Monday, November 17, 2014

A Distant Genesis of Durham’s Renaissance

Long before he became the single most important person in the revitalization of downtown Durham, North Carolina, he did the same for another community that often suffers the abuses of misuse of a hyphenated airport name.

It is also why he already understood the vast difference between a polycentric region such as the one Durham is often linked to, from one that is centered around one dominant city.

Polycentric means there is no dominant center.

Before coming to Duke University as Executive Vice President,  Dr. Tallman Trask III had served in that position for the University of Washington in my native Pacific Northwest (PNW.)

Having that in common when we met about that same time along with an enjoyment of sports cars, especially Porsches, we struck up a friendship.

From 1986 until mid-1995, Tallman oversaw $400 million of construction for “UDub,” as it is nicknamed including a satellite campus in south-Sound Tacoma, Washington that ignited revitalization of its historic downtown in 1990 (image below.)

It wasn’t until catching up in passing recently at a neighborhood restaurant where we both frequently dine that he told me my counterpart there in community destination marketing is the one who drew his attention to Tacoma’s downtown for the 4,500-student, 302-faculty member campus, one of three for the University of Washington.

This was happening just as I was jumpstarting the one in Durham and a few years before Tallman would follow me here.

Coincidentally, Wanetta Ayers, my counterpart who drew his attention to that historic district and who is now head of Business Partnerships for her native Alaska.

She had cut her teeth with me at the community destination marketing organization in Anchorage which I headed for most of a decade before jumpstarting the one in Durham.

My most vivid memories of Wanetta is that she was “killer” at Trivial Pursuits and was the first person to introduce me to Apple’s Macintosh computer when right after they were released she brought hers into our office of IBM personal computers.

The campus Tallman developed in Tacoma is in its historic Union Station District with century-old brick buildings built in the 1880s and early 1900s, much as the old tobacco warehouses were in downtown Durham.

There is where his partnership began with Scott Selig, who fresh from a degree at the University of Washington was managing a real estate portfolio for the school.

Today that 46-acre campus in Tacoma is in a historic district pinned by a steep bluff and Commencement Bay along the edge of its downtown, next to museums and the beautifully restored Union Station surrounded by restaurants, shops, parks and historic architecture with a spectacular view of Mount Rainier.

Another coincidence is that my nephew and his family now live in the historic Proctor District just to the north along the bluff above.

Tallman and Scott started the Tacoma campus by giving life to the 8-story, 1907 Perkins building, now residential condos, while establishing the permanent campus several blocks further south.

The master plan for the UDub’s Tacoma campus will eventually involve the adaptive reuse of at least 22 historic buildings with new facilities integrated as though they have always been there.

The effort has been widely acclaimed including a 1999 National Trust Historic Preservation Honor Award for initial renovation of the project’s first six historic warehouses.

But, then as now, Tallman’s respect for sense of place isn’t limited to historical buildings.

At the same time he was developing the Tacoma campus for UDub, he developed another satellite in Bothell, north of Seattle, which is just south of Mill Creek where my one of my sisters and brothers-in-law live.

Only the north-Sound Bothell campus is designed to fit in with its natural setting incorporating the restoration of a 60-acre wetland, winning accolades from the National Wildlife Federation.

During Tallman’s first years in Durham, we formed a mutual respect beyond our PNW connection, perhaps because I wasn’t always panhandling him for something as most others were.

He also saw me take some intense heat while standing firm behind a Duke decision to pass on a big event in the late 1990s even though others there would later reverse direction leaving me twisting in the wind.

After earning an MBA at Duke in the early 1990s, Scott served a stint with the family real estate business in his native Arkansas before returning to Durham in 2001 to reunite with Tallman as head of the school’s real estate and capital assets at Duke.

Together with Nan Koehane who was then serving a decade as Duke’s president, the three hatched a different approach to revitalizing downtown Durham.

This time they helped leverage even larger scale adaptive reuse of downtown historic buildings by being an anchor tenant including leasing a full fourth of the complex centered around the former Lucky Strike Factory giving lenders confidence its adaptive reuse was feasible.

It is a more nuanced approach: part major anchor, part for renovation and leasing, part facilitation and all done through partnering, shifting portions of 16 campus units to downtown Durham, in turn lessening pressure to cannibalize the school’s incredible natural setting.

Scott was also coming on my governing board just as I retired five years ago, further immersing himself in the importance of sense of place and the demand-side of visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Duke has now done this by taking nearly a million square feet of space in downtown including several other historic districts including the recently announced Durham Innovation District, 1.7 million square feet incorporating 15 acres of historic downtown adaptive reuse.

Tallman isn’t much for small talk and much of the work he has done to revitalize downtowns over nearly three decades now is an externality to his job and the missions of the universities he has managed.

He and Scott may agree with me that there is much Durham could learn from the more strategic approach Tacoma has taken while embracing historic preservation rather than viewing it as a hindrance as some here have begun to do.

It is impossible to say that revitalization wouldn’t have taken place without his intervention nor probably will Duke ever seek or be adequately recognized for the pivotal role it plays in Downtown Durham’s resurgence.

Even the template established in 1981 with Brightleaf Square reveals earlier Duke fingerprints, both in the backgrounds of its developers and as tenants for 50,000 square feet.

Should future historians, unfettered by hyperbole, ever drill down into this second renaissance of downtown Durham to identify the pivotal factor, I’m pretty sure the answer will be Duke University and Tallman Trask.

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