Building’s future brightens

Jun. 21, 2014 @ 05:13 PM

In October 2013, shortly after The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported on long-dormant county plans to tear down the building at Mangum and East Main streets after the Department of Social Services decamped, preservation activist Gary Kueber waxed pessimistic on his OpenDurham blog.

“I'm past thinking that the county is going to listen to public input about this,” Kueber wrote. “Once they've made up their minds about things like the jail and the surface parking lot in the 500 block of E. Main, they plow ahead.” 

Kueber, often acerbic, is also often right about our missteps, past and potential, with our built environment. This time, fortunately, it appears he was wrong.

County officials listened to the public pushback – and quickly. They seem, to be fair, to have just pulled an old plan for the DSS site off the shelf without really thinking about how much had changed. When it was drafted, downtown was moribund. Now it is hot, hip and healthy.

It soon became clear that the demolition plan – which would have created public park space next to the busy and complicated intersection – was dead in the water, as it should have been.

Officials “heard the message loud and clear that citizens did not feel it was a good idea to tear the building down and create a vacuum on East Main Street,” Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said Tuesday.

She spoke as plans to renovate and resurrect the building as office space took another step forward. Self-Help credit union, which has played such a catalytic role in downtown’s revival, briefed County Commissioners on its plans in progress.

The credit union plans retail shops at street level – a necessity in any downtown project to avoid sidewalks drained of life. In upper floors, it envisions office space for nonprofits and small businesses for whom rent in new or more elaborately renovated structures is becoming prohibitive downtown.

Many steps and potential pitfalls still lie between now and seeing a renovated and repopulated building. Self-Help is a wizard at putting together financing for such projects, but if figures it must find $1.7 million from foundations and the public sector to complete the package.

The county may have to put the property up for bid – and at least one commissioner spoke of partnering with Self-Help rather than actually selling the building.

But turning the building over to the private sector would answer another objection raised to the civic plaza plans.  Critics saw merit in getting the existing building on the tax rolls.

Local architect Michael Hining, who is working on plans for Self-Help, told the commissioners he was 14 when the DSS building was erected.

“I’ve got a few extra years in me and I think (it) does too,’ he said.

That it does, and it is encouraging to see plans moving ahead to do see that it is reborn rather than trucked as rubble to a landfill.