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June 2016

Snap! Number of Durhamites receiving food stamps falls; new rule plays a part

The average amount totals only about $30 per week, but for some people, this food stamp benefit is the difference between being fed and going hungry.

Over the past five months, 1,172 fewer people in Durham received food stamps — also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — falling from 44,072 in January to 42,900 in May.

According to N.C. Division of Social Services data, the number of active cases and applications also fell from the first of the year.

 

Food stamps

(Click chart to enlarge it)

Part of the reason for the decrease is new federal rules governing SNAP recipients, known as able-bodied adults without dependents. These are people ages 18-49 who meet certain criteria: they aren’t disabled, they aren’t chronically homeless and they aren’t substance abusers whose condition prevents them from working. However, for whatever reason — a criminal background, for example — they cannot find a job.

These people would receive food stamps for only three months within three years, unless they volunteer or attend some type of training program an average of 20 hours a week.

This year, 2,700 food stamp recipients in Durham were at risk of losing their benefits, according to Durham County Department of Social Services data.

Durham is one of 23 North Carolina counties that have had to comply with the rules since January. The rules go into effect in the  remaining 77 counties on July 1.

As BCR reported in January when the rules went into effect, the unintended consequences of this policy are far-reaching. For example, if a 40-year-old woman is not working, volunteering or going to school 20 hours a week, but has a 17-year-old child who is on food stamps, then she would still be eligible for them as well. But when the child turns 18, both of them could lose their benefits.

Nationwide, about 1 million people are expected to lose SNAP benefits this year because of the rule, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Here is a grocery list of what $30 could buy at major grocery chains such as Food Lion and Kroger. The prices come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and weekly store flyers:

1 dozen eggs ($1.68)

1 gallon of milk ($3.15)

1 pound Red Delicious apples ($1.42)

2 pounds bananas ($1.14)

1 pound coffee ($4.44)

3 cans beans ($5.10)

3 eight-ounce packages of cheese ($5)

5 yogurt cups ($4)

4 12-ounce bags of frozen vegetables ($1 each/on sale)


Criminal investigation into primary continues; provisional do-over starts July 11

This story has been updated on Wednesday at 3:49 p.m.

While the state’s criminal investigation into the alleged mishandling of primary election ballots continues, the 892 Durham residents whose provisional ballots were in question in March will be allowed to re-vote by mail from July 11-22. 

Official results, with the new totals, are expected by August 12. However, the number of ballots in question will not affect the outcome of any contest, including the county commission.

Even though state officials announced on May 31 that they would mail and count the ballots, the local board — surprisingly — will now be in charge of that process, said Durham Board of Elections Deputy Director Sam Gedman at a public meeting tonight. He referred to an email that local elections officials received from the state board today at 2:18 p.m.

“It’s the first we had heard of it,” added local BOE member Margaret Cox Griffin.

Update: On Wednesday, State Board of Elections spokesperson Jackie Hyland told BCR that the agency is preparing "formal guidance" for the local board. Hyland added that there is no update on the criminal investigation.

The local meeting concluded after the State Board of Elections had closed for the day, so those officials could not be reached immediately for comment.

In March, the Durham elections board had approved or partially approved 1,039 provisional ballots that had then been entered into the state’s election management system, also known as the provisional module. However, during the March 22 count, also known as the official canvass, the board and staff noticed the numbers of paper ballots and those entered into the tabulator did not reconcile. 

In addition, a temporary elections employee had told Durham Director Michael Perry that an elections staff member had instructed her to run some ballots twice in order to reconcile the numbers.

Download Email regarding provisional ballot problems

The local and state board have not publicly identified that staff member, but according to documents obtained by Bull City Rising in an open records request, the employee in question resigned on March 29. The only elections department employee who resigned that day was Elections Administrator Richard Rawling, according to county personnel records.

Download Employee roster Durham BOE

A volunteer also reported that a satchel of ballots had disappeared, but neither a state nor a local investigation has not confirmed that allegation. “We don’t know if any are missing,” said Durham Board of Elections Chairman Bill Brian.

Several members of the public asked the Durham board who would oversee the counting of ballots. Brian said there would “probably be a state observer, but if you want one, you [the public] should ask the state board for one.”

County commissioner candidates Michael Page, Fred Foster, and Elaine Hyman, who lost the election, filed official protests over the results. However, if even any of those candidates won all of the disputed ballots, the number would still not be enough for them to win.

The winning school board candidates, Steven Unruhe, Minnie Forte-Brown and Xavier Cason, will be sworn in July 1. The outcome of those races would not be altered by the provisional counts. Forte-Brown and Cason ran unopposed; Unruhe won by more than 15,000 votes over Frederick Ravin III.


Over Durham Rescue Mission's objections, proposed Golden Belt Historic District clears another hurdle

Map of proposed Golden Belt districtCourtesy of City of Durham/MdM Consultants

 

Despite strong opposition from the Durham Rescue Mission, the city planning commission voted 7-4 Tuesday night to approve proposed boundaries for the Golden Belt local historic district.

