Opposition voiced to old DSS demolition plan

Nov. 12, 2013 @ 09:37 PM

Gateway. Underused opportunity. Not attractive. At a crossroads, where there’s commotion and traffic noise.

Those were some of the words used to describe a downtown building that previously housed Durham County Department of Social Services offices at 220 E. Main St.

Proposed for demolition and redevelopment as a public plaza, the building is vacant now that social services has moved further east on  Main Street.

About 30 people, including architects, designers and others, attended a public meeting Tuesday at the new social services headquarters at 414 E. Main St. to gather public opinion on the demolition and redevelopment proposal, with many speaking against the demolition plan.

“Just tearing it down without (putting it up for sale first) strikes me as a really weird way to be dealing with taxpayer property,” said Durham resident John Martin. He offered putting it up for sale or out for re-use proposals as a simple way to see if it can be redeveloped economically.

County leaders have had the demolition of the old building on the books since at least March 2000, when the board adopted a plan for the county’s office space needs.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said that according to background information given to board members, a 1997 evaluation done through the Durham-based architecture firm The Freelon Group found structural problems with the building, including that it doesn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and contains asbestos and lead-based paint.

Kevin Turner, a principal with The Freelon Group, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the building also shares some utilities with the historic courthouse building next door, where the county’s administrative offices are located.  Turner said that would mean attempts to renovate the old DSS building would mean a “whole bunch of extra cost.”

Turner also outlined problems with the interior and exterior of the building that he said would mean the building is “pretty much as expensive to renovate as a new building would be to build.”

Durham resident Chris Bobko said “it seems strange” to demolish a building and replace it with a park in an area that is not screaming for a park. He also said he doesn’t see parking as a huge issue downtown, and said asbestos would be a problem with demolition.

He added that downtown Durham has seen drastic changes in recent years. To rely on a study done years ago “seems pretty shortsighted.”

Durham resident Matthew Dudek said he’s watched a series of buildings get demolished that are needed to connect Main Street to East Durham.

“Demolishing another key building at a key intersection to put a park – I don’t think anyone would use…a park there,” he said.

Wendy Hillis, executive director of the historic preservation-focused group Preservation Durham, said the group doesn’t have a stake either way in the building, but it does want to see another building in the location. She added that historic tax credits could be used to bring down the cost of the building’s renovation.

“Having an open space in this location is what we just don’t feel works…,” she said.

Durham architect Nathan Isley said he also thinks a building needs to be on that site.

“We need to be stitching together instead of pulling apart,” he said, to connect active spots around downtown. “Curbs and streets don’t make good boundaries for parks. What goes around a perimeter (of a) park is terribly important to the success of a place.”

Reckhow said she hopes the board will look at alternatives before making a decision about what to do with the site.

“We listened,” she said. “I think (Commissioner Wendy Jacobs) and I will both be taking back the message that we need to deliberate long and hard on this matter and that saving the building should be one of the options.”