Plaza plan needs wider debate

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 08:24 AM

((An earlier version of this editorial, and the printed version, incorrectly indicated that the stakeholder meeting was tonight (Thursday). This version correctlyl notes that it is next Tuesday).

Durham County Government will ask the public’s thoughts Tuesday on a project that has been quietly in the works for years, but only recently exploded into public view.

The county plans to demolish the former Department of Social Services building at 220 E. Main Street and replace it with a “civic plaza.”  An architect outlined several possible options for that development to the County Commissioners last month.

Tuesday's “stakeholder meeting” at 6 in the Human Services Building (414 E. Main St.)  is looking for input on those options, and for other ideas, for the plaza development.

County officials are likely to hear much more than that tonight.

And they should listen.

Since the presentation to the commissioners, a number of voices have raised concerns about and often outright opposition to replacing the DSS building with an open plaza.

County officials have expressed the idea that the plan to tear down the building dates to a master plan more than a decade ago. And until recently, they have heard no negative reaction.

But there is ample reason to take a deep breath and not rush to a final decision on the disposition of that high-profile, important corner of our rapidly reinvigorating downtown.

The county’s reasoning in deciding the fate of the property is well-intentioned and in many ways appealing.  We do need to preserve open space as downtown begins to regain the commercial vitality and denseness so vital to an urban center. A public gathering spot is a worthwhile social goal.  The opening of that space would provide a more dramatic view of the historic 1916-vintage county office building, originally constructed as the county courthouse.

Gary Kueber, a noted downtown redeveloper whose “Open Durham” blog is both an invaluable trove of information about our built environment and a forum for critiquing and debating changes in our urban landscape, has been characteristically blunt:

“I strongly disagree with the notion that creating public space here is going to be revitalizing in some way to this intersection or parts east,” he wrote. He noted, as have other critics of the plan, that adjacency to five-lane Roxboro Street at the eastern end of the horribly misconceived Downtown Loop will hardly make for a pleasant park experience.

“The biggest problem for the parts east of Roxboro is the sense of physical separation from downtown-west. Creating another gap will worsen this,” he added.

On the other hand, landscape architect Dan Jewell, who has been involved in the civic plaza proposal, argues that the open space could “act as a bit of a catalyst” for other projects on downtown’s east end.” Jewell, too, has played a significant role in downtown’s revitalization and is deeply invested in it. His ideas, like those of others involved in the plaza project, ought to be taken seriously.

At this juncture, we’re dubious about the plaza project.

This is a significant decision for the future of downtown, especially its eastern end.

It needs far more detailed and open public debate than it has had to this point. Let’s reset and have that discussion – the sort we love to have in Durham, often to great effect.