Schewel, Johnson, Reece lead Council race after primary; can anyone catch up?

As widely expected, the People's Alliance slate of incumbent Steve Schewel and newcomers Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece sailed to a top-three finish in yesterday's primary election.

With nearly 9,400, 8,200 and 6,000 votes, respectively, the PA slate finished well-ahead of the rest of the pack. (See the NC Board of Elections website for the latest numbers.)

Longtime Durhamite Mike Shiflett came in at the middle tier, with just over 3,800 votes; fifth and sixth place finishers Ricky Hart and Robert Stephens each drew about 2,500 votes.

For the Shiflett and, to a lesser extent, Hart campaigns, the big question will be whether a get-out-the-vote campaign could close the gap with third-placer Reece. It's not an insurmountable gap, but it would be a tough get. 

In 2011 -- the last year where we had the at-large seats up for grabs -- Steve Schewel, Diane Catotti and Eugene Brown all had similar vote totals to those seen by the leaders in last night's results, while challenger Victoria Peterson (I know, I know) was at approximately Mike Shiflett's vote total level. The general election vote tallies by percentage didn't change much, although only one candidate (the perennial John Tarantino) fell out of that seven-person primary round.

While we can expect last night's 13,000 ballots cast to probably rise to 20,000 or more in the general election, the question will be which way the eliminated candidates' votes split. Azar's total might swing to Shiflett, but the other candidates' tallies could be a more random walk; we also wouldn't be surprised to see Hart or Stephens pick up a good chunk of those in the general. 

The sixth-place finish was the nail-biter of the evening. The Herald-Sun's coverage initially gave the nod to Stephens, but challenger Sandra Davis took a lead later in the evening, per a Tweet from the Herald-Sun's Lauren Horsch. By morning, Stephens was again in the lead.

We're not sure which is more surprising: Davis' strong showing (as she essentially ran no active campaign); or Philip Azar's eight-place, 1,300 vote total. In a year when affordable housing is a big issue, Azar -- who spent much of his decade in Durham as a Habitat for Humanity staffer -- had a showing that significantly trailed expectations. 

Meanwhile, Stephens, a one-year resident of Durham, is on to the final-six as the one candidate lacking any political action committee endorsements to make it to the next round.

Oh, and Bill Bell is still going to win the mayoral race.

Durham's silly season, part 1: Projecting the Council/Mayoral primary results

It's election time in the Bull City, and today's primary elections for City Council and Mayor will tell us who's moving on and who's moving out when it comes to seats on City Hall Plaza's favorite dais.

Frank Hyman has his usual good analysis over at The Durham News, and I'm not inclined to disagree with Frank's math: this is, as Frank says, a race for sixth place, that is, who squeaks into the last slot in the primary.

With five candidates getting a lock on endorsements -- Jillian Johnson, Ricky Hart, Charlie Reece, Steve Schewel, and Mike Shiflett -- it's hard to imagine any of the five not moving on to the next round.

If we're laying odds on an order of finish, Schewel is a seeming no-brainer for the top slot, as the sole candidate earning endorsements from all three political action committees (Friends, Committee and PA) plus the Indy.

Things to watch in the rest of the order:

  • How do two newcomers to Durham civic life (Johnson, Reece) do against long-time civic type Mike Shiflett? Neither Reece nor Johnson list any experience on City- or County-appointed boards, commissions or the like, whereas Shiflett has a civic resume a mile along. Shiflett, a 1999 PA-endorsed candidate for City Council, didn't get the nod this round amidst a curiosity-piquing surge in PA membership and endorsement meeting turnout. On the other hand, Reece and Johnson have run social-media savvy campaigns, raised an ungodly amount of funds, and appear to be pressing hard on the ground game, critical in low-turnout elections.
  • How will Ricky Hart do? While Hart has strategic-seeming endorsements from both the Friends and Committee -- conventional wisdom is, aligning their nods to counter the likely high ground turnout from PA members -- and has civic experience including time on Durham's Human Relations Commission, Hart has a lower civic profile and has run a quieter campaign than the other four folks garnering endorsements.
  • And, as Hyman puts it, who comes in sixth? Robert Stephens and Philip Azar have each raised about $20,000 each and have higher profiles than the likely also-rans, Sandra Davis and John "I'm Runnin' Again" Tarantino. Frank portrays it as a bit more of a horse race than I suspect it may be for the sixth position. After all, Stephens brings only a year's residency in Durham and little track record on local engagement, while Azar has been deeply engaged in affordable housing, sustainability, and neighborhood organizations. We'd be surprised to see Stephens move on.