The local historic designation would help protect the character of what city consultant Cynthia de Miranda called, “Durham’s most intact historic millage village.” 

It is located on the east side of downtown, in an area that while still primarily affordable, has become vulnerable to gentrification. The area is bounded by Elizabeth Street to the west, and extends east across Alston Avenue to Holman Street. The northern boundary runs along the former Golden Belt factories and Taylor Street. The southern line includes parts of East Main Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

In April, the Historic Preservation Commission also voted 4-0 for the district and the proposed boundaries. The State Historic Preservation Office also reviewed and approved them.

The issue will now go to City Council for a vote.

MdM Historical Consultants, who were hired by the city for the project, studied the history of the neighborhood and proposed the boundaries based on the historic period when the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company built houses for its workers in the mill village.

Download Golden Belt Historic District

Although over the past 100 years, some buildings have been demolished, “there is still a strong sense of place,” de Miranda said.

Parts of the residential and commercial neighborhood have been on the National Historic Register since 1985. A local historic designation, which can have different boundaries than the national one, would help preserve the character of the neighborhood, largely composed of former Golden Belt factories and the small mill houses built by the company in the early 20th century. The designation would also discourage tear-downs — demolishing small houses in order to construct larger homes— and possibly thwart or at least slow, gentrification.

But Rob Tart, chief operating officer of the Durham Rescue Mission, said the nonprofit wants to be excluded from the district because it doesn’t want to comply with historic preservation rules for new construction. 

“We don’t want to be a part of it,” Tart said. “If other people want to be a part of it, praise the Lord.”

The nonprofit owns 13 properties in the district, including five historically contributing structures and several vacant lots in the 1200 block of Worth Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

Tart acknowledged the Durham Rescue Mission has no firm plans for the vacant lots, only that a dormitory or community center is a possibility.

However, the area is not zoned for that use. The parcels would have to receive City Council approval for a rezone in order for those facilities to be built there. If a rezone were granted, a dormitory could be built, but, as senior planner Lisa Miller said, using smaller buildings and “not in one big block.”

“There would be likely be some additional cost and you’d have to take into account some design criteria,” she added. “But it’s possible.”

There are tax incentives for property owners who want to build or renovate homes in historic districts. Since the Durham Rescue Mission is a nonprofit, it would not qualify for those tax breaks, Tart said.

But the Durham Rescue Mission does receive tax breaks. It pays no tax on its 65 properties, which include commercial buildings, a church, vacant land and dozens of homes, which, according to county property records, have a combined appraised value of $13.1 million.

Several planning commission members noted that because of Durham Rescue Mission’s contributions to the homeless community, placing historic preservation regulations on the organization could be burdensome. “It would make it more difficult for them to serve our community,” said the Rev. Melvin Whitley, a commission member. 

But planning commissioner Tom Miller, who lives in Watts-Hillandale, supported keeping the rescue mission in the district to preserve the area’s historical integrity. The other major mill village, Erwin Mills, in the Ninth Street District, has almost disappeared. It originally had about 1,000 properties; now only 20 to 30 remain, Miller said.

 “This is about preserving the integrity of the last intact mill village in Durham,” Miller said. “The rescue mission has ambitions for vacant land there, but they can be consistent with serving the mission and the neighborhood.”

John Martin, a former Golden Belt neighborhood resident, was one of the people who helped start a petition to create a local historic district. Martin lived on Morning Glory Avenue when it was strewn with abandoned, boarded-up houses and empty lots. But over time, those homes were renovated. “They are modest, affordable and close to downtown,” Miller said. Without protection, the temptation will be simple. People will tear them down and build McMansions. It is still a fragile neighborhood that needs your protection.”

 


Because we're curious: What's behind the gray fencing in Black Wall Street Plaza?

IMG_3375

While our attention is on Black Wall Street Plaza — and its uses, public or private — we wondered what was the point of the large gray, screened boxes in that green space. You know, the ones with the decorative cardinals peeping over the edge.

If you guessed a Duke Energy electrical switchgear cabinet then you get free power for a year! (Offer not valid in the U.S.)

The utility applied to the city to place these transformers in the plaza in 2010 as part of the Downtown Reliability Enhancement Project. Additional transformers are at a second site in a parking lot at 315 Holland Street, near the Durham Hotel.

The cabinets in the plaza are 45 1/2 inches high. Each one takes up 37.78 square feet, according to documents filed with city. The entire project area is 108 square feet, about 1 percent of the total area of the plaza.

Download Duke Energy_reliabilityproject

Duke Energy paid a $1,010 fee to place the switchgear cabinets in the city-owned plaza. However, an official with the General Services department, which maintains the park, said the city doesn't receive an additional money, such as rent, for the space the cabinets consume.

Download Duke Energy - Mangum Street Open Space Area

Time Warner also has a utility box in the plaza, on the east side of Luna and near the sidewalk along Main Street. 

