Reckhow: Rules tweak needed for building placements

Aug. 12, 2014 @ 06:10 PM

Those big new apartment blocks in town have a Durham county commissioner wondering if officials need to “tweak” the city’s land-use rules to provide more room between such buildings and the street.

The adjustment Commissioner Ellen Reckhow has in mind involves securing 2 to 5 feet more right of way from future developers so there’s room for a wider sidewalk or a strip of trees and other greenery.

“I just think for livability purposes it might be better,” by softening the appearance of new buildings, she told city/county planners this week.

She added that the suggestion comes because “folks around town” have told her they’re not particularly keen on the appearance of some of the new apartment blocks, particularly how close they are to the street.

Durham’s zoning rules encourage developers in the heart of the town to build right next to the sidewalk, to make their buildings easily accessible to pedestrians and make their environs feel more like a city.

But the practice – most evident on West Chapel Hill Street, where the new 605 West complex replaced a former Holiday Inn next to the Durham Police Department’s headquarters – apparently isn’t universally popular.

“There is some feeling this isn’t right for Durham,” Reckhow said, recounting her conversations with constituents.

Senior Planner Michael Stock responded that that comment is “timely” given that the City/County Planning Department is about to start work on an update of the regulations for some in-city “design districts.”

Reckhow’s intervention, however, was unusual in that those regulations are entirely under the purview of Durham’s City Council. The commissioners have actual authority, land-use-wise, over the rural portions of Durham County.

That’s still the case even though the Planning Department works for both governments, and the local land-use law is a “unified” ordinance that includes many provisions that apply in equal force to urban, suburban and rural Durham.

City Council members to date haven’t weighed in with any complaints about the new apartment blocks.

To the contrary, 605 West as the most prominent has generally received praise from that quarter, being seen by officials like Councilman Eugene Brown as a straight upgrade on the dilapidated former motel it displaced.

It would be nearly unheard of in communities like neighboring Orange County for a county elected official to weigh in with suggestions or criticism of in-town land-use regulations.

There, towns and counties have separate planning departments and separate ordinances.

The “two bosses” aspect of Durham practice relative to the Planning Department drew City Council attention in the spring, when the department’s director, Steve Medlin, told city leaders a joint committee that monitors its work has sometimes overstepped its authority.

But “I have a right to speak out about my community,” Reckhow said. “And I’m hearing this in my travels around town.”