turmoil arose as students and families were forced to cohabitate.
With the influx of larger developers closing in on Durham (names such as Peak, Capstone and Orion probably have a familiar ring to them) town officials saw opportunity in downtown development.

A Town With Two Communities

Durham is no stranger to the problems that arise from a college integrated into a small community. With a large number of students wanting to remain closer to the university, the faculty and family neighborhoods become a viable option.
It's a scenario that is all too familiar to Durham - college-aged residents move into the faculty communities, and the neighborhood becomes a melting pot of students and families - two clashing demographics.
"The lifestyles are completely different," Behrendt said. "Residents in the neighborhoods go to bed by nine or ten, and students are out later at night and making more noise."
The issue has resulted in a large number of complaints from residents over the years. Durham Chief of Police David Kurz said that receiving police calls from families is a common occurrence.
"Students don't get that when they go outside their voices carry when they start yelling stuff down the street that a fifth or sixth grader's parents don't want them to hear," Kurz said.
These issues haven't been unique to Durham. The disruptiveness of students in residential neighborhoods in Plymouth has been a major issue as well, according to Murphy.
"There's always noise complaints," Murphy said. "We rewrote the disorderly actions ordinance so people aren't partying in those neighborhoods."
In Plymouth, students who live in family areas are deterred from throwing parties or being too loud by a hefty fine that comes as a consequence. Kurz, on the other hand, hopes to see less need for policing of these communities in Durham with some of the new developments coming under foot.
One such project stands, nestled in between 17 Madbury Road and Tedeschi, at 9 Madbury Road: a large student-housing complex that opened the summer of 2012. The apartments in the complex meet the new required standards for energy efficient amenities, and are up to code.
9 Madbury Road demonstrates a development trend similar to Bryant Park apartments and The Cottages: large-scale student communities with up-to-date facilities constructed downtown. Similar projects in the works include 10 Pettee Brook Lane, which is nearing completion, and the proposals for several other residential buildings as well.
It is likely that within the next year, 17 Madbury Road, also known as "The Greens," will be torn down and rebuilt as a large unit as well. Other discussions include the potential for a student-housing complex built on the right side of Main Street when coming from campus, in between some of the existing houses and Mill Plaza.
One of the larger benefits, at least in theory, of these expansive developments, is that it will bring students out of the faculty neighborhoods and back into the downtown and main campus area.
The new buildings may bring students back from the Dover and Newmarket areas as well, and while Kurz said he fully anticipates hiring additional law enforcement as a result, he is in favor of the construction.
 "When big money is invested into a project, it's not like the investors want to see their project destroyed," Kurz said. "They get the kids [who] are going to have parties, and that's fine, but not when property is damaged."
Kurz said that some of the already-existing newer housing communities have demonstrated proper management ability (he added that the number of calls the Durham Police Department has received regarding The Cottages is fewer than some single houses), keeping the number of police calls to a minimum.
Town officials feel that students leaving the faculty neighborhoods and coming back to the university area is a win-win for everyone. In addition to a balanced community, a larger consumer base is brought back into the downtown area as well, allowing for a total rejuvenation of the town, if all goes according to plan.

A town revitalized

Residents of Durham can enjoy a cold treat this summer at FroyoWorld, and women have a new fashion selection with Sole Sister. Both retailers are located on the first floor of 9 Madbury Road, and thanks to new building standards, it won't be the first time commercial and residential businesses come together in one building.
10 Pettee Brook Lane and other emerging housing projects in the near future will be modeled in the same way. For all new three-story residential units in the downtown area, it is a requirement that the first floor be commercial, retail or office space. If the unit is four stories, the same is true for an additional floor as well.
For the owner of FroyoWorld, Lynn Caesar, the opportunity couldn't have been better.
"We wanted a place where the community could come for a little R and R and we thought this [9 Madbury] would be the perfect location," Caesar said, adding that the shops location has positively impacted and driven business.
Increased business is something many people feel the community could benefit from. This is the driving force behind Durham's biggest potential new development, and while nothing is official, a majority of town officials feel the project will come to fruition and be completed within the next few years.
The plan is to relocate the Interoperability Lab from its current location on Technology Drive to downtown, where the old ATO house currently sits. The lot where People's United Bank is located, as well as a connecting piece of land owned by the town, would be part of the development as well.
Redevelopment of the lots would tentatively include an underground parking garage, graduate student housing and additional commercial space as well.
Mike Sievert of MJS Engineering said that the project would be "the best thing for downtown development."
Sievert, who has done various engineering and design work for projects in Durham, attended UNH and lives in the town. He said he would like to see the redevelopment of Durham go as planned, and that the IOL proposal in particular is key in revamping the community.
"The IOL bring so many visitors to Durham and the university on a weekly basis," he said. "By relocating it, you bring all those employees and all that business to the downtown area."
While there are many who support redevelopment of Durham, there are still those who oppose the change, and are afraid that Durham will lose its small-town charm. Town officials are aware and are making strides to handle these circumstances accordingly.
"We want development downtown but we need to be patient," Behrendt said.
Whether or not all the plans for Durham's future become a reality, it's evident that it's future looks different than its present. With a broadening tax base, a more robust array of goods and services has already begun to increase, along with a better-balanced community and relationship between the town and university.
One thing that will continue to remain the same is the makeup of the community. Durham is an ecosystem made up of professors, families, students and professionals, a unique and exciting way of life that only small college towns are familiar with.
"People accept change at differing rates," Selig said. "The Durham 10 years from now might look very different from the Durham today, but it's very likely that the Durham of the future will be even more attractive."

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