By Elena Paces-Wiles
Special To The Tribune
Located in the heart of Durham, Northgate Mall has always served as a social hub. But, as developers plan to tear down the mall and build offices in its place, everyone has their own idea of how the property should be used.
And, after spending the entire fall semester covering the mall’s future, I’ve got one, too: The entire property should be allocated for affordable housing and a community-centered space that benefits the neighborhood it resides in.
With an annual growth rate of 1.87%, Durham’s population has increased from 187,000 in 2020 to 300,000 in 2023, according to World Population Review. As the city grows exponentially and gentrification drives housing prices up, the last thing Durham needs is more office space. Last year, the Raleigh-Durham area had a 12.8% office vacancy rate, according to colliers.com.
The Northgate property provides a unique opportunity to combat the cost increase by creating an affordable housing complex. Increased housing costs have driven longtime residents out of Durham neighborhoods, allowing wealthier tenants to move in. In turn, this leads to further rent increases.
Longtime residents are being pushed out of places like Walltown, a historically Black and low-income neighborhood located near the mall. Since Walltown falls in Riverside High School’s district, this could push families out of the school community.
This issue is close to the hearts of many who call Durham home. Over 100 people filed into the mall to hear Northwood employees’ plan during a Feb. 16 meeting. The Northgate property is now owned by Northwood Investors, a large firm with locations across the nation. Northwood plans to transform the mall into a life sciences office complex. By transforming the Northgate property into office space, the developers are wasting a critical opportunity to benefit the Durham community.
Using the space for affordable condos and apartments is one way to significantly combat the harm gentrification is doing to low-income residents. This would allow Walltown residents to remain in their homes, preserving Durham's diverse cultural history.
As Durham’s popularity increases, national attention turns to the Bull City. The current beige eyesore is doing nothing to attract new residents. In addition to affordable housing, the apartment complex should feature amenities like bus stops, grocery stores, and community gathering spaces. It should also feature greenery to show that affordable housing can be aesthetically pleasing, too. This plan will attract new residents while also allowing longtime residents to remain a part of the new and improved Durham.
It would be more expensive than the developer’s proposal but investing in the Durham community is worth the cost. A wealthy company like Northwood has the resources to do more with the property than create offices. And the city should provide tax breaks and funding towards the Northgate property in order to make it a financially viable decision for Northwood.
City funding could be allocated for the Northgate property under the condition that it is used in a way which truly benefits the residents. Northwood will sacrifice some profit initially, but the property could generate significant long-term revenue for the city.
As the Bull City becomes more popular, Durham cannot let private developers force longtime residents out. If local government doesn’t step in to combat this issue, Durham will lose its rich cultural history.
Elena Paces-Wiles is a student at Riverside High School who writes for the student newspaper.