Our guess? We'll see three clusters or tranches of candidates. Schewel should have a clear lead among all voters. We'd expect to see Johnson, Reece and Shiflett in some combination holding down the second to fourth slots -- the real question will be, by how much does the eventual fourth-place finisher trail the third-place position, since that's the moneyball when it comes to winning election.

While a fifth place for Hart and a sixth place for Azar would follow endorsement and engagement logic above, we're curious how close those placements hold -- and wouldn't be surprised to see a close race or reversal of order here.

Oh, and Bill Bell wins. Our guess: 75%-85% of the vote in a four-way primary, with the question being how large the dissent vote is.

We'll have coverage here tonight as the votes come in.

I Walk the Line: Ninth Street, a beer, a book and a train

Man asleep 2                                  Near the train tracks along Ninth Street   Photo by Lisa Sorg


Candace Mixon, her dog, Jelly, and Matthew Lynch were spending a perfect fall afternoon sipping beers at a picnic table outside Sam’s Quik Shop. (To clarify, Jelly was not drinking.) They looked young and metropolitan, like people who might know  which end of the regional day pass to stick in the card slot.

It turned out they were ardent public transit fans, and using our own code, we traded observations on buses and trains in the way that regulars and commuters do.

“The 400 and the 405 used to take forever, an hour just to get to Chapel Hill.”
“It’s better now that they don’t go to New Hope Commons.”
“I take the bus to Cary.”
“Is that the 100 to the 300?”
“I sometimes take the Amtrak to Raleigh. And I used to commute to Greensboro on it.”

And so on. It’s not that they or I oppose cars—we each own one—but driving has become a drag.

Read more about plans for an elevated train and the Ninth Street station.

I Walk the Line: Protecting affordability near Buchanan Boulevard

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Old warehouse, now part of the Duke Transportation lot, Buchanan Boulevard  Photo by Lisa Sorg


Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via .

 Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.



Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.

Read more about this neighborhood and its potential affordability challenges.


RTP's Bob Geolas on the Park Center: "We're not trying to create a faux retro place."


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The eastern part of Park Center: Clockwise from upper right: A 5,000-seat amphitheater, office, hotel, Grove Park, another hotel, apartments, main park. In the middle, retail, restaurants, a cinema and a grocery are planned.   Photo by Lisa Sorg



Dressed in a blue suit and yellow tie, Bob Geolas sat on a stylish slate-colored sofa in the light-filled atrium of The Frontier. Once part of RTI, the five-story building in the Park Center at Research Triangle Park now houses small tech companies and arts organizations, complete with free working space, stand-up desks, stationary bikes, open and private spaces and of course, endless coffee. A few feet away from Geolas stood a slab of the Berlin Wall, on loan from a local art collector.

We met on Wednesday, the day before the big announcement about the future of Research Triangle Park. For four years, Geolas has been the CEO and president of the Research Triangle Park Foundation, charged with a daunting challenge: To re-envision and remake the 7,000-acre cloistered suburban campus, once anchored by behemoth, yet fragile companies like GlaxoSmithKline and IBM, into a nimble, collaborative environment preferred by a new generation of entrepreneurs. 

That reincarnation started to take shape this week, when, after clearing several Durham County zoning hurdles, Geolas announced details of the ambitious $50 million—which includes $20 million from the county—Park Center plan.

Groundbreaking on Phase I is scheduled to begin in January. The project, expected to take seven to 10 years to complete, will begin on the east side of the 100-acre site, sandwiched between N.C. 54, Davis Drive, Interstate 40 and T.W. Alexander Drive. 

Phase I will include three parks, a 5,000-seat amphitheater, two hotels, corporate office towers, incubator space, a wetlands meadow, 300,000 square feet of retail, including a cinema, a grocery, retail and restaurants—and, most notably, workforce housing. It will be the first time housing is built within the park. The regional transit center, now three miles away on Slater Road, would move to Park Center, offering direct bus routes to the area. (Currently, the only direct routes are GoTriangle’s 800 and 805, and you have to live in the south suburbs to board one without a transfer.)

