Durham County

City will sell 'landmark' downtown Durham block, as long as it gets affordable housing

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

A block in the west end of downtown Durham will be sold by the city, as long as developers agree to put some affordable housing on the land after the Police Department moves into its new headquarters this fall.

Affordable housing is the top priority for the 4.4 acre site, the Durham City Council decided Thursday. The city will put out a request for development proposals that lists affordable housing first and maximization of the sale of the land second, understanding that those are competing priorities, said Mayor Steve Schewel.

Further down the list of priorities is making the block a mixed-use development, and after that preserving the Modernist police headquarters building. Schewel said they want the property on West Chapel Hill Street near the Durham Freeway to be a "landmark" site.

What it will look like is still up in the air, as the council will vote on specifics for the request for proposals, or RFP, in August or September.

"The affordable housing, for me, is much less negotiable than the preservation of the building," Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said. "If they were to bring us a proposal with no affordable housing, that would be a waste of everyone’s time."

Affordable housing advocates held a press conference before the meeting calling on the council to make sure there are at least 80 units of affordable housing on at least some of the property.

The Durham People's Alliance, Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), Coalition for Affordable Housing, Champions for Change, Community Empowerment Fund, Urban Ministries of Durham, Housing for New Hope, J.J. Henderson public housing residents, N.C. Congress of Latino Organizations, Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Families Moving Forward and Duke Memorial United Methodist Church all called for affordable housing on a least an acre of the block.

Ketty Thelemaque of Durham CAN questioned if downtown Durham captures the full diversity of the city. "We're not asking for much, just a small bit, and we're going to fight for it," she said.

Wilbert Pipkin said affordable housing is so important to him because when he got out of prison a little over a year ago, he had trouble finding a place to live with his criminal record. He'd like to be able to live downtown.

Wilbert Pipkin said that he has had a hard time finding affordable housing in Durham after getting out of prison a little over a year ago. The mirror in front of him reflects the under construction high rise One City Center. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

"I love downtown. It's convenient for us," Pipkin said, with access to buses, the Durham County Department of Social Services, the Criminal Justice Resource Center and recovery programs all in downtown.

"I don't want to have to go back to prison to lay my head; I'm through with all that. I'm asking you to give us a chance," Pipkin said.

As he spoke, a large mirror at his feet reflected One City Center, the skyscraper under construction at the center of downtown.

Affordable housing supporters brought mirrors to the press conference to illustrate what city priorities should be reflected in the development of the former headquarters land.

Marian Spicer, a retired teacher's assistant, said she has a housing voucher and would like to use it to live somewhere downtown where she can walk to the bus terminal.

Latinos are also "building the new Durham," said Cecilia Barja of the N.C. Congress of Latino Organizations.

"Latinos want the opportunity to live downtown like everybody else," Barja said.

Modernist building

Preservation Durham and North Carolina Modernist Houses have both asked the city to preserve the headquarters building.

According to North Carolina Modernist Houses, architect George Milton Small Jr. designed both the 1959 Home Security Life building, which became Durham police headquarters, and a 1960 building in Raleigh that previously served as city hall and police headquarters.

"Durham does not have many significant mid-century structures, but one need look no further than the Durham and Unscripted hotels to appreciate the potential," Rob Emerson, president of the Preservation Durham board, told council members in an email.

"Just as the city has an obligation to ensure that development here includes an appropriate amount of affordable residential units, we must be good stewards of our cultural and historical resources. Please ensure that this iconic building is retained as the cornerstone of the high-quality, mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment project that Durham deserves," Emerson said.

Supporters of affordable housing being built at the soon to be vacant Durham Police Department headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street held a press conference at City Hall Thursday, June 7, 2018, before the council meeting where they decided the future of the city-owned block. Reflected in the mirrors is the new downtown skyscraper, One City Center. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Jackson Street affordable housing planned nearby

The city has spent the past few years planning for affordable housing on city-owned land at the intersection of Jackson and Pettigrew streets. It hopes to get a low-income housing tax credit of 9 percent this year for that project.

Durham is only awarded one of those per year, and if the council had decided to apply for one for a potential project on the police headquarters land, it would have to have gotten in line before Durham Housing Authority and other projects. In that scenario, the city land could have sat vacant for a decade, said Kyle Vangel of HR&A Advisors.

Affordable housing and preserving the building aren't the only requests for the property. Rebekah Miel, who represents arts and culture on the Mayor's Council for Women, said if the land is sold and the building is torn down, there should be a temporary art installation.

Council member DeDreana Freeman said that whatever money the city makes from the sale of the land, she doesn't want it earmarked only for housing, but for other city priorities, too.

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