Self-Help studying former DSS building

Mar. 26, 2014 @ 05:22 PM

The Self-Help credit union has taken an interest in the fate of the former county Department of Social Services building on East Main Street, looking into whether it could be renovated instead of demolished.
Self-Help executive Dan Levine and Interim County Manager Lee Worsley both confirmed the bank’s interest, with Worsley saying it’s had people inside the building “several times” in recent months as part of its study.
He added that county officials are cooperating with the credit union because the idea they floated last fall of demolishing the former DSS building to replace it with a “civic plaza” fell flat with the public.
“The interest in the civic plaza is just not present,” Worsley said, adding that County Commissioners have made it clear, though not formally, that they agree. “We’re trying to figure out our next steps.”
Levine, meanwhile, said Self-Help is “not far enough along that I can say we’re trying to acquire it or anything.”
But the possibility of acquiring a building on Main Street “certainly caught our attention,” and “we think there is the possibility to renovate it if it’s done right and financed right,” Levine said.
A renovation would be costly, as the building dates from 1966 and was designed under an even older set of building codes.
The building’s problems include “everything from not enough bathrooms to fire-ratings issues and egress from the floors, you name it,” Levine said, adding that a renovation would have to replace its heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical systems.
The credit union initial interest stems for a desire to create “some modestly priced office space for nonprofits and small business” to counter the potential gentrification of downtown’s business scene.
“There’s starting to be a limited supply” of that sort of office space, he said. “The core businesses Self-Help’s leased to over its life have a relatively limited number of places to rent downtown.”
The former DSS building stands at 220 E. Main St., next door to the county offices. Its fate has been up in the air since the department moved down the street in October into the county’s new Health and Human Services Building.
Administrators floated the civic-plaza idea that same month, arguing that it would fill a need for public open space on the eastern end of downtown.
But the proposal didn’t jibe with the recommendations of a draft downtown open space study that’s come out of the City/County Planning Department. It favored more, but advised placing it along the northeast section of the downtown loop near City Hall.
County officials held a forum on the civic-plaza idea in November.
Most of the reaction they heard was critical, with one resident, John Martin, saying the proposal to demolish the building struck him “as a really weird way to be dealing with taxpayer property.”
Self-Help is no stranger to major redevelopment efforts in Durham.
Its recent credits include the renovation of the former Y.E. Smith School on Driver Street, and a lead role in assembling for the city land in the Southside neighborhood for use in a low-cost housing project. The bank is also poised to build the 50,000-square-foot Kent Corner commercial center on the West Chapel Hill Street corridor.
Worsley said Self-Help is the only organization “that’s expressed any interest right now” in the former DSS building. But he said the county “could certainly put the building on the market per se” and has “definite rules we have to follow when we dispose of a property.”
Meanwhile, Levine said a business model for any project there is “still open for discussion.”
“Our experience is in owning and managing our own buildings downtown,” Levine said. “But it’s publicly owned now, and there’s probably various public-private partnerships that could be explored.”