IMG_3374You are beautiful, but these cabinets aren't:
A message written on the side of a Duke Energy switchgear cabinet in Black Wall Street Plaza.


Senate bill to be introduced today that would require small polluters to get emission permit; reverses previous rule

The air in East Durham might not get cleaner, but at least residents will know what they're breathing if a Senate bill introduced today becomes law.

Senate Bill 895, "Disapprove Environment Management Commission Rules," would reverse a controversial rule that would exempt facilities that emit low levels of certain pollutants — up to 10 tons — from having to obtain an air permit. Fourteen of these facilities are in Durham; half of them in low-income and minority neighborhoods. 

Senator Terry Van Duyn, a Democrat from Buncombe County, sponsored the bill. It is scheduled to be introduced today in the Senate, which convenes at 2 p.m.

As BCR reported in January, the Environmental Management Commission approved the rule, despite receiving 1,601 public comments opposing it and just five in favor.

Ozone, carbon monoxide, lead and particulate matter are examples of criteria pollutants.  The EPA has compiled a list of 187 hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, proven to cause cancer in humans, and naphthalene, a possible carcinogen.

The problem is that while individually these facilities emit comparatively small amounts of pollutants, their cumulative impacts, especially when the businesses are clustered in low-income, minority neighborhoods, jeopardize residents’ health. And if there is a major polluter in the area, like Brenntag, even though it must have a permit, it still diminishes the air quality for nearby residents.

The three low-level polluters on South Driver and South Plum streets still emit 4.5 tons of pollutants into the air each year, according to state data. These pollutants include nitrogen oxide, which even short-term exposures, according to the EPA, can cause “adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma.”


With new CEO Anthony Scott, a new chapter (hopefully) at the Durham Housing Authority

Earlier this week, two men — one, white with matching hair and silver-rimmed glasses, and the other, younger, black, tall, thin, with a close-cropped cut — were touring Goley Pointe, a problematic affordable housing community in Northeast-Central Durham whose final construction ran more than two years overdue.

A passerby spotted them.

“Bernie Sanders!” the passerby yelled at the white man.

“And I’m Barack Obama!” replied the black man.

Everyone laughed.

IMG_3369

Anthony Scott, new CEO of the Durham Housing Authority

Dan Hudgins, board chairman of the Durham Housing Authority, who is white, told this story as a way of introducing Anthony Scott, the newly hired CEO of DHA, to the press and staff on Wednesday. 

Download News release dha

In addition to extensive experience in affordable housing, both in the private and public sectors, Hudgins said, “Anthony also has a sense of humor.”

Humor in its leadership be a departure for the housing authority, whose previous CEO, Dallas Parks, retired this month. Parks was not known for having a buoyant personality, and at times seemed gruff, even grim, as if leading a sprawling, underfunded agency was a situation to be endured, not a challenge to be embraced.

Scott comes from Baltimore, where he was the deputy executive director of that city’s housing authority, the largest such agency in Maryland. He also worked as the CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and has 12 years’ of experience in private development where he worked on creating affordable housing in southern California.

“Durham is the place for me,” Scott told the small audience of DHA and city staff, and press. “I love how the city is committed to affordable housing. I’m excited that the Durham Housing Authority is being a significant part of that.”

Scott is now in charge of an agency that, like many sprawling bureaucracies, has had organizational and financial problems. Most recently, in early May, Rhega Taylor, who had headed DHA’s troubled Section 8 program, left suddenly, as did Chief Financial Officer Jeff Causey.

And the former housing community, Fayette Place, now 19-acres of weeds and concrete slabs in the historic Hayti neighborhood, is a reminder of financial violations and a failed attempt at redevelopment by a private developer who took the property off DHA’s hands.

Under CEO Paul Grazanio, the Baltimore Housing Authority also became embroiled in several controversies, including those concerning unsafe housing and the sale of public housing to private developers, which resulted in the layoffs of at least 200 maintenance workers.

And within the past year, the city settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by 19 women who lived in public housing. They sued after maintenance workers demanded sex from them in exchange for repairs to their apartments. Thirty-seven more women recently came forward with the same allegations.

However, Scott was not found to be involved in the scandal; nor was he named in the lawsuit.

Now in Durham, for the first time Scott and DHA will work more closely with the city, in particular the Community Development department, on joint affordable housing goals.

Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell was on the selection committee that picked Scott from 42 applicants. “The housing authority and the city have never had that kind of relationship,” Chadwell said. “I have a very, very strong sense that his experience will make for a successful relationship.”

Scott’s hiring represents a new chapter not only at DHA, but also in national trends in affordable and public housing. Because of decreased federal funding from Congress, local housing authorities across the U.S. have less money to meet increased need for affordability. In Durham, there are only 38 rental units available for every 100 very low-income households, those earning less than $20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, public housing units themselves are aging, and many are scheduled for eventual demolition and reconstruction: The oldest public housing community, McDougald Terrace is 63; all but one of the 13 communities were built before 1981. 

