Whitted subsidy a tough sell for two council members

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 09:42 PM

The would-be renovators of the former Whitted Junior High School have asked for a city subsidy, but a couple of City Council members signaled Friday that the idea’s going to be a tough sell.

Community Development Director Reginald Johnson told the council The Integral Group, based in Atlanta, has applied for a $500,000 grant from the housing fund the city set up last year with the proceeds of a 1-cent increase in Durham’s property tax rate.

But citing the city’s massive financial investment in the nearby Rolling Hills/Southside redevelopment, council members Steve Schewel and Diane Catotti said they’re dubious about taking part.

Whitted “is a county building, and I feel very strongly that the county ought to step up,” Schewel said.

Integral and its local partner, Forty/AM, intend to convert Whitted into a mixed-use development that combines a preschool and apartments for low-income seniors.

County officials have said the renovation is likely to cost $15 million to $18 million.

Integral has asked them for $1.5 million subsidy, and signaled that it’s also counting on the Durham Public Schools as the prospective operator of the preschool contributing $5 million.

The city has housing money available because the Durham Housing Authority was able to finance one project the city fund was supposed to back, a renovation of Preiss-Steele Place, without it.

That freed up $720,000. Johnson said Integral’s was one of two requests Community Development received from groups wanting part of it. The other, for $65,000, would pay for repairs to the Mutual Manor Apartments on Fayetteville Street.

Schewel and Catotti agreed that the city plowed millions into Rolling Hills and Southside in hopes of enticing other developers to invest in Durham’s former Hayti district.

Mayor Bill Bell, keeping the door open to Integral’s request, said Whitted is “sitting there like the old American Tobacco [complex] used to be,” waiting for renovation. But in its present unused and rundown condition, it detracts from the work the city’s doing a couple blocks away in Southside.

“We talk about tipping points, catalysts for development in our community,” Bell said. “We need to look at what our dollars might do or what, for lack of those dollars, might not happen. A little more, if it makes or breaks the project, could be very serious.”

The tipping-point argument is one Bell made repeatedly about Rolling Hills itself, in the years-long build-up to that project’s launch last year. But Catotti made it clear the mayor’s going to have trouble applying it to a second project in the same area.

“I thought we were the tipping point for the county and others to follow,” she said, referring to Rolling Hills.

Schewel said he also has qualms because Integral is trying to get the Durham Housing Authority to assign Section 8 rental vouchers to 50 of the 89 apartments it hopes to create at Whitted.

That would ensure the renovated building a clientele, but because of caps on Section 8 aid, DHA would have to take the 50 vouchers out of the pool it has available to clients for rentals elsewhere in the city, Community Development Assistant Director Larry Jarvis said.

Money from the city’s housing fund should “increase the number of affordable units,” rather than simply moving them around, Schewel said.