Public square could replace current DSS building

Oct. 07, 2013 @ 07:13 PM

The building that until this month housed much of Durham’s Department of Social Services could be a memory in about two year’s time, replaced by a new public square next to the county offices.

County Engineer Glen Whisler and two architects briefed County Commissioners on the possibilities that demolition of the old DSS headquarters at 220 E. Main Street would create.

Replacing the late-1960s structure with public open space could “act as a bit of a catalyst” for other projects on downtown’s east end, landscape architect Dan Jewell said. 

Commissioners voiced no objections, setting the stage for Whisler and others involved in the project to begin gathering comment from business groups, downtown property owners and the public.

“We want to hear from a lot of people about what we want this to be,” said Kevin Turner, a Freelon Group Inc. architect who’s helping county officials with the project.

The building is opening up because DSS is setting up shop in a new headquarters on the 400 block of East Main Street. The move, now in progress, is scheduled to be complete Oct. 24.

The county finds itself now with a surplus of space on the 200 block of East Main, as on the north side of the street it also owns Durham’s former courthouse. Officials don’t see the DSS building as much of a renovation candidate, so they’d like to knock it down.

But instead of placing a new building there or reserving the site for one, they’d like to turn it into some sort of green space. County Manager Mike Ruffin endorsed the idea earlier this spring.

Jewell said a square would complement the county’s offices at 200 E. Main St., setting it off in a manner once considered normal for public buildings.

The county office building dates from 1916 and was originally built as a courthouse. The courts moved out long ago, going first to the “new” courthouse on the north side of the 200 block and now to the genuinely new courthouse officials opened in February across Mangum Street from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Turner sketched out three ideas for using the roughly 14,840 square feet of land the old DSS headquarters occupies on the western corner of Main and Roxboro streets.

Two involved terracing or stair-stepping the new square, bowing to the reality that the existing building masks what’s rather a pronounced drop from Main Street to the southern portion of the downtown loop.

The grade drops 14 feet, Turner said, adding, “It’s kind of a steep hill.”

Commissioners liked the terrace idea, noting that it lends itself to multiple uses, perhaps even the use of the site for performances and other events.

But they stressed a desire for something green, something well-used enough that it’s not a security problem and something that’s easy to maintain.

“It’s better to have activity, eyes on the street, things going on, in urban spaces than to have it empty,” Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

Whisler noted that the county needs permission from Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission before it can knock down and replace the old DSS building.

The site is in the downtown historic district. But the preservation commission by law can’t veto demolition; it can only delay it for up to a year.

If things go well, Whisler anticipates applying in the spring of 2014 for a preservation commission sign-off. Approval would follow by the winter, with demolition and construction taking six to eight months. That would set the stage for the square to open in the fall of 2015, he said.

The demolition itself will require painstaking work, thanks to its location next to the 1916-vintage county building and its location in what Whisler termed “a very congested area.”

Turner said the project will lend itself to recycling much of the material in the building.

“Often in demolition projects there’s a financial tradeoff between taking a building apart and knocking it down,” he said. “In this case, there is no tradeoff: We have to take it apart piece by piece.”