Durham County

Modernist Durham police HQ could stay or go in plans for 'gateway' property downtown

The existing Durham Police Department headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street.
The existing Durham Police Department headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street. courtesy of Durham Police Department

With a new Durham Police Department headquarters set to open in August, plans for the old headquarters are ramping up.

The Durham City Council took a look at the future of the site during its work session on Thursday. They also heard from those who want the modernist building preserved and the land to include affordable housing.

The property at 505 W. Chapel Hill St. is four acres including the building and parking lot. It didn’t start as a police station, as it was built in the 1950s for the Home Security Life Insurance Company. The city hired consultants to look at re-use opportunities for the land. It’s across from Duke Memorial United Methodist Church and close to a Durham Freeway exit. The building will be vacant next fall and takes up about a quarter of the land.

“There’s a lot of demands on this little piece of property, and they compete with each other,” said Durham City Council member Steve Schewel, who is also mayor-elect.

Bo Ferguson, deputy city manager, said that the council wasn’t getting recommendations on which to vote, but rather “points on a continuum” to show what the property’s development could look like.

Tony Nicholson, a member of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, said that the church and Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN) want affordable housing and to advance goals of economic justice. Durham CAN also pushed for the city’s most recent affordable housing project on Jackson Street.

Kyle Vangel of HR&A Advisors, one of the consultant groups, said that the property is an opportunity “to really shape the future of downtown.” Duda Paine Architects and R.M. Rutherford & Associates were also part of the team.

The consultant team said that city priorities for the project were affordable housing, a business-friendly environment, attractive to downtown and a design with distinct gateways. After community input sessions this fall, community feedback called for affordable housing as the first or second prioirity for the land, followed by community facilities, open space, office and retail coming in last.

Of more than 900 community responses, 43 percent said it was not important to preserve the existing building. But George Smart of Triangle Modernist Houses, and a Durham resident, says the city is a hotbed of modernist design, with 800 buildings. The soon-to-be former DPD headquarters is modernist design. In its mid-20th century era, modernist design symbolized optimism of the future, Smart said.

“Saving this building reflects an optimism about [Durham’s] future,” Smart said.

Preservation Durham board president Rob Emerson said “there’s plenty of room to get this right” and urged the council to preserve the building, which is one eighth of the land.

Four initial design ideas from consultants showed a museum park, Durham gateway, “Little Neighborhood” and “Urban Catalyst” makeup of buildings and space on the site.

“Urban Catalyst” plan for the four-acre site that is currently the Durham Police Department headquarters. The building will be vacated next fall. City of Durham report

The four design ideas were narrowed down to two – “Little Neighborhood” with residential and office buildings, and “Urban Catalyst,” which includes office buildings, a park, residential and community pavilion. The “little neighborhood” cost estimate is $70.1 million for construction and renovation. It would keep the old police headquarters building, but the other option would not. The “urban catalyst” is estimated at $99.6 million, but consultants report that will generate higher revenue and have more office space.

The “Little Neighborhood” scenario for use of the old Durham Police Department headquarters site and surrounding parking lots on West Chapel Hill Street, which will be vacated next fall. City of Durham report

Marcia McNally of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit said thinks the consultants’ scenarios are at odds with city goals. CAHT wants affordable housing to be the top priority for the site.

“The council is well aware of the scarcity of opportunities to build affordable units in the downtown,” McNally said. “Because of the size of this parcel, it may represent Durham’s best opportunity to leverage public land to create a substantial number of affordable units, for decades.”

The CAHT asked for 175 units of affordable housing on the site. The old police headquarters is just a few blocks from the city’s next affordable housing project on Jackson Street, which will feature 80 affordable housing units. The Jackson Street project will be built on city-owned land next to the bus station. The DPD site proposals have some affordable housing possiblities suggested, but the amount and cost would vary depending on how much and what the percent below the average median income is used.

McNally, who also lives downtown, said the coalition wants a mixed income neighborhood, not a market rate neighborhood with “a token few” affordable housing units.

Durham City Councilman Don Moffitt said low-income housing tax credits are only available for 80 affordable housing units, and the tax credit is a big part of the project’s funding.

Councilman Charlie Reece added that the 80-unit amount for Jackson Street was for the low income tax credit, and that even winning that tax credit is still not a given.

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson wants to maximize affordable housing on the site, so city staff will use council feedback to determine priorities beween affordable housing, open space and office space.

Schewel said that with the low-income tax credit only being an option once a year, he’d like to look at working on a place where people already live rather than new construction of affordable housing. However he’d like “as much affordable housing here as we could get, if we figure out a way to pay for it,” Schewel said.

The next steps for the Durham City Council are to provide more feedback about whether or not to preserve the building, what density they want and use of the site. Then the city will go on to a development partner solicitation process. But for now, it’s still in the discussion phase.

Vangel told council that the market is favorable now to move forward and sell the property. The land prices vary by scenario, with the “Urban Catalyst” option potentially getting $9.2 million versus $330,000 for site disposition for the “Little Neighborhood” plan.

Mayor Bill Bell said the council has been given good options to look at and should consider what the area will look at in 10 or 15 years.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan