Uplifting Southside

Oct. 16, 2013 @ 05:10 PM

After years of discussions, negotiations and occasional false starts, work is visibly underway to recast Durham’s Southside neighborhood.

It was in 2008, Duke Vice President Phail Wynn Jr. recalled in a story by The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz Wednesday, that a tour of the neighborhood with an official from Self-Help contributed to convincing Duke and the city that the lending institution’s plans could help bring the area “back to its former vitality.”

Wynn, who heads Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, has been a tireless advocate for what he called “the continued growth and expansion of downtown,” and Southside borders downtown just south of the American Tobacco complex.

Duke ultimately loaned Self-Help $8 million to help acquire enough property in the neighborhood to sustain what Dan Levine, Self-Help’s assistant director of real estate, termed “large scale revitalization.”

The city and Self-Help are spearheading the revitalization efforts in the neighborhood.  The first phase, construction of 132 rental units, is underway near Lakewood Avenue and South Roxboro Street. A second phase calls for building 48 homes for sale.

The goal in both phases is to assure a mix of incomes, through rent subsidies and mortgage assistance.  At least half of the homes, for example, must be sold to buyers with household incomes at or below 51 percent of the area median income of $54,150. The city, Duke and the N. C. Finance Housing Authority all are offering incentives.

Many potential residents already have expressed interest in the development, with its proximity to downtown, relative affordability and not a little bit of cache as a pioneering redevelopment in an area that has suffered from substantial disinvestment in recent years. Duke, for example, has received what Wynn described as an overwhelming response from more than 140 people interested in 15 forgivable loans of $10,000 each. 

Some nearby residents worry about being forced from longtime homes as property values – and costs – are pushed up by the new developments.  Gentrification – the edging out of longtime residents by more affluent newcomers drawn to and increasing the property values of a redevelopment area – is often a concern.

It’s a legitimate worry, but the emphasis on providing help for lower-income residents to rent or buy in the new Southside should help to offset that. And the overall positive impact of spreading downtown’s resurgence southward is hard to overestimate.

And Durham has had no shortage of ambitious projects that didn’t quite work out, so some skepticism is to be expected.

This time, though, the credibility and track record of the institutions involved are imposing, and it seems probable that in a couple of years we will indeed see a newly vital community in an area characterized in recent years by too many vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

It will be another step, and a welcome one, in the essential task of making sure the rehabilitation of downtown spreads out to surrounding neighborhoods.