I've been trying to put together a shopping center chronology in Durham - suffice to say it is a work in progress - but Forest Hills, Northgate, Lakewood, and Loehmann's Plaza were among the early arrivals in the 1950s-1960s.
Interestingly, low-lying riparian land seemed to be a preferred development location; my guess would be that these were some of the prime closest-to-downtown yet still large undeveloped areas.
Forest Hills was built along land that was essentially similar to the current Forest Hills Park - the riparian land on either side of Third Fork Creek, which consolidates from several smaller streams near Lakewood/University/Duke/Willard. Initially these streams were arrayed like a fan from the West Chapel Hill/Vickers ridge to the Fayetteville St. ridge, beginning near Jackson St. to the west, and just south of the railroad tracks, near Poplar St. to the east (which ran near where the current, oddly named, East Dillard St. runs.) This landscape was dramatically altered by the Freeway, such that drainage was all placed in storm sewers north of the Freeway (except for a small stream branch that runs from Jackson to Yancey St. north of the Freeway before being culverted down to near Blackwell and the American Tobacco Trail.)
It's unclear how much of the land on the south side of what is now University Drive was undeveloped prior to the shopping center construction, or whether there were pre-existing small houses on some of this land = regardless, the overarching character was at most a sparsely developed somewhat natural area which we catch a corner of in this picture.
Looking east along University Drive at the intersection of Vickers and University - Forest Hills Park is immediately to the right, and beyond the small bridge over the creek can be seen trees/brush/etc.
(Courtesy Herald-Sun, June 21, 1953.)
I haven't nailed down the construction date of the Forest Hills Shopping Center, but I've narrowed it down to between 1953 and 1955.
Looking west from the railroad tracks - Third Fork Creek is in the center of the graded lowland, ~1954
Looking east from E. Forest Hills Blvd., ~1954
One thing that's rather inconvenient about building in an otherwise nicely flat floodplain - the streams tend to be in the center of the flat area. No bother - just move it!
Looking west, the relocated stream against the cut slope, ~1954
And fill in that old streambed with whatever you have lying around - dirt, tires, etc.
Looking east, ~1954
All filled in, and a nice big pad on which to build a shopping center.
Looking north, ~1954
The shopping center opened on April 4, 1956. The Morning Herald reported the next day:
Customers and window shoppers by the thousands thronged the new Forest Hills Shopping Center on University Drive yesterday for opening day activities. The center includes the city's largest self--service grocery store and the city's largest self-service drug store. Throughout this week, the center will remain open from 8:30 am to 10pm. Customer parking provides for 275 cars.
Welcome 50s shoppers!
Looking southeast, ~1957
Looking southeast, ~1957
The courtyard, 1957
While our permitting and planning process can be a pain for construction crews and developers on a tight schedule, it's worth remembering how we got there. We are a reactionary society - and the regulatory constraints of the 1970s and beyond were only possible to implement in reaction to the fact that developers had little compunction about building wherever they felt like it, in the most expedient manner possible. The only saving grace about environmental disregard like this is sometimes the environment pays the owners back for building in the floodplain - remember Eastgate in Chapel Hill a few years back? Or Crabtree in Raleigh more recently?
Obviously shoppers of the 1950s were just happy to have a bunch of parking for their supermarket, drugstore, etc. While centers like this, Lakewood, and Northgate sucked the lifeblood out of the stores downtown, the ante can always be upped. South Square and the indoor mall pulled retail away from these centers in the 1970s - Northgate adapted by becoming an indoor mall. These centers became second and third tier retail space. Southpoint, of course, upped the ante again, resulting in the inevitable demise of South Square.
Forest Hills shopping center - and the straggling businesses across University - have always been an odd place to me - it has always seemed to have an air of quiet desperation about it. The way that the center sits at bottom of the bowl - with the affluence of Forest Hills/Morehead Hills on three sides, and the poverty of Southside/St. Theresa on the eastern side seems to me an fascinating petri dish.
Most recently, a renovation made the center look more like the ubiquitous minimalls out along all of our numbered roads, and the retailers seemed to solidify a bit more. The tired Byrd's that became a very tired Loews Foods saw new life by becoming Galaxy, and now, yet another Compare Foods.
I maintain a crazy dream that someday the landscape here will be better - that this center will go away, and the stream choked in behind the service entrances at the back of the center (the trashed, polluted mess of which can be seen from the American Tobacco trail if you look down behind the center) will be cleaned up and given a natural buffer for people to enjoy. Small retail would be built up to the roadway, with adequate, if not overwhelming, parking integrated along the frontage as well. For the effort put into 're-naturalizing' the stream in the park to the east, the condition of the stream here, and to the the north and east, remains atrocious. Supposedly, someday, there is supposed to be a Third Fork Creek trail. Given that Durham's glory days of trail construction seem to have dried up in the past 5 years, it may be awhile.
All in all, I see this area, generally as an opportunity - there is too much going on around it. The Forest Hills Shopping Center LLC - which seems to be associated with Marvin Barnes and MM Fowler, not known for progressive development - will probably be satisfied with iterative change rather than the radical rethinking of this area I'd love to see - urban retail with park space/natural area/bike trial/Weaver St. Commons kind-of space.
I've heard rumors linking at least one of the big players downtown with this site; we'll see if anything comes of that.
Looking southeast, January 2008.
Third Fork Creek rejoins its natural streambed at the west end of Forest Hills Shopping Center, January 2008.