And with age comes additional maintenance costs (houses are like people in that respect), which local housing authorities can’t begin to afford. That prompted HUD to launch the RAD program, which essentially allows local housing authorities to team with private developers on Section 8 projects. 

However, in Durham, fewer landlords are willing to accept Section 8 vouchers because of the paperwork and inspections that are required, and the overheated rental market. A landlord can command more for an apartment or house than even a generous Section 8 voucher can cover.

Yes, Scott will need a sense of humor.

 

 

 

 


Stabiliziing NE Central Durham: Live blogging the City Council meeting, June 9

The meeting is starting about 30 minutes late because of an event Council attended this morning at the Lofts at Southside. We'll blog the highlights.

Some interesting items on the agenda:

7. Resolution in support of Faith ID in Durham  Download 11197_RESOLUTION_RESOLUTION_IN_SUPPORT_OF__390764_698889

45. Neighborhood Stabilization in NE Central Durham [This is a supplemental item, so we don't have documents on this yet.]

49. Amendment to building and services agreement between the City and Carolina Theatre [This is a supplemental item, so we don't have documents on this yet.]

2:12 p.m. Jillian Johnson: Proposals that meet our affordable housing goals should be fast tracked through planning, with additional staff in development services, we'll have the capacity. It will allow nonprofit developers to deliver housing more quickly.

Steve Medlin, director of planning: Take it under advisement, asks council for guidance. We can do that. But it's not just the time but quality of submittals that come in. Re-reviews would take more time. We can establish an expedited program but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get out the back end quicker.

Don: If we expedite review, it should be the initial review.

Tom Bonfield: If Council wants this, we can go back and see how this could happen. We'd want to take a look at this regardless of whether development services has extra staff. It potentially could impact many other departments.

OK, it's 2:54 p.m. and Mel Norton is giving the presentation about stabilizing NE Central Durham. I'm hear on behalf of Durham For All organizing committee. Thank you for this opportunity to present today, and for all the councilmembers who have met with us one on one. It's really valued.

Durham For All is a 501 c4, goals place-based community organizing empowers marginalized voices to participate in the political process. We did this beause of rapid demographic change in the central city in race and class. Very broad recognition that benefits are happening disproportionately. As you know the county did the tax assessement for the first time in 8 years. Some central city areas saw their valuations triple or quadruple.

We've been following affordable housing initiatives closely. It's still unclear, the fine-grained data.

Download NECD-neighborhood-canvassing-report_5_27

The valuations are way up in Cleveland-Holloway and Golden Belt, we're confident this pressure is moving east. Knocked on 800 to 1000 doors, had 200 conversations. We wanted to get a very clear sense of the primary concerns about housing: affordability, repairs, utilities.

What we found is that 80% of folks concerned about the valuation. Overwhelmingly people didn't even know, particularly renters. More than half of the homeowners had lived in their neighborhoods for more than 10 years. But there are plenty of renters in NECD that have been in their homes a long time.

Top housing concern: For low income homeowners, repairs were definitely the biggest concern. For the renters, affordability was the primary concern. But having extended conversations, repairs are high on the list as well. We

We connected with 25 households eligible for existing tax relief programs: seniors, disabled, and veterans. Only one house was receiving these benefits. There's a disturbing disconnect.

The primary recommendations from the Mayor's poverty reduction initiative review aligned with what we found.

Neighborhood stabilization must be a long term multi prong set of strategies. Long-term and low-income residents benefit from what's happening in the central city. It's time sensitive. What's happened in the past five years surpassed anyone's expectations.  We need ongoing community organizing. It's very fine-grained work, hard to legislate in broad strokes. 

There were many low income homeowners who own them outright, but most of them don't have resources for maintenance. These are older homes, and the need is greater. In an extremely tight rental market, landlords aren't keeping up with maintenance, but can charge more rent.

The vast majority of households eligible for existing tax relief programs may not have computers or skills to fill these tax relief application online.

The application is not simple. You have to go back online to find out where you mail the applications. Each of these steps creates barriers to participation. We need a significantly expanded repair program for targeted low-income homeowners in NECD. We also recognize a minor repair program targeted at landlords would help. There would be an attached affordability period, meaning there would be a guarantee that the rent would not increase for period of years [in return for help with repairs.]

Coordination with the county is needed on the tax issue and tax fairness. Especially as we have dramatic poles in income.

We want to emphasize this is about people. We believe there are very powerful stories we'd like you to have some sense of.

Charlie Reece: Thanks for this canvassing effort in the field. It's the kind of work need to do here in Durham. Because the voter file was used for your canvassing efforts could understate the problem because people are registered to vote would be typically better off economically than people you would not have in the voter file. So the data you've collected understates the problem. Would you agree?

Norton: That's true.

Aiden Graham of Durham For All: We used the voter file to generate the walk list. But we also included some people who were not in the voter file, about half the people who weren't we still had a conversation with.

