Durham County

Ex-Durham mayor, others want affordable housing downtown at old police headquarters

Three scenarios for the future of the Durham Police Department headquarters site, which will become vacant in late 2018 when DPD moves to a new building on East Main Street.
Three scenarios for the future of the Durham Police Department headquarters site, which will become vacant in late 2018 when DPD moves to a new building on East Main Street. City of Durham

Will the potential sale of the Durham Police Department headquarters property lead to more affordable housing downtown? Or somewhere else?

That's what the City Council will consider Thursday when it looks at whether or not to develop the soon to be vacant site on West Chapel Hill Street. A vote could come in August.

"Preserving a portion of the police site is one of the last, best chances we have for adding significant affordable housing to what has become Durham’s most expensive neighborhood," said former Durham mayor and state senator Wib Gulley.

"[It's a] pretty important decision you’ll make with a special piece of property," he told council members recently. "We don’t want to concentrate affordable housing in our neighborhoods."

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Gulley is active with Durham's Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit and suggested the idea of keeping part of the land and selling the rest. The site is four acres at 505 W. Chapel Hill St., including the DPD headquarters and emergency communications building and surface parking lots. The building occupies a quarter of the land.

The Coalition for Affordable Housing, Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), the People's Alliance and Duke Memorial United Methodist Church will hold a rally at City Hall at noon Thursday before the council's 1 p.m. work session.

The groups want the city to re-use part of the site for at least 80 affordable housing units and to dedicate funds from the sale of the DPD headquarters to develop more affordable housing throughout Durham.

The People's Alliance political action committee endorsed every member of Durham City Council except Mark-Anthony Middleton.

The former Durham Police Department headquarters sits on West Chapel Hill Street. The Durham City Council is deciding what to do with the property. File photo

Modernist building

When the City Council talked about the property six months ago, Preservation Durham urged the council to keep the headquarters building. The modernist building was built in the 1950s for the Home Security Life Insurance Co.

Kyle Vangel of the real estate and economic development firm HR&A Advisors told the council two weeks ago that the land "really forms a bridge between downtown and West Durham."

The building is part of Durham's skyline when taller buildings aren't blocking the view, and is near the Durham Freeway.

Middleton, who was in Durham CAN before he ran for office, said the decision could really affect the culture, posterity and feel of the city.

"A lot of the people who would be living in these units aren’t part of this discussion. Why is it not a good idea to sell this property for a gazillion dollars and take that money and make our housing fund super flush and help more people around the city, and perhaps forgo the symbolic victory of having [more] affordable units downtown? How do I explain that to folk?" Middleton said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson questioned the value of affordable housing in downtown versus the value of just having affordable housing units somewhere.

"Are we trying to serve more people, or fewer people with a better product?" Johnson said.

Karen Lado, assistant director of the Durham Community Development Department, said there are levels of complexity that are very hard to analyze. She said access to transit, like the Durham bus station and planned light rail stop downtown, could mean a resident wouldn't need a car.

"Is it about housing or access to opportunity? At some point there’s so many open-ended variables it becomes very difficult to answer the question," Lado said.

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