It’s taken years to bring the bright lights back to Winston-Salem’s downtown skyline.
As recently as 15 years ago, downtown was often thought to be a busy workplace for professionals during the day, but at night, darkness was a main feature. Many places didn’t stay open after hours, and there were few things to attract folks who didn’t work downtown.
But slowly, things were changing. In 2003, work began to transform the Nissen Building on Fourth Street from an aging office building to upscale apartments. That project brought scores of new residents to downtown. The next year, the Children’s Museum opened on Liberty Street, beckoning families to the city.
Former warehouses were transforming into lofts. Galleries and specialty shops were springing up in a place now known as the Arts District. The tobacco factory-area now has a new name, too—Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. The long-dormant buildings no longer make tobacco products, but are now places where tech companies grow and medical students learn.
Some established businesses in the outskirts of the city found new life by relocating. Just look at Skippy’s Hot Dogs, where long lines were the norm after it relocated from a shopping center on Hanes Mall Boulevard to a storefront on Fourth Street. By the time owner Mike Rothman closed the business earlier this year to fight brain cancer, the culinary community had grown so strong it was able to band together to reopen Skippy’s for eight days, raising more than $100,000 to help Rothman pay his medical expenses.
There were some growing pains along the way, of course. Some restaurants, shops, and workplaces had their entire lifespans come and go despite the growth spurt.
Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, has been watching the transformation for 25 years, going back to a time when skeptics far outnumbered optimists. The disinvestment in downtown took decades, he points out, and it will take years to get that back. Despite the obvious signs of turnaround, he doesn’t see that the city has yet hit the tipping point.
“We’ve had some good successes, but we won’t be satisfied as long as we still have vacant storefronts and parking lots,” he says.
There’s room for more retail, and the demand for more entertainment options remains strong. Thiel says talks are in the works to bring a bowling alley downtown.
But otherwise, the gleam is back in downtown. The following offers a quick overview of what’s to come.
More Places to Learn
Families that wanted to take in both the Children’s Museum and SciWorks in a single day have had to plan on a 9-mile trip from downtown to northern Winston-Salem. But that will soon be changing.
The museums officially merged earlier this summer, and the plan is to move both operations into a new building on Third Street, where the former sheriff’s office was located. It hasn’t been designed yet, but when completed should have an estimated 40,000 square feet of exhibition space.
“We’re really creating a great family anchor where there’s not been an anchor yet,” says Elizabeth Dampier, a co-executive director of the combined museum.
SciWorks has been a hands-on museum focused mainly around science and health, while the Children’s Museum has concentrated on books and storytelling. Uniting the two should help expand the offerings, Dampier says. “We’re trying to look at it through a holistic lens,” she says. “Not just arts and science, but focusing on how children learn.”
Attendance should expand, too, she says. The Children’s Museum has had a strong reach across a 25-county area, Dampier says, based on memberships and school visits. That map should get wider once the new museum starts to grow.
But the opportunities aren’t just for kids.
Construction is underway for a renovated Central Library on Fifth and Spring streets. Where once there were two somewhat mismatched buildings—one built in the 1950s and one built in the ’70s—there will now be a single integrated building with just over 100,000 square feet of space. Ground broke on the project a year ago, and despite a few holdups, the library is on schedule to reopen next summer. When it does, the $28 million facility will offer a range of amenities, including an auditorium, art gallery, teen center, children’s library, and café—along with gardens and sculptures outside.
More Ways to Get There
In the very near future, a pedestrian and cycling route will be in place that connects the neighborhoods around downtown to the city’s central core.
“We’re really looking at the street network and where we can add bike lanes and greenways,” says Matthew Burczyk, transportation project planner for the city.
Already underway is the Rail Trail Greenway that cuts through the Innovation Quarter. The first phase will run adjacent to an abandoned rail line from MLK Jr. Drive to Rams Drive, passing over a pedestrian bridge at Third Street. Plans call for it to eventually connect to the Salem Creek Greenway and Salem Lake Trails, creating a continuous 20-mile loop.
And when Business 40 is renovated over the next few years, the plans include a new bike and pedestrian path from Lockland Avenue to Liberty Street that will be alongside but disconnected from the highway. This ‘greenway on the interstate’ will be one of the first of its kind in America. “What we hear time and time again is people want separated facilities,” says Burczyk. It makes them feel safer to be out of the traffic.
And the Green Street Bridge, which used to carry commuters from downtown to points south, is being converted into a bike-and-pedestrian-only bridge, connecting neighborhoods south of the highway to BB&T Ballpark and downtown.
