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"Adaptive reuse" brings old warehouses and garages to life

I recently visited an American city with many downtown buildings from a long-departed industry. The city's downtown is now experiencing new life, and many of the historic buildings are finding new uses after sitting vacant for many years.

This is a complex of old warehouses which have now become retail and offices. The developer added a really amazing water feature, a long river which cascades down waterfalls at various intervals. There are small footbridges across the river and even stepping stones to cross in one place.

The old chutes for the products remain and now serve as decorative flourishes. In the center is an old railcar, like those that once transported goods to and from the facility.

At another location nearby, people have turned several old garages into bars and music halls. They've also become a popular spot for food trucks, and 2 were sitting outside as we passed by on a Saturday.

Both of these demonstrate the preservation concept of "adaptive reuse." Old, historic buildings can become a valued part of a changing community by taking on different functions that residents need today. The distinct architecture of the structures and the small details that nobody would build today adds character and interest.

Bonus question: Can you guess the city?

Update: Several commenters got it very quickly. This is Durham, North Carolina. The large development is the American Tobacco Campus, where tobacco warehouses have become high-end retail adjacent to the new stadium for the Durham Bulls. The garage-turned-bar and music hall is called Motorco, in honor of the building's historic use.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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by David Garber on Apr 24, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport


by Canaan on Apr 24, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

Durham, NC

by Mac on Apr 24, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

Durham, old tobacco warehouses.

by Thayer-D on Apr 24, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

If it is Durham like everyone else is agreeing on then thats really neat because I have a friend down there who is in right of the middle of that rennaissance with both where he lives and the concerts he helps run/promote. I'll be going down there for a music festival in June in that area.

by Canaan on Apr 24, 2012 4:33 pm • linkreport

Could this be the future of the Florida Avenue Market?

by Eric on Apr 24, 2012 4:35 pm • linkreport

Yes, it's Durham. The first example is from a huge development, American Tobacco ( It's helped by being right next to the minor league baseball stadium, but was far enough from most of downtown when it was redeveloped that people felt safe enough to go there. Another built-in advantage is the demand for office space from Duke University (particularly its medical center) and companies that cluster around Duke. Still, though, the redevelopment was done quite well.

The more surprising stuff is over in the area near the "old garages" like those in the latter example. This is actually near the old baseball stadium (as seen in "Bull Durham"), which still remains, hosting plenty of events but not usually drawing huge crowds any more. This is basically on the other side of downtown, and as a longtime Durham resident I never expected that area to take off so well. I mean, it had lots of potential, but so did all of downtown Durham--and until the late 2000s very few people ventured there after dark.

by Gray on Apr 24, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

Not only that, but Durham recently passed a tax for a light rail system through downtown and a commuter rail system to Raleigh. Raleigh hasn't done its part yet, but - with luck - it will soon.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 24, 2012 5:05 pm • linkreport

There's a long article about the revitalization in the Duke alumni magazine:

by MS on Apr 24, 2012 5:06 pm • linkreport

OctaviusIII: I wouldn't be too worried about Orange county approving the tax as well, but Wake County is significantly more conservative so their approval is by no means a done deal. If it were just Raleigh, not so bad, but the county containing Raleigh is huge and almost entirely suburban. And it looks like if all three don't approve the tax, then Durham won't collect it at all. At the least it would be unclear what they would spend it on...

by Gray on Apr 24, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

OctaviusIII: It's interesting what Yonah says in that transit article that few people commute between Wake and Durham. The distance from Durham to Raleigh is about the same as Ashburn, VA to downtown DC. People commute that, though they complain a lot about the commute, and perhaps rightly so as it's pretty far.

In a smaller metro area, that's a lot of distance. But I'd always been under the impression that there actually was a lot of commuting between the 2, and saw some stat that the Triangle had the highest VMT per capita of any area of comparable size or something like that, perhaps because it's polycentric.

Gray: The article makes it look like if Orange approves then they can spend it on more transit between Durham and Chapel Hill, which is pretty important.

