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Published March 25, 2015

Durham’s Lost Marketplace

Somewhere off of route 501, behind Southern States Volkswagen and the Carolina Ale House, lay the remains of the University Marketplace. If it doesn’t trigger fond shopping memories, don’t worry. The project never got beyond promises and paintings.

Perhaps it was doomed to fail. The crumbling buildings that would have housed cozy bookstores and kitschy restaurants sit on top of the former South Square Mall.

South Square closed its doors in 2002 after 27 years of commerce, when the last remaining anchor, a Dillard’s, finally shut down.

However, the true end came months before. South Square businesses defected to the newer, more upscale Southpoint in droves. The mall hadn’t changed with the times, and a shooting in May 2001 all but assured that its last days would soon approach.

Durham's Missing Marketplace - 1

The location was too good to remain empty. A Super Target emerged, and other businesses followed. In the shadow of the University Tower, South Square began to emerge from its own ashes as traffic picked up. In 2007, plans were filed to develop the University Marketplace for $75 million. The plan was ambitious. It called for mixed-used development, with residences and retail co-existing much like what Hillsborough Street is attempting to accomplish right now. It was approved and everything was looking up.

RELATED: Memories And Mysteries Of Catsburg Country Store In Durham.

Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. The Great Recession hit like a sack of potatoes to the gut, and funding dried up fast. Even paring down the cost to $60 million seemed to do little. The city’s incentives were withheld and lenders shied away as tightening purse strings stalled the project into oblivion.

To make matters worse, City Council members disagreed over what the land should be used for. Although the University Marketplace had already been given the green light, there were dissenters. Councilman Steve Schewel argues that the space would be better used as affordable housing, since it rests near a proposed transit stop should Durham’s Light Rail project kick in to full gear. The executive director of the Center for Real Estate Development at UNC-Chapel Hill, Stephen Cumbie, agrees.

  • I think mixed-use offers a challenge even in good times, particularly if you have different uses in the same building, Cumbie said in 2011. It’s still a fairly new development format.

However, as residents will argue, the last thing the city needs is more affordable housing.

  • Upscale shopping and housing is needed to breathe new life into this area. Young professionals with hopes and dreams–not the elderly, unemployed or those on public assistance. Reduce the blight of Durham. This area is dying, one commenter said in 2013 on an article in the Herald Sun

Meanwhile, much of the city’s resources have been focused on building and maintaining Southpoint, while South Square remains a footnote. Painted murals and tarps covering the empty lot illustrate what the University Marketplace could be, and those hopes and dreams are being crushed just as the remains of the South Square Mall once were.

RELATED: Riot Police And Peaceful Protesters: A Die-in In Durham.
Durham's Missing Marketplace - 2Durham's Missing Marketplace - 3 Durham's Missing Marketplace - 4

Now those paintings represent what the location is at this moment– a faded, broken remnant of a good idea torn up by elements beyond its control.

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  • Greg Trombley

    Greg

  • I'm an RDU-based novelist and passionate champion of scientific progression. Nature and science live side-by-side in my heart. I clean dinosaur bones in my spare time, and love reading about local history. All my articles.

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