Burczyk says the city has worked with Innovation Quarter, the National Cycling Center, and the USA Cycling Championship to help create a downtown that is more accessible for cyclists and walkers, creating a link to surrounding neighborhoods including West Salem, Ardmore, and the West End.
“The more facilities we provide the better off we’ll be,” he says.
More Places to Stay
The downtown hotel landscape is changing faster than at any time since the implosion of the Robert E. Lee Hotel.
The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel has opened in the iconic former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. headquarters, adding 174 guest rooms and a touch of class in the center city.
Just a few blocks away, the 1920s-era Pepper Building will see a new day as Hotel Indigo. The six-story building has 49,000 square feet, and developers will use historic tax credits in its renovation. They also see a possible expansion area on the west side into Merschel Plaza. Once completed, the boutique hotel will feature 75 guest rooms, meeting rooms, a fitness center, and two restaurants (more on that later).
Just around the block, ground has been cleared for another hotel project—a 119-room Hampton Inn & Suites. The hotel will rise along a 5.4 acre tract at the corner of Third and Cherry streets. While renderings have yet to be released, we’re hearing construction should start by this fall.
Elsewhere in downtown, city council members recently approved plans to build a hotel overlooking BB&T Ballpark—part of a proposed $96 million development known as The Brookstown District. The first phase of development calls for a six-story 133-room hotel along with apartment units, a parking deck, and retail space. A second phase will include another hotel, a grocery store, and office/retail buildings. No start date has been set, but the entire project is scheduled to be finished in 2021.
In addition to new hotels being built, other established hotels are getting a makeover. The two hotels comprising the Twin City Quarter—the 315-room Marriott and the 145-room Embassy Suites—were recently sold to Atlanta-based Hospitality Ventures Management Group, which plans to make nearly $20 million in improvements. The renovations will dovetail with a planned $15 million makeover of the nearby Benton Convention Center. The project will spruce up the center’s badly dated interior and also create a new entrance at Fifth Street. When completed, the project will add more space, update the center’s audiovisual technology, and have architectural tie-ins to the city’s artistic and industrial heritage. Work is scheduled to be completed next spring.
The growth of the downtown hotels is spurring another trend...
More Places to Eat
The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel brought us the recently opened The Katharine Brasserie & Bar (below). Its cuisine is French but with a nod to the American South: You can get your baked escargot with hush puppies, and country fried duck breast is on the plats du jour. (Read more in this month's Food for Thought column).
The Hotel Indigo is also planning two restaurants. One is a revival of one of the building’s former tenants, The Sir Winston, a popular steakhouse and bar located on the site’s ground floor. The other, The Prince Albert Restaurant & Bar, will be stationed in the building’s basement, taking its name from the popular pipe tobacco introduced by RJR in the early 1900s.
The dining scene is growing outside of the hotel expansion, too. There’s also restaurant and café space included in the plans for the National Cycling Center on Liberty Street. A few feet away, Crafted: The Art of the Taco—which gets rave reviews for its two Greensboro locations—is coming to a standalone building on Liberty and could be open by the end of the year. A new brewery, Wiseman Brewing, is also set to open later this fall. It will occupy the old Angelo Brothers warehouse at 826 N. Main St., next to the now-closed Ziggy’s.
And finally, we’ve heard that Skippy’s Hot Dogs will indeed reopen in its old spot on Fourth Street, albeit under new ownership. While former owner Mike Rothman won’t be around to man the kitchen, he’s entrusted his famous pretzel-roll recipe to the new owners, who also plan to expand Skippy’s into the space next door.
More Places to Live
Paul Norby estimates that the downtown population amounted to only a few hundred people when he came here in 1999. Now, the planning director for the city and county says the number is about 5,000.
And Norby says that could double within the next few years as jobs are added at Innovation Quarter.
The evolution of the housing market has been driven by milestones both small and large, Norby says. The opening of the Nissen Building Apartments and the One West Fourth Street building were key developments, he says. Foothills Brewing and Mellow Mushroom opened around 2005, driving younger people to the Fourth Street area—and the road was made a two-way street again for the first time in years, with landscaping to make it more attractive. “All of these things got people to pay attention to the residential market,” he says.
Much of the growth came from transforming the city’s aging buildings into something new. That’s what happened with Mill 800, a 170-unit apartment building, which opened in April near Northwest Boulevard. The units are in the former Chatham Mill, which dates to 1907 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Twin City Lofts, in the former 1960s Twin City Club building at Fourth and Marshall, is going from office space to luxury condos. We’ve also heard rumors that the GMAC tower on Fifth Street has been bought by PMC Property Group and will be converted into a mixed-use space with apartments.