There was a lot of new transit when I was there, too. There's a new free bus that goes through downtown and over to Duke University, for example.

by David Alpert on Apr 24, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

Yet another example of why part of me knows, in my heart of hearts, that I just want to go back to my home state of North Carolina to pursue a career in urban revitalization and development. There's so much opportunity - and willingness! - to try to fix some of the planning issues NC has faced since the decline of industry in the state.

by Alison on Apr 24, 2012 5:46 pm • linkreport

David Alpert: Keep in mind that a lot of the jobs are actually between the two, in RTP. And while lots of people commute between counties, they're often going between suburbs or between a suburb and RTP. But both downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham are showing dramatic improvement, and real investment in transit could accelerate that. It's just not going to be a place where it's easy to get to where most of the jobs are via transit any time soon.

As for the tax revenue still funding transit even without full buy-in, I'd like to think they'll stick to that--but I suspect that things will change dramatically if one or more counties fails to pass the referendum. There does seem to be more support for Durham county still doing something than I expected, which is promising.

by Gray on Apr 24, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

Alison: One advantage that cities in NC have had for decades is that it's been very easy for them to annex. This is how Durham's boundaries have grown to take over most of the county, containing a large chunk of commuters to the city even as pretty much all residents lived in the suburbs. Contrast that to, say, DC's experience.

[of course, until 1992 Durham had separate school districts for the inner city (90%+ black) and county (90%+ white), but that's a different issue]

by Gray on Apr 24, 2012 5:58 pm • linkreport

The greenest brick is the one that's already there.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 24, 2012 6:07 pm • linkreport

Hah, I saw this scroll into view on my rss and was immediately wondering why my hometown was being talked about by GGW. The entire downtown area has been undergoing significant revitalization for the last 15 years. There are actually some fairly significant parallels between the Triangle and the DC area: The high number of tech, medicine and science research jobs - and the associated level of education within the population; a strongly political minority population that was adversely affected by the development of local highway systems; a large number of originally non-local residents; several major research universities and other universities including a notable HBCU; and probably even more that aren't coming to mind off hand.

by Greg on Apr 24, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] What's interesting is how little of this there is in DC, in part because it really didn't have much industry. Just go to Baltimore for the weekend and compare the amount of building stock they had for industrial uses that have been readapted for commercial and residential purposes. DC is starting from a much lower starting point on this.

by JustMe on Apr 24, 2012 6:41 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this article. Love such uses of old buildings. Someday you should travel to Richmond, Virginia and see all that they have done there...and continue to do...quite amazing...especially along the downtown canal and waterfront along with The Fan and Church Hill Historic Districts.

by Pelham1861 on Apr 25, 2012 8:37 am • linkreport

Several examples of this in the old "tobacco belt." Richmond, Winston-Salem, to name a couple.

by Brian on Apr 25, 2012 9:29 am • linkreport

You neglected to include the revitalized Amtrak station in Durham as well: and

by Cassidy on Apr 25, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

That water feature at ATC is really something else. I do wonder whether their market study was done assuming that more offices would be built off-site, though -- it still feels a bit empty when there's not an event going on. Even though it's a really amazing interior passage, it's also a shame that they felt the need to turn almost all the retail inwards, onto it rather than onto the streets. There are lots of great shops scattered around downtown Durham (there, at Brightleaf or Ninth, or north around the DAP/farmers market), but walking between them isn't exactly thrilling.

by Payton on Apr 25, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

This is an excellent example of where architecture makes a big difference. Can you imagine a retrofit of a big box building creating such a wonderful environment like an old Best Buy Box? First of all, it wouldn't hold up for the 100 plus years these buildings have, and secondly, being no more than boxes for consumption, no one would waste the time an effort to re-purpose those buildings. Solid masonry walls with decoration will make a comeback, it's just a matter of time.

by Thayer-D on Apr 25, 2012 10:28 am • linkreport

You should visit the B&O Warehouse in Martinsburg, WV to see how a project like can be a spectacular, and expensive, failure.

by dcdriver on Apr 25, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

In California, MD, down the road from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, an old Loews store has been re-purposed into offices for the defense contractor BAE Systems. Its a bizarre looking building, made more so by the fact that there aren't nearly enough workers or visitors to fill even 10% of the massive parking lot surrounding the building.

by dcdriver on Apr 25, 2012 6:13 pm • linkreport

Wow, I lived in Durham as a kid from '84 to '92 and Durham had nothing going downtown other than Brightleaf Square. Nice to see.

by NikolasM on Apr 26, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

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