This is a very interesting topic, especially if widespread WFH becomes a permanent aspect of our society.
A few things that I have seen work pretty well that do not revolve around retail. I realize most of these aren't going to fill the same space as ground-floor retail, but they do activate the street. Sidewalks should be treated as travel lanes, but you need the equivalent of roadside stops or attractions to keep people there. Most of what I propose would be suited for plazas, parks, or possibly parking lots. If you go to a place like Manhattan, you'll notice that the sidewalks are very active, but that's mostly from people going from place to place, they aren't stopping (and if you do stop in the middle of the sidewalk, you'll quickly irritate every New Yorker in the immediate vicinity).
1. Interactive art installations. (or funky art installations like the Bean in Chicago)
2. Free Outdoor theatrical performances (a la Shakespeare in the Park)
4. Splash pads, misters, and other cooling features
5. Swings, rocking chairs, and other nontraditional seating.
6. Put the ACC tournament on a big outdoor screen (I haven't seen this, but think it would be fun). In Durham, specifically, you could also put the Duke-UNC games on a big screen and have local retailers set up kiosks.
7. Have a to-go beer zone in downtown (like they have in Savannah).
8. Summer beer gardens
9. Free Outdoor yoga/group exercise
These are awesome ideas. I love the ACC tourney idea.
I also did not think of buskers. I wonder why Durham doesn't have those (likely because downtown's revival is still relatively new).
NYC has a program where musicians and performers apply to be able to perform in the subway. I wonder if it was a Durham city-sanctioned program, if it could get the ball rolling. CCB plaza should have a musician at LEAST every weekend.
To be honest, I think buskers go where the tourists are. Asheville has lots of them because they know it's full of vacationers. I think Durham would have to recruit musicians to come and perform, but I could be wrong. I think NYC has that program because there are so many performers who want to play that there just isn't space for all of them. I'd love to see a program that helps music students from NCCU or Duke come out and perform. Same for the theatre students.
It would definitely be a small budget to recruit NCCU students by paying them a little AND allowing them to busk. I think just a small amount could start to make the proposition seem worthwhile.
Let's say 3 different bands for 2 hours each, which would be a 6 hour period total (3pm to 9pm). $10/hour (subsidy - they would get most money from folks on the street) would be $60 per day. Three days a week (Fri, Sat, Sun) would be $180. If you did 50 weeks out of the year, that would only be $9,000. I'd even contribute to that budget through crowdfunding!
If you started in just one season (Spring is beautiful in Durham and would capture graduation weekend), that would be $2,250 just for a one-season pilot. The ROI on that could be big, both supporting NC Central students and enlivening downtown.