Schewel: This is awesome. It confirms [affordable housing consultant] Karen [Lado's] priority for a repair program. Really interesting to see it confirmed by this door to door work. And similarly Karen has been telling us lately that she thinks we're reaching about half the people who could receive existing tax relief. The number could be higher, but the point is there is low-hanging fruit here we can get from the state. This needs to go before our county commissioners. The application difficulty is them, not us. If they heard from you, they would work on fixing that. There's no reason the county wouldn't want to maximize this. 

Schewel: How many were in Spanish?

Norton: There were none. No, there was one.

Schewel: As someone who doesn't speak much Spanish, I think as we go forward we need to think of that population.

Norton: We've been noting where Latino people live so we can target them once we bring on people who are more proficient in Spanish than we are.

Jillian Johnson: I wanted to check in with Mr. Bonfield how we'll be allocating the dedicated housing money. What are the opportunities?

Bonfield: In budget there is money for the urgent repair program, $350K. There are certain program guidelines. We could revisit that. I don't think we can design a program around this, but maybe get a debrief from the staff about the backlog. The cost and the extent of the repairs are signficant. In some cases we're challenged, the repairs exceed the guidelines about how much any one house can get. It limits the number of houses. We are remodeling houses in many cases. I just wonder, too, thinking out loud, the challenges we have with the bidding requirements, staff managing contractors, is there not potential for some other way to be efficient, a nonprofit like Habitat that could participate with volunteer labor, to help people. It may not have to be a city program. Once we do a repair, we own it. Ten years later, that person will call and say fix it. It is really challenging work. I'd like to encourage you all and the groups working on this, what are some different models than the city runs a repair program.

Johnson: A nonprofit managed program would be great. They can leverage volunteer labor and donations the city can't. In the interim, I'd like to see if we can get additional resources for the urgent repair program. 

Cora Cole-McFaddon: Thanks for the work that you do. I'm aware of so many people who need this.

Schewel: What we've traditionally done is repairs of multi-family. I assume you could do this on smaller units.But the thing we have going for us for people who are renting is the inspection program. Many of them are living in PRIP zones. The other thing is our housing inspectors can also respond to complain. 

Norton: Even in the testimonial we gave you, renters feel vulnerable.

Schewel: That's why we have PRIP, so tenants don't have to complain. there are private landlords who can afford to and need to fix their properties. We've been more effective since we started PRIP at getting them to do that.

Moffitt: 2,600 inspections inside PRIP, 80 percent had violations. 1750 outside the PRIP are all complaint-driven. If you're out talking to people, Durham For All could call.

Norton: Just to underscore this vulnerability issue, Lincoln Apartments, there is a perception that it was closed down by PRIP. [That's not true.

Schewel: It's not true.  [The foundation that owned the buildings no longer could afford to pay the utilities or maintain the property. Essentially out of money, the foundation shut down the complex and evicted about 150 very low-income people.]

Norton: Folks aren't getting the benefits they're eligible for. A short-term relief program is something we'd be in support of. With RAD knocking on the door and other changes in public housing we need even more organizing efforts to keep track of Section 8 and public housing people.

Moffitt: Next steps?

Bonfield: Urgent repair and asking staff to think about limitations, come back to Council after the break with thoughts about funding levels and programmatic needs. It won't be close to meeting the demand, but put out the challenge to everybody for new models.

Norton: There's a distinction between smaller repairs and more rehab, higher pricetag repairs. We support both.

Bell: Are you aware of any models?

Norton: There is a group out of Raleigh, Rebuilding Together of the Triangle.

Lorisa Seibel: They do essential repairs. They do a little bit of work in Durham. They get some funds from NC Housing Financing Agency to do urgent repairs and rehabs.

Bell: I like the idea, but as for a city-owned program, once we do it, we're in for life. There might be other models. We'll do some research and come back.

Norton: I know there are similar issues in other areas. Crest STreet and other Quality of Life neighborhoods. Second mortgages have been a problem, too, especially in SW Central neighborhoods.

Aiden: I talked with Jacob Lerner with NIS. The housing task force and the mayor's PRI area are where you could see significant impacts.

Bell: I like that when you have an impact in a concentrated area. If we're trying to revitalize neighborhoods we should focus on those areas.

It's 3:40 p.m. and the consent agenda is being approved. Over and out.

 


Shawn Stokes of Luna: "I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it," + Black Wall Street Plaza still needs our attention

Photograph_102104_W_Main_Street_107_N_Mangum_Street

Looking at the corner of Main and Mangum streets, where the southern end of Black Wall Street Plaza is today.
Date of the photograph is 1963. Note that Mangum Street is already one-way south.
Courtesy of Durham County Public Library
Photo owned by Rachel Middleton Brown, Robert Lee Middleton, Sara Middleton Mocrich

“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space. What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.”
-- Joan Clos, executive director, United Nations Human Settlements Program

 

The Luna proposal died before it was born.