“People have been hungry for a big idea,” Geolas said, as he showed me a 3D architectural schematic of the future Park Center. “The park needed to rebuild.”

RTP was once the model of the suburban workplace, one you might see in an 1961 ad in Life magazine. Shrouded by pine trees, scientists could retreat into their offices and research labs, seeking cures for diseases, developing new chemicals (that in turn cause the diseases they seek to cure). It seemed very serious, very hush-hush, as if to say Very Important Work Happens Here. And when 5 o’clock rolled around, all the Very Important Workers headed home to their suburban ranch homes and RTP went to sleep.


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On bungalows' history, urban density, and neighborhood change

Given all the hand-wringing going on about pocket neighborhoods and the disruption that's feared they may cause in further gentrifying Durham urban areas, the Atlantic Monthly's story "How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods" is a must-read.

In it, Daniel Hertz makes a compelling argument in reminding us that, for instance:

  • The 1,600 sq. ft. bungalows now praised as right-sized housing versus the "McMansions" feared to replace them, actually themselves dwarfed the housing stock that came before;
  • These housing units, arriving during the conspicuous-consumption era of the 1920s, were in fact far out of reach from the average resident in a community;
  • Zoning laws passed at the same time were pitched as a way to preserve these newly-created single-family home neighborhoods, keeping out multi-family and other arrivals that might impact the property values of the new homeowners in these neighborhoods.

Most importantly, though, Hertz nails a point I've been fretting about in the recent debates on Durham change: the same people who are most worried about the Durham-character-and-neighborhood impact caused by the addition of thousands of units of new apartments, pocket neighborhoods, condo developments, and increases in density, are the same people by and large who are worried about the rate of price increases and low-affordability in Durham neighborhoods.

Continue reading "On bungalows' history, urban density, and neighborhood change" »

Res ipsa locavore

If it's Wednesday, it's DCVB-press-release-on-a-Pizzeria-Toro-project Day around here.

Partners Cara Stacy, Gray Brooks, and Jay Owens, the team behind downtown Durham’s Pizzeria Toro, have announced plans to open a small, dinner-only restaurant at 110 East Parrish St., formerly home to Monuts Donuts. The opening is projected for winter 2016.

“We’ve been a fan of this space since Monuts was operating out of it,” Brooks said. “We’ve always loved the sort of super small neighborhood restaurants that, somewhat ironically, you only ever really seem to find in really large cities. There a sort of intimacy, a grown-up informality, that it’s hard to get in a large space.”

The team is excited about the small scope of the space. “We’re envisioning maybe 30 to 35 seats, mostly reservation, but with a small bar and food counter that we’ll hold for walk ins. Sort of a cross between a neighborhood restaurant and a date restaurant. We’re not even sure if we’ll have a phone; we may just take reservations by email.

The team plans on naming the restaurant “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain”. Brooks explained, “The name comes from an amazing woman who took care of my sisters and me growing up while my mom was at work; basically working for next to nothing during times when my mom couldn’t afford to pay for her. She used to call me Mr. President, until Robert Kennedy was shot. I was two at the time, and she decided that that wasn’t really a safe aspiration to have for me any longer. So she started calling me ‘Captain’ instead.

“She’s the person who taught me how to hit a baseball; she taught me how to collect things. Mostly I think she just taught me how to make a full and rich life out of next to nothing, lessons that I’ve carried with me, and have definitely put into cooking.”

Brooks said they will begin sharing information about the restaurant over the coming months. “Cara says I’m crazy to try to take this on with the Jack Tar taking shape. She’s probably right.”

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Bipartisan state House members to anti-LRT poison pill: drop dead

Last week, several news outlets reported on efforts by legislators to overturn the anti-transit poison pill inserted without any public debate in the last-minute state budget.

That provision -- which would have limited funding for any new light-rail system to a half million dollars, though effectively exempting the $400 million in support for the under-construction Charlotte system -- was a stinker, as we noted here, coming without attribution and flying in the face of a project thumbs-up from a new, data-driven evaluation process implemented by the General Assembly and the McCrory administration.

The irony that back-room politics might thwart a system intended to take the back-room politics out of transportation decisions does not appear to have been lost on state House members, who voted 81-28 to overturn the insertion.

Given that the GOP holds a 74-45 majority -- that's a pretty darn bipartisan vote, right there. Indeed, GOP representatives alone voted 40-28 to overturn the poison pill; Dems were unanimous in their support for the idea, too.

