Council warms to Whitted School plan

Mar. 21, 2013 @ 07:53 PM

It’s looking more and more likely that the City Council will go along with a request that it contribute $500,000 to a planned renovation of the former Whitted Junior High School.

County officials and the project’s would-be developer briefed council members on the $21.1 million project on Thursday, explaining that a city contribution should bolster an application for the tax credits that are supposed to form the backbone of the plan’s funding.

One councilwoman, Diane Catotti, signaled continued skepticism by saying it “wasn’t my original intent that we commit money to” the Whitted project.

But a key ally of hers, Councilman Steve Schewel, said the request appears cost-effective.

The project is supposed to turn the school, located near the city’s Rolling Hills and Southside redevelopment, into a pre-school and 89 apartments for low-income seniors.

Fifty of those units would be earmarked for recipients of Section 8 rental vouchers. The vouchers would come from the Durham Housing Authority, out of the pool it now makes available for use anywhere in the city.

The other 39 units would represent a genuine expansion of the city’s low-income housing stock, Schewel said.

“Thirty nine units with $500,000 is pretty good bang for the buck – $12,800 per new unit, not bad, a lot cheaper than we pay sometimes,” he said. “And I think the mix is very good.”

The “mix” reference alluded to plans for most of the units to be reserved for people who make less than 60 percent of the area median income.

Schewel nonetheless said Catotti’s point was “separate and very important.”

Whitted belongs to the county government, and Catotti pressed Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley on why his employers couldn’t cover the $500,000.

Worsley responded by noting that the plan assumes a direct county contribution of $1.5 million, with another $5 million under its control coming from the Durham Public Schools for work on the pre-school.

Catotti noted that the county could always raise its direct contribution to $2 million. But Worsley countered that “the ask [of the county from developers] was never $2 million.”

The county is working with an Atlanta-based developer, the Integral Group, plus a local firm, Forty/AM, headed by former Greenfire Development partner Carl Webb.

Integral Vice President Daryl Jones said the project’s budget relies on about $7.2 million in federal and state low-income housing tax credits that regulators award to developers on a competitive basis.

A city contribution, alongside the work it’s doing at Rolling Hills and Southside, will only help the application, he said.

Councilman Eugene Brown, a vocal critic of the Rolling Hills project and its lead developer, Missouri-based McCormack Baron Salazar, signaled Thursday that he had no similar qualms about Whitted or Integral.

“I know of your firm in Atlanta and hear only good things about it,” he told Jones.

Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden made it clear they’ll support a contribution.

Bell credited County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow with suggesting an attempt to renovate Whitted, and said the project would build on the city’s work at Rolling Hills.

Cole-McFadden, a Whitted alumna, said the project would give “people from all walks of life” a chance to live in a building that in its day was a “totally segregated institution.”

“Based on what happened to us, $500,000 is certainly just compensation for bringing life back to” the facility, she added.