But a fundamental change in downtown housing could be on the horizon. “We’re getting to the point where we’re using up most of the older building stock,” he says.
That means it won’t be long until new downtown residents are moving into newly constructed buildings rather than repurposed buildings.
In some places, that’s already happening. Close to Innovation Quarter, a four-story apartment project named 757 North is underway. Plans call for a 115-unit building, with a quarter of the initial rentals set aside for affordable housing. Goler CDC and a Charlotte company are working together to create the project on Chestnut Street near MLK Jr. Drive. The city is helping with more than $1 million in loan financing.
When viewed as a whole, it’s easy to see why so many are excited about the downtown of tomorrow. While no one knows what the future holds for certain, it’s clear that the right pieces are in place. There’s a general feeling that the renaissance we’re seeing now is far from over, and that downtown’s brightest days are still looming on the horizon.
“There’s definitely a renewed energy downtown,” Thiel told us. “But in many ways, we’re just revisiting the past. The reason downtowns were started was that people needed a place to gather and exchange goods. And today we’re rebuilding a city with a new generation of entrepreneurs.”
On the Horizon: Five more landmark projects currently underway.
Plant 60 (Wake Downtown) – With 283,000 square feet of space, this colossal U-shaped warehouse was built in the 1920s during the boom years of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. A portion of the building was reopened in recent weeks following a $100 million renovation by Wexford Science + Technology. One half of the building now serves as home-base for Wake Forest’s School of Medicine and welcomed its first students—about 480 of them—in early August. The other half is set to open in January 2017 and will be filled by Wake’s two new undergraduate programs: Biomedical Sciences and Engineering. By the time the new programs are fully operational in 2021, officials expect approximately 350 undergrads to be studying in the Innovation Quarter.
Bailey Power Plant – Constructed in the 1920s, Bailey Power Plant and its 14-story smokestacks have been one of the city’s most iconic structures for almost a century. Wexford Science + Technology is now leading a $40 million renovation that will convert the 111,000 sq. ft. plant into a unique mixed-used entertainment destination. While nothing is confirmed, we’ve heard rumors that an upscale bowling alley, movie theater, music venue, and brewery could potentially occupy the space, along with offices, restaurants, retail, and outdoor communal space. Construction recently got underway, and we’ve heard the project could be complete by early 2018.
Texas Pete Headquarters – Officials with T.W. Garner added some spice to downtown when they announced plans to relocate the Texas Pete headquarters to the historic Nash-Bolich building on Fourth Street. About 26 employees will move into a 14,500 sq. ft. section on the building’s second floor once construction wraps in 2017. The company is also constructing a space on the side of the building for an expanded “test kitchen” that will be visible from the new corporate boardroom. Production will remain at T.W. Garner’s facility on Indiana Avenue, where it has 65 employees.
AFAS Center for the Arts – According Harry Knabb, chairman of Arts for Arts Sake (AFAS), this three-story building rising at the corner of Seventh and Liberty will be unlike anything the Triad has ever seen. It will feature a modern design with translucent walls and red highlights that complement the adjacent ARTivity park. “The cool part is that the white on the building is polycarbonate, a translucent material that will give a diffused light to the studios,” says Knabb. “At night they will be backlit, so the building will glow.” Designed by architects with STITCH, the $4 million building is set to open by May 2017. It will consolidate AFAS’ functions into one location, including the Red Dog Gallery and Unleashed Arts Center, and will also have 10 affordable artist studios. The top floor will have a board room that can be rented and features a balcony overlooking ARTivity.
U.S. National Cycling Center – For more than a year, a 50-foot banner has been touting the building at 505 N. Liberty St. as the “Home of the National Cycling Center.” While the project has been stymied by various permit issues and delays, officials say construction is now underway and should escalate this month. Once completed, the 42,000 sq. ft. center will serve as training grounds for the country’s top cyclists. The second floor will be dedicated solely to the center, including dorm rooms, a nutrition center, and training areas. The other floors will have a multiuse component that could include apartments, restaurants, wellness centers, and a brewpub. Officials hope to have the bulk of the project—estimated to cost $5–$6 million—finished in time for next year’s W-S Cycling Classic in May. They’re also negotiating with officials to brand the center as an Olympic training venue and display the five Olympic rings. Assuming that happens, it'd be one of just two such sites in the country.