The author, Ann Woodward, is the executive director of The Scrap Exchange.

Working as a waitress at the Back Porch Restaurant in the early 1990s, I never could have guessed that The Scrap Exchange—my other early-1990s employer—would one day own a big portion of the shopping center where the restaurant was located. Back then, The Scrap Exchange was just getting started—I was one of only three staff members, a small fraction of today’s thirty-two employees—and the Lakewood Shopping Center was a thriving retail center.

Today, the Scrap Exchange is poised to develop the northern end of the Lakewood Shopping Center into a community Reuse Arts District.

Twenty years ago, the Lakewood Shopping Center looked very different. I remember eating pizza and playing pinball at Satisfaction Restaurant, seeing movies at the Center Theater, and enjoying Ethiopian food at Blue Nile. In later years, after the theater had closed, you could wander the aisles at Duke Surplus looking for cheap computers, desks, chairs, and other classroom castoffs, and strange science lab and medical equipment. (The Scrap Exchange now operates out of this space, and people still show up looking for Duke Surplus.)

Durham natives have their own fond memories of Lakewood Shopping Center, including Shirley Few, whose husband Randall built the shopping center in 1960. “Lakewood was the place to go and shop,” Shirley said in an interview with The Scrap Exchange. People tell me their memories of going to Woolworth’s, Kroger, and to the Center Theatre to see now-classic films like The Sound of Music and Star Wars. Dana Pope, Shirley’s daughter, remembers when Santa dropped ping-pong balls from a helicopter at Christmas for children to scoop up and trade in for discounted merchandise.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the property was the home of Lakewood Amusement Park and its swimming pool, diving horses, and trolley line. Old-timers told us their childhood memories of going to the park, while others could only peek through a fence to see inside, unable to enter because of the color of their skin. Our December 2016 Cameron Gallery exhibit, “Unpacking the Past, Designing the Future: The Scrap Exchange and Lakewood in Partnership,” honored many of these memories through neighborhood oral histories and artifacts.

In 1987, the Few family sold the mall to a developer from Richmond, who renamed it the “Shoppes at Lakewood.” In Shirley’s words, this “signified the decline of Lakewood.” She requested that we always refer to it as Lakewood Shopping Center, a request we are working to honor.

Nearly sixty years since the Lakewood Shopping Center opened, The Scrap Exchange seeks to revitalize this property in a way that honors and serves the surrounding neighborhood. Parcels in and around the shopping center are being bought and sold, with new restaurants, bars, and coffee shops sprouting amid plans for new housing. What does this mean to the residents who are here now?

The Scrap Exchange was ahead of the curve. In December 2013, we purchased the abandoned Center Theatre building and in August 2014 moved operations to Lakewood. At that point, the area was still perceived by many as somewhat sketchy, in the same way that downtown Durham was when The Scrap Exchange moved there in January 2000.

These are the kinds of places that work for The Scrap Exchange. We need lots of space, and we don’t have lots of money. We come pre-development. We bring our own ecosystem with us and we are an arts and culture economic development machine. As artists and activists, we could not ask for a better template than a partly abandoned strip mall.

Our organization’s mission is our call to action: to promote creativity, environmental awareness, and community through reuse. Since relocating to Lakewood in 2014, The Scrap Exchange has welcomed over 500,000 visitors, held more than 200 community classes and free programming, organized fifty events (including monthly gallery openings, a time-capsule-opening extravaganza, and our annual Smashfest), built community garden plots, and collaborated with over a hundred local organizations. We are experts at providing meaningful cultural opportunities that bring people of all backgrounds together to be creative and celebrate the do-it-yourself/do-it-together culture of reuse.

In 2016, we began working to seize the opportunity presented by 80,000 square feet of empty space across the parking lot from us. We leveraged a short-term loan from North Carolina Community Development Initiative—a community development organization—to purchase the north end of the shopping center. Our footprint is now 105,000 square feet of commercial space situated on 12.5 acres of land. Our goal is to steward this valuable community asset and turn this underutilized property into a hive of culture and creativity through a campus-wide concept: the Reuse Arts District (RAD).

Our long-term vision for the Reuse Arts District is a one-of–a-kind destination with makerspace and shops, art studios, galleries and artist marketplaces, gardens, a sculpture park, architectural salvage operations, affordable housing, a shipping container mall, and more. The near-term plan is to lease space in order to generate income to cover the financing costs. As part of that process, The Scrap Exchange will operate an 18,000-square-foot retail thrift store that can serve as an anchor tenant for the shopping center.

We’ve heard widespread community support for the Reuse Arts District concept. But it is not a done deal. We are getting our sea legs in property management, seeking tenants, securing leases, and working to finalize the long-term financing we need to repay the bridge loan.

Luxury apartments and condos may still overtake the Lakewood Shopping Center. We have no control over the other half of the strip mall, which includes a Food Lion, Dollar General, Beauty World, and African Land. I recently received a call about this half possibly being bought, razed, and replaced by high-rise apartments or some kind of high-end “multi-use” development. We would hate to sell our part of Lakewood to such developers, but trying to create a transformative development with limited financial resources is no cakewalk.

As my father would say, “It could go either way.” The Scrap Exchange believes that Durham needs local, sustainable, cultural development, not more luxury apartments. Transforming Lakewood Shopping Center has the potential to be our greatest creative reuse endeavor yet.