Less than a week after a public meeting about the future of Black Wall Street Plaza — a quarter-acre of city-owned green space bordered by Parrish, Main, and Mangum streets — Shawn Stokes, the chef/owner of Luna Rotisserie, withdrew his inquiry into placing outdoor seating in a corner of it.

“Based on feedback from the public discussion last Thursday, and subsequent coverage and commentary, we've decided to end our inquiry into a public private partnership to revitalize the space,” Stokes wrote to me in an email on Tuesday.

Stokes opened his popular restaurant at 112 West Main Street last fall. Previously, he had served in the Peace Corps and USAID in South America. In rural Ecuador, he worked with organic-coffee growers to help them export value-added products, not just raw green coffee beans. He worked on environmental and social equity issues in Brazil and preventing gang violence in Panama.

“I had a skeptical view of business,” Stokes said. “I wanted Luna to be more than a successful business but to have another [social justice] aspect to it.” The lowest-paid worker at Luna earns $12 an hour, he said. Several line cooks earn $45,000 a year.

On Tuesday afternoon, after Luna had closed for lunch, Stokes and I sat in the park and talked about his plan, the public reaction, and his wish that the community come together to determine the future of the beloved space. 

While we were there, the park did its thing: A man walked his dog along the path. A homeless woman, dressed in a winter coat and scarf on a summer day, lumbered by, burdened by her bags of belongings. She settled at a table, singing. Another man stopped at our table and gave Stokes and I each a peppermint.

Here’s a Q&A of our conversation. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. We also spoke to the building owners; that interview follows the one with Stokes.

Why did you want to put outdoor dining here?

The space was advertised with a patio. [The building is owned by Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige.] A tenant before us wanted a club but the people living across the street in the Kress Building didn’t want that because of the noise. Elaine and Dawn thought the city would be amenable not to a disco, but a restaurant patio.  When I was looking for a space, I thought we have so much nice weather here, and I love being outside, I love dining outside, it sets a really nice environment. The patio would have been open to the public when we weren't open. I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it. 

IMG_3371

The rental flyer for 112 West Main Street; the schematic includes a 560-square-foot patio. 
A quarter-acre equals 10,890 square feet. However, Duke Energy has two large transformer
boxes that eat up plaza space. Time Warner Cable also has a utility box.

 

When did you first approach the city about the idea?

Late last year we introduced the idea, but it sat for a while. The second discussion with the city was more recent. We were being affected by crime. One of our employees left the back door unlocked and someone took some things. An employee had his bike stolen. We used to let people use the bathroom, but then someone shot up in there. After that, we stopped allowing that. We tell people to go to City Hall.

What were some of your ideas about the park?

We wanted there to be seating without the barriers. We wanted to provided charging stations for the homeless who have phones. We wanted to make improvements that would cater to people who use the park, including the homeless. We really did think a patio would be an added value for the park. It would allow for eyes on the park, seating for guests outside helps prevent crime. It’s a special little place, and even though our proposal is withdrawn, it’s exciting to see people passionate about it. 

Nnenna Freelon, who attended the public meeting, had reservations about Luna’s proposal because it could have ousted homeless people from the space. She stops by the table with an “I Voted” sticker on her shirt. We invite her to sit and chat.

Freelon: I hate that you guys had to be flayed at the meeting. The way the city handled the meeting did not allow people to think creatively. People feel very protective of the this place. It’s the last green space in the neighborhood. But how do we build community around the park? There’s not enough investment in it, spiritually and economically. 

Stokes: I hope that people continue to express their feelings about the park to the city and other stakeholders.

Freelon: There’s an opportunity here. Part of the problem is that there is not enough open free space. We’ve entered a new phase, and we can still create what we want. We need a water fountain, it could be a memorial water fountain to educate people about segregation. We need more places to sit in the shade. These tables say, “People have to know one another to sit here.” We want benches. We want public bathrooms here. No one wants to pee in the park.

Stokes: And there could be emergency buttons in there if someone gets into trouble. You can build the bathrooms so you can see people’s feet, to see if someone is using it. We also could have low terraced walls around the park [instead of the chains and wooden bollards].

BCR: In Chinatown in San Francisco, people do tai chi in the park. It’s beautiful to watch.

Freelon: Everyone is feeling possessive about this space. Things work better when there’s synergy.

Stokes: The business owners, people who live here, who hang out here, there’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of momentum about the park right now. We need to keep it going.

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Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige have owned the building for three years. BCR spoke with Curry on Wednesday.

Did you speak with the city about a patio?

Curry: We did speak with the city about the possibilities, including this option, but they didn't really have a process for it. 

What do you think of the public response to Luna's proposal?

We think all of the public should have a voice in Luna's proposal. I was at the meeting, and there wasn't a broad spectrum of stakeholders there. Shawn never got to make his proposal. He's very community minded. He never wanted to desecrate the park, like some people have said.

