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Bull City Politics: Branding Durham in ‘brick and mortar,’ and the bow-tie report

This aerial photograph of West Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham is used for the city’s request for qualifications from developers of the old police headquarters site.
This aerial photograph of West Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham is used for the city’s request for qualifications from developers of the old police headquarters site. City of Durham

Whatever gets built on the old police headquarters property will make an impression as visitors see downtown Durham from the freeway or get off at the exits on the western side of downtown toward Duke University.

City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants it to be “something that uniquely says Durham.”

“This may be the last opportunity to sort of brand our city in brick and mortar at this location,” he told council members this week. “It’s a gateway. It’s prime real estate.”

The Police Department recently moved to East Main Street. Its former home is a mid-century modern building that once housed an insurance building. That building may or may not stay. It’s on the council’s list of priorities, but it’s not at the top. Affordable housing is.

The city is a step closer to deciding what will go on the land on a hill next to the Tower at Mutual Plaza, formerly the NC Mutual building, and across the street from Duke Memorial United Methodist Church — both Durham signature buildings in their own right.

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Durham City Council Ward 2 member Mark-Anthony Middleton City of Durham

Middleton said he wants “something that will brand us as a city.” One City Center is a significant part of the city’s skyline, and whatever gets built at 505 W. Chapel Hill St. can be, too.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said the council’s priorities are flexible goals and not absolutes. The city has begun accepting developer ideas, from which it will choose a short list of who can submit proposals next year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, council members got an update about the old headquarters building.

“The current facility is in bad shape,” said Steven Hicks, the city’s general services director. “The boiler is shot.”

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It will cost the city about $76,000 up front and then maintenance costs on the old headquarters until they decide what to do with it. The roof leaks, too, Hicks said.

“In essence you’re still owning a facility but it’s not occupied,” Hicks said.

Here are the council’s priorities in order, for the site:

Providing affordable housing for residents at 60 percent of the area median income

Generating significant revenue from selling the property and future tax revenue on it

Developing it for mixed-use with office and retail space

Preserving the existing building designed by Milton Small

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Durham Belt Line still needs equitable input

In August, as the City Council reviewed the master plan for the Durham Belt Line, it also got an earful from residents concerned about the impact of a trail on the people who live around it.

The old Belt Line railroad tracks are being turned into a linear park, and the city now owns the land.

Before design work begins, council members asked city staff for an “equitable engagement” blueprint around its development.

The Neighborhood Improvement Services department gave a detailed engagement presentation at the council’s work session this week. But design work for the trail could start in three months — before the equitable engagement plan begins.

Aidil Ortiz, who serves on the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, told the council that while she supported NIS’ presentation, the project steering committee and those surveyed online included few people of color or those whose income reflects the income of the planned Belt Line trail’s neighbors.

Council members agreed to let city staff figure out how to get community engagement started sooner and to report back in January.

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Council bow tie report

At any given City Council meeting, the odds are good that at least one member will be wearing a bow tie.

Usually it’s Middleton, and frequently Mayor Steve Schewel. Occasionally council member Vernetta Alston will wear one, too.

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Durham City Council, left to right: Council member Vernetta Alston, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, Council member Charlie Reece, Mayor Steve Schewel, and Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Javiera Caballero and DeDreana Freeman. City of Durham

This week, both Middleton and Schewel sported bow ties at the council’s regular meeting on Monday. But at the work session the next day, the bow tie tally fell to one, worn by Alston.

In other Bull City fashion, the clothing brand Runaway announced it will be closing in January. The company is known for its “Durm” T-shirts, and one of their biggest fans is council member Charlie Reece.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers Durham government and live tweets meetings on Twitter at @dawnbvaughan and #BullCitypol. Bull City Politics is an occasional Durham politics column that takes you inside City Hall and the County Administration Building.
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