How Creative Repurposing of Industrial Scrap Is Holding Off a Neighborhood’s Gentrification

The cavernous Scrap Exchange in Durham, North Carolina, is a maker’s dream. Located in an old movie theater, the space is replete with reusable items that would otherwise go into landfills, from arts-and-crafts standbys like buttons, felt, and ribbons, to castoff lumber, wallpaper samples, medical supplies, and old lab equipment. The constant activity there is an inspiring testament to the potential of reuse.

But the Scrap Exchange is on the brink of something much bigger. This summer, the organization closed on a deal to buy 10 acres of a moribund strip mall surrounding the building. Executive director Ann Woodward’s ambition is to turn the area into a “reuse arts district,” unlike any in the country. It will include a range of creative elements, like a playground made of reused materials, a shipping container mall hosting local entrepreneurs, a recycle-a-bike program, artists’ studios, and a performance space. Eventually, Woodward hopes to open a national center for creative reuse that provides research, grants, and advocacy to support other reuse centers around the country.

Most importantly, residents hope the expanded Scrap Exchange will give the community some stability and a measure of local control. That’s something badly needed in a neighborhood that’s ripe for development within a city currently experiencing intense gentrification.

“People are being priced out of downtown, and out of Durham — it’s just getting to be a luxury item,” says Woodward. She likes to say that the Scrap Exchange will “steward” the property for the community. “We’re not a developer. We’re not going to resell it for a higher price.”

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Scrap Exchange’s history mirrors Durham’s in some ways. First established at a local mall, the organization later spent more than a decade in a former tobacco warehouse, until the roof fell in and the building was condemned. It eventually wound up at its current location: the old cinema in the Shoppes at Lakewood, a once-respectable shopping center two miles from downtown whose storefronts were mostly dark, though the surrounding neighborhoods remained lively and mixed-income.

Along the way, the formerly quirky upstart became a venerable Durham institution — one that picks up waste from more than 250 industries within 100 miles of the city. Besides selling those materials to the community for rock-bottom prices, the nonprofit uses them in a busy schedule of classes, camps, children’s parties, and festival appearances; it has gradually gained a reputation as an inclusive community builder.

Simultaneously, Durham itself has been transformed. For decades, the city’s downtown was virtually empty of residents and active businesses. But in the past few years, young professionals seeking walkable neighborhoods have flocked to it. And property values have jumped. According to an analysis by the Washington Post this spring, housing prices in the zip code that includes downtown rose 63 percent between 2004 and 2014.

That old tobacco warehouse with the bad roof? It’s set to become 250 luxury apartments, joining a number of other new high-end residential projects rising around town. Affordable housing near downtown is in short supply. Meanwhile, observers believe developers are starting to eye commercial areas just outside of downtown — areas like the Lakewood shopping center.

“I think all the high-end housing is moving toward this area,” says Tara Kenchen, president/CEO of the NC Community Development Initiative. “It’s right in the line of gentrification.”

So far, housing values and demographics near the Scrap Exchange haven’t changed too much; prices in its zip code went up 26 percent between 2004 and 2014, and the area has maintained its majority African-American population at about 53 percent. Still, downtown was transformed within just a few years, and the same could happen in nearby neighborhoods like Lakewood.

In fact, three different developers offered to buy the Lakewood shopping center this summer, when it was on the market for the rock-bottom price of $2.5 million. That’s when Woodward and the Scrap Exchange’s board jumped to put together a firm business plan and make an offer to buy the northern portion of the mall. The Initiative gave the Scrap Exchange a bridge loan for the full amount, and in August, they signed a deal.

Now that it’s theirs, the real challenges begin. The organization plans to rent out the strip mall’s storefronts to various nonprofit organizations at reasonable rates; El Centro Hispano, a longtime Durham group serving Latino residents, was the first tenant. And it’ll open a thrift store to unload some of the more typical consumer goods the organization collects.

After that, the plans get big and somewhat amorphous: community garden, skate park, architectural salvage and deconstruction, welding shops, beer garden — at this early date, they’re all potential elements. But local investment will inevitably be a key part of the project. The Scrap Exchange currently runs a steering committee that includes nearby residents, business owners, and other community leaders, and Woodward is a member of a neighborhood initiative that has been working for more than a decade in nearby low-income areas. Future plans include job training and hiring people from the neighborhood, reestablishing a now-dormant business consortium, building some affordable housing, and helping preserve the multifamily housing currently near the shopping center.

“We’re offering resources that make people’s lives better,” explained Woodward. “We are not going to be a luxury item. We’re here for the people.”

On a national scale, what Woodward and her colleagues are planning is unprecedented, says Kelley Carmichael Casey, executive director of SCRAP USA, a national network of creative reuse centers. While cities around the country are home to arts districts, an area that focuses largely on materials reuse in design and function doesn’t yet exist. “It’s an absolutely innovative and exciting idea that no other reuse organization that I’m aware of has spearheaded nationwide,” she said.

But at the local level, many Durham residents simply see the Scrap Exchange’s plans as the best deal they could hope for, one that’s capable of spurring some growth in the area without radically changing its character or alienating longtime residents.

“The Scrap Exchange, they’ve been very engaged in Durham since they started,” explains Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, who grew up near the Lakewood shopping center and remains engaged in the area through her work with the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership organization, though she moved away a decade ago. “I think the way in which the Scrap Exchange is approaching this by involving the community — having them have some part of that vision, thinking intentionally about the community as they plan— it’s really a blessing to the community as a whole.”