What is your vision for the space, being its neighbor?

We're stakeholders. I've lived and worked in Durham 15 years. I patronize downtown Durham businesses. It's a beautiful space, but it could be more than that without changing what's important about it. We want it to be open, with lighting and bathrooms. We've donated money to the church that holds services for the homeless there [Bridge Ministries]. We like that it's a place for everybody. 

 

To that end, Bull City Rising would like to co-sponsor a block party this summer in the park/plaza (with the proper permits, of course). There, the community at-large could informally discuss and brainstorm about how to improve and protect the space for everyone: lighting, public bathrooms, benches, other public amenities — and how much it would cost. Since the city owns the land, those suggestions would be forwarded to General Services, which maintains the space.  

Contact Lisa Sorg at lrsorg@gmail.com.

 

 


In Old East Durham, anxiety over proposed restaurant, gentrification + Nosh owners get $100K grant for new restaurant on West End

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The owners of Nosh and Piper’s in the Park received a $100,000 grant from the city to transform a blighted former gas station and church on West Chapel Hill Street into a restaurant.

It was one of two neighborhood revitalization grants the city council awarded last night; the other was another restaurant project with different property owners on Angier Avenue.

Wendy Woods and Stacey Poston originally had requested $170,000 in grant funding to supplement the $722,000 in private investment for the project. The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development lowered that amount to $100,000. Council approved the grant unanimously.

The West End is a “targeted area” for these types of economic incentives, said Chris Dickey of OEWD. “And this is a homegrown business.”

Woods and Poston live nearby in the Burch Avenue neighborhood. “We’ve been trying to invest in a business in that area for a long time,” Woods told Council, including the old co-op building, which is now The Cookery.

The new restaurant will create 36 jobs over three years, all of them paying a living wage. The menu prices, Woods added, would also be moderate and affordable to those living in the area.

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson asked Woods if she was committed to hiring from the neighborhood.

“Absolutely,” Woods replied. “I was brought up in Durham and will support my community.”

The city invested in this neighborhood in 2014, awarding a $220,000 streetscape grant to Kent Corner; the money came from neighborhood revitalization funding and revenue from the sale of a city-owned parking lot on West Chapel Hill Street.

Projects funded through Neighborhood Revitalization Grants are expected to help revitalize an area, include private financing, create and retain permanent full-time, jobs that pay a living wage, and to make those jobs accessible to lower-income neighborhood residents, including the unemployed. 

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Curtis, hanging out at 2201 Angier Avenue  Photo by Lisa Sorg 

However, there was some anxiety over whether a restaurant project in Old East Durham would accomplish those goals. Migrate Property 2, LLC, requested $100,000 in grant funding to convert a vacant 1930s Gulf gas station into a restaurant at 2201 Angier Avenue.

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Council approved the request, but because of concerns over gentrification, not unanimously. Council voted 5-1 for the project. Johnson voted no; Councilman Charlie Reece was absent from the meeting.

Cameo Voorhies, who lives on East Knox Street in Duke Park, asked the city for $100,000 to renovate the brick building. Her company, Migrate Property 2, is looking for a tenant to operate a restaurant, cafe or coffeeshop. According to city documents, the historic structures would be kept intact. The canopy space would be enclosed to increase the square footage from 1,200 to 1,623 square feet. 

Migrate bought the building in March for $95,000, according to county property records.

Johnson said she was concerned about whether the new restaurant would benefit the neighborhood — revitalizing it rather than gentrifying it. The area is 69 percent African-American, with a median household income of just $23,000 a year, well below the county’s median of $67,000 annually. More than half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning more than 30 percent of their gross income goes to housing costs.

“There is nothing in your plan with specific job benefits,” Johnson said. “And who would be served at the restaurant?”

Voorhies told council that she would encourage a tenant to hire employees from the neighborhood. “Ideally it would be a local business wanting to do a second location,” Voorhies said. “We’re still in that process.”

However, while a tenant could be encouraged to hire from the neighborhood and pay a living wage, Voorhies acknowledged she ultimately could not control those decisions.

Migrate Property has bigger plans for Old East Durham than the restaurant. In its proposal to the city, the company wrote that, “We see Old East Durham and the Angier-Driver Corridor as the next Geer Street area, but more beautiful.”

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Migrate owns other buildings in the neighborhood, including 2110 -2114 Angier Avenue. It houses a trophy shop and barber. Two storefronts are vacant. According to county property records, Migrate bought the commercial strip for $240,000 last December. Ten years ago, the sale price was $85,000.

One of the storefronts is slated to become a small family-owned pharmacy this fall, Migrate wrote in its proposal. The company also plans to work with a Durham muralist to paint the east side of the building to be “an additional signal of change to the neighborhood.”

Last July, Voorhies and her husband, Seth, also purchased the historic but vacant Cheek-Thomas House, 117 South Driver Street, for $92,000. In 2008, during the recession, the property sold for $22,000. It had sold for as much as $80,000 in 2006.