(Interestingly, though, House speaker Tim Moore was just one of two representatives to abstain on the matter.)

The N&O and WRAL note concerns from urban-area GOP members who were troubled by the flouting of the new transportation project ranking system that Republicans had long argued was necessary to halt the bad old days when the state Board of Transportation was rife with cronyism. 

The amendment has to also pass a state Senate vote today; we'll be curious to see if there's any roadblocks that arise in that chamber, as that might give us a better sense of where the original opposition came from.

Tonight: County commissioners to address RTP's new vision for Park Center

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With its two-story glass atrium, open work spaces and private cubbyholes, The Frontier in Research Triangle Park feels a bit like a retreat, an ideal place for headspace for the creative class.

The only problem is you have to drive there. Or if you live on Durham's far southside, grab the 800 or 805 GoTriangle bus. Or if you don't live on the southside, take a bus from downtown to the Regional Transit center and then an RTP shuttle.

In other words, if you're not into driving, like a lot of the new generation of creatives (although not "new," I include myself among them), then heading to the suburbs, even a place like the Frontier, to dream, collaborate and invent is daunting.

Today's young and young-at-heart workers prefer urban living to more pastoral environs; economic centers have shifted from the suburbs to the center cities,  As a result of that reverse migration, Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Park Foundation, has been re-envisioning at least part of the vast tech and bioscience campus, which has long been dominated by large biotech, life science and computer behemoths such as GlaxoSmithKline and IBM.

Park Center, which includes the Frontier, is that place. As I reported last January for the INDY that when fully repurposed and built out, the entire 100-acre site  at N.C. 54 near Davis Drive (formerly RTI) could have 200,000-square-feet of retail, 250 apartments, a full-service hotel and additional office space, and of course, the Frontier.

But the plan has to clear some hurdles first. 

The RTP Foundation is asking for a text amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that would allow a more intense development at Park Center. This would include workforce housing, restaurants, commercial, office—essentially a small, transit-friendly urban center within a suburban campus. 

Download BOC Memo A1500007

Download Attachment A Application

In August, the planning commission voted 8-6 to narrowly approve the proposal. However, the opposition was not necessarily to the RTP plan itself, but the ramifications such a text amendment could have on other parts of the suburban tier. In other words, it's tool that can be used for good, such as RTP's Park Center, or evil [fill in your own examples here].

The discussion, detailed here in the minutes, is very informative, and a good primer for tonight's meeting.  Download Attachment C Planning Commission Comments

The plan needs some tweaking, some assurances that what Geolas has in his mind's eye happens on the ground—workforce, aka affordable, housing, for example, where the landscapers and hotel workers and "pre-revenue" startup employees could live.

For example, rather than a text amendment there's been mention of creating a design district that could meet the goals of the Park Center without wrecking the rest of the county. 

Download Attachment B Resolution

We'll cover tonight's meeting, plus we have scheduled an interview with Geolas for Wednesday morning. Stay tuned.


I Walk the Line: Downtown Durham, the Great Wall, the big gap and why the jail is fine where it is

Girl and dog blog

                            A girl and her dog, Mr. Big, outside of the Durham County jail.  Photo by Lisa Sorg

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a woman and her two young daughters stood on the sidewalk along Pettigrew Street, waving in the direction of a small incision in the Durham County jail.

The family had brought their pit bull, Mr. Big, who strained at his leash to sniff and greet me.

“That’s my baby,” the woman said, pointing up at a window. 

I could not see her loved one among the anonymous slits in the wall. But she could, which was all that mattered.

I’m one of the few Durhamites who favor the jail—while architecturally hostile as warehouses of human misery tend to be—being located downtown. When we sweep our social issues to the boondocks, we can forget that our problems—and the people caught in them—exist. 

However, I’m admittedly in the minority. Many, if not most, Durham residents oppose the siting of the jail, especially considering its proximity to the Durham Performing Arts Center. But the jail was there first, built in 1996 when downtown was desolate. DPAC opened next door in 2008, when the downtown renaissance, while tempered by the recession, began.

The duality is almost poetic: DPAC, with its glass exterior, creates a fantasy; the jail, impenetrable and opaque, presents reality. I’d argue there is room for both.

Dig into the disagreement over the siting of the downtown station, including comments from Durham Area Designers.