Panel dubious of Greystone apartment plan

Aug. 06, 2014 @ 05:11 PM

A Greensboro developer’s plan to add three buildings containing 140 apartments to the Morehead Hill site of the Greystone Inn ran into objections this week from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Panel members told the leaders of Lomax Properties the proposed buildings are too large, given the inevitable comparisons to other structures in the Morehead Hill historic district.

One member, lawyer David Neill, said the plan seemed tailored to fit Durham’s overall land-use rules, not the specific guidelines that apply in places like Morehead Hill.

“This is a great proposal, for some spot in Durham,” Neill said. “[But] to look at it, I would have no idea that they even knew we had historic-district guidelines.”

The proposed buildings would go up in a now-vacant meadow next to Greystone, a 1911-vintage mansion originally built for the Stagg family, relatives of Washington Duke.

Greystone now hosts conferences, marriages and other special events. It belongs to a shell corporation controlled by Randal Brame.

The property falls doubly under the jurisdiction of the preservation commission because, in addition to being in the Morehead Hill district, it’s also a local historic landmark. The City Council applied the landmark label to it in 2012, a move that qualified the owner for a half-price break on its property taxes.

The council’s decision applied the landmark label “to the entire exterior” of the structure “and the land.” It specified that the preservation commission has to issue a “certificate of appropriateness” before the owner can make “any alteration to the exterior of the properties.”

Lomax’s plan calls for Greystone itself to remain. It would become “a public club house and conference center to support” the new apartment buildings, according to a report prepared by Karla Rosenberg, a planner in the City/County Planning Department.

Rosenberg’s report, which addressed the first version of the plan, said the meadow itself is “an important aspect of the historic setting” of Greystone because the mansion was and is supposed to look like “a castle in the countryside.”

The eastern portion of the Morehead Hill district in fact once hosted several such mansions on large tracts, Greystone and the nearby John Sprunt Hill house on South Duke Street being the survivors.

Two others, including the former George Watts/George Watts Hill mansion, were demolished in 1961 to make way for the building on South Duke Street that now houses the Duke Physician Assistant Program.

The Duke Physician Assistant building is one of the structures the Lomax properties application points to in arguing that the proposed apartment buildings are properly scaled to the neighborhood. Another is the nearby J.J. Henderson Housing Center, a Durham Housing Authority property that offers homes for low-income elderly renters.

But the city’s existing preservation guidelines consider the Duke Physician building “intrusive” in the Morehead Hill district, a structure not especially in keeping with the overall feel of the area.

The J.J. Henderson center is on the east side of Duke Street, outside the historic district.

Lomax Vice President Patrick Woods said the new buildings will be about 45 feet tall. Greystone is about 34 feet tall, and neighbors pointed out that many nearby homes were designed for single-family use.

Commission members were quick to point out the discrepancy, and made it clear they’re unlikely to approve the plan in its current form.

Under the city’s preservation guidelines, in historic districts and at landmarks, “new buildings and additions should not dominate the primary or adjacent structures,” member Jennifer Martin said. “This project does not meet that. It certainly dominates adjacent structures.”

But Woods and Lomax Properties founder John Lomax asked for only a one-month delay in the panel’s review to revise their application.

State law gives city planners and the Historic Preservation Commission 180 days to act on applications for certificates of appropriateness. The Greystone application arrived in the Planning Department on June 26.

The commission’s decisions on certificates are appealable first to Durham’s Board of Adjustment, then to state court.