Durham County

‘New Urbanism’ developer finds few fans for project on Mary Duke Biddle property

TND plans for the Mary Duke Biddle House on the site to be preserved.
TND plans for the Mary Duke Biddle House on the site to be preserved. courtesy of Open Durham

The team planning 57 houses on the 12.5 acres of the Mary Duke Biddle Estate in the historic Forest Hills neighborhood received a mostly hostile reception from neighbors Monday evening.

More than 200 residents of Forest Hills, and the adjacent Long Meadow neighborhood, filled the cafeteria at Morehead Montessori Magnet Elementary School to hear from developer Bob Chapman, founder of TND Partners of Durham.

Chapman, a Duke graduate, espouses New Urbanism development, a design movement that favors walkable neighborhoods and higher density over more suburban-style building. The movement draws from urban design aspects more common before the rise of the automobile after World War II.

Developer Bob Chapman HARRY LYNCH hlynch@newsobserver.com

Chapman has studied and worked with Andres Duany, one of the pioneers of New Urbanism and the co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, the organizing body for the movement. “(We) believe,” Chapman said of New Urbanists, “the space between the buildings is more important that the space inside the building, that the important thing is place making, the important thing is creating communities.”

The higher density Chapman has in mind is meant to encourage walking, he said, as well as allowing open space on the property and saving more trees than tract-style development. Plans call for houses on only 8 or 9 of the property’s 12.5 acres. But many at the meeting said they would prefer a project closer the suburban style of their houses.

“I’m afraid this plan is forcing something on us that doesn’t fit our neighborhood,” said Tom Wiley, whose property, on Forest Hills Boulevard, abuts the land to be developed.

Ellen Pless, who lives about four blocks away, echoed Wiley’s concerns: “I think it messes with our identity.”

TND is also planning an unspecified number of townhouses among the planned 57 structures.

The project as the developers envision it would require a rezoning, which they have not yet applied for.

Jason Russell, who lives at the corner of Bivins and Kent streets, also right on top of the property, took offense at the many times Chapman urged his audience to look up New Urbanism projects completed in other cities for reference. “This is how it’s done here. This is how it’s done there,” he said, mimicking Chapman. “We’re not Atlanta – we’re Durham.”

The home builder for the project, Phillip Clark, is from Atlanta, and Chapman showed his audience several slides of projects Clark had worked on there.

But Larry Pollard, who said he has lived in the same house in Forest Hills for all his 70 years, came to the meeting expecting to be upset by the plans but instead was impressed with the presentation and what TND has planned. He said he wasn’t quite sure he was in favor, though, particularly because of the high density.

Mary Duke Biddle. Scott Lewis Scott Lewis

“I have seen a lot of houses that a lot of you are living in now be built, and a lot of the open space disappeared, and over time we got over it and we grew as a community and a neighborhood,” he told the crowd. “If you’re going to turn over a very key piece of property for people to develop in the future, I don’t think you could do it any better than what these gentlemen are trying to do.”

TND plans for the Mary Duke Biddle House on the site to be preserved. The firm has not yet decided what it would be used for after the extensive renovations it needs. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Josh McCarty, who lives about two blocks away from the property, was the only other neighbor who spoke who wasn’t against the development. “I would love to live down the street from this,” he said.

McCarty took issue with a complaint several expressed that walkability wasn’t important because, they said, there are not many commercial destinations close enough to walk to. He said he often walks to stores from his house. He also noted that at 33 he’s younger than most of the neighbors who came out.

Matt Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com