New hope on East Main

Mar. 28, 2014 @ 05:37 PM

Prospects are picking up that a downtown building no longer used by Durham County could continue to have a useful life.

Durham County officials clearly have shelved a plan to demolish the building, formerly occupied by the Department of Social Services, and create a park or plaza to the east of the old County Courthouse. That idea -- originally part of plan formulated in the 1990s, well before downtown’s current rebirth was underway -- met considerable opposition at a public meeting last October as social services was moving to its new home a couple blocks further east.

We, too, found that idea questionable, at best. The site is steeply sloped, and sits at Main’s busy, sprawling intersection with Mangum Street. There’s no question we need open space in a downtown that promises to become more and more dense, but there are better sites, as an open space plan taking shape in the City-County Planning Department suggests.

Now, the Self-Help credit union has entered the picture. It is in discussions with county officials who acknowledge that with the plaza idea scrapped, “we’re trying to figure out our next steps,” as Interim County Manager Lee Worsley told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg.

Self-Help’s interest is still in the very preliminary stages, but the institution has played a significant role in downtown redevelopment both as a lender and property owner. It has renovated and manages several historic properties, and its financial participation was key in the American Tobacco redevelopment. It’s a partner with the city in the Southside and Rolling Hills redevelopment projects,

The former social services office was built in 1966 and does present challenges. “We think there is the possibility to renovate it if it’s done right and financed right,” Dan Levine’ Self-Help’s assistant real estate director, told Gronberg.

The credit union sees an especially worthy potential for the site. It would like to, Levine said, create “some modestly priced office space for nonprofits and small businesses” in downtown where rising rental rates could close out such enterprises.

News of possible renovation of the social services building comes as the city’s interest seems to be cooling in locating a new police headquarters on another important East Main Street block. And even if the city chooses the site, it has shown recent willingness to consider renovating and repurposing buildings there -- including a historic three-story building that once housed Carpenter Motor Company -- rather than demolishing them.

How that block and the social services corner are developed will impact how successfully link the core of downtown links the redeveloped Golden Belt complex and surrounding neighborhood.  Already, the relatively closed façades of the new Social Services Complex and the sprawling surface parking lot to their east hamper connection between the two areas.

Many hurdles remain -- and crucial details will we robustly debated -- but we’re heartened that Durham’s penchant for talking through all the options and looking for creative solutions is coming into play on both East Main Street properties.