They renovated the 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom home and converted it into a rental. According to zillow.com, which offers a rental listing service, the home was posted on the site last August asking $1,450 a month; it rented at that price within a month. Those prices are becoming more common in Old East Durham. A three-bedroom on Hyde Park Avenue is going for $1,700 a month; on Taylor Street, the rent for a three-bedroom is listed at $1,500 a month.

To afford $1,500 monthly rent, a household would have to earn $55,000 to $60,000 a year — far above the median income in this neighborhood.

Migrate/the Voorhies are looking for other investment properties, according to its grant proposal, writing, “We are in talks with other property owners in the area who may also want to sell.”

Aiden Graham, a community organizer and social justice activist, told Council that while he’s long pushed for a neighborhood stabilization program in Old East Durham, the proposal for 2201 Angier Avenue “looks like a gentrification project that would further contribute to displacement of people in the neighborhood.” 

Mayor Bill Bell countered that since the building has been vacant, “I don’t consider this a case of gentrification. We’re trying to create an economic opportunity for businesses.”

There is a precedent for neighborhood revitalization grants in this neighborhood. Joe Busfan, whose building housed Joe’s Diner and the TROSA grocery at 2100 Angier Avenue received a $200,000 from the city in 2010. It also received $237,000 in historic tax credits. Last year, the diner became a commissary that isn’t open to the public; the grocery closed in 2012.

Councilman Eddie Davis added that this is “an issue that cuts both ways. I’m not sure if we would want to veto a proposal that would bring some kind of renewal to a certain area. We also have to do everything we can to bring commerce and economy to a neighborhood that has’t had that. We have to balance the discussion between revitalization and gentrification.”

While supportive of the project, Councilman Steve Schewel advised Voorhies that city staff will work with the company to find the right tenant, and “we’ll be holding you accountable for that. It’s not a passing interest. It’s not insignificant to us.”


When public becomes private: Luna Rotisserie interested in leasing part of Chickenbone Park

Update, Tuesday, June 7, at 12:50 p.m. We received arrived on what constitutes Black Wall Street Plaza: It is both the parcel with the gazebo along Orange Street (north side of Parrish) and extends to Main Street and encompasses what is colloquially known as Chickenbone Park.

We contacted Aaron Cain, who is on the city planning staff, about this. The plaza on the north side of Parrish Street was dedicated as Black Wall Street Plaza a couple of years ago. Since then, improvements have been made to the parcels on the south side of Parrish Street, including the pergola, that mirror those on the north side. So, as part of a rebranding effort, the City administration has asked city staff to start referring to the open space on both the north and south sides of Parrish Street as Black Wall Street Plaza.
 
Here is the lowdown: The city used the term "Chickenbone Park" in its press release so that only to make sure that those reading the press release would know which area we were addressing, again because it's the name that many people use. However, it's a term that City staffers avoid.

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At Chickenbone Park, a fleck of green space in downtown Durham, about 20 people have gathered in the shade, seeking refuge from the noontime sun under the crape myrtle trees. Grocery bags bulging with belongings rest on the grass.

“It may get better. It may get worse,” the preacher, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, tells the crowd. “You know how things go. But the Lord will always be with you.”

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Music for the church service and luncheon  Photo by Lisa Sorg

They sing a song and break for lunch — pork sandwiches and sodas — and then disperse to the air-conditioned library, Five Points plaza, the bus benches along Main Street. A few stick around.

The life in this park — which isn’t technically a park, but instead a quarter-acre of city-owned open space bordered by Main, Parrish , Orange, and Mangum streets — largely keeps to itself. And there in lies its intrinsic value. The park, also known as Black Wall Street Plaza, is one of the last two public green spaces inside the Loop. It offers a respite from the concrete. It is one of the few places downtown where you can hear the birds sing in the morning. It is a place, a woman told city planners last week, where everyone can “just be.”

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The city’s planning department had called the meeting at the behest of the city administration to gauge public sentiment on privatizing a portion of the park. Although no one has formally submitted a proposal, Shawn Stokes, who owns Luna Rotisserie next door, has been interested in carving out a piece for outdoor dining. In return, Luna would pay for improvements to the park, such as lighting. (However, a city ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol in Chickenbone Park; City Council would have to amend the law to allow Luna patrons to drink there.)

“What we would propose would be a win-win. It would make the space more inviting and open,” Stokes said. He’s filed five police reports in the nine months his restaurant has been open, he said, including an incident in which “someone was shooting up in the [Luna] bathroom on the baby-changing table.”

Yet privatizing even a sliver of a public green space — at the crossroads of downtown, the parcel also faces historic Parrish Street — sets an uneasy precedent for Durham. Already the city has leased and sold easements and air rights to condo projects abutting Durham Central Park. If Luna is granted a lease on a part of the property — clearly one of the most valuable downtown — then who else will want a piece of it?

Most of what we think of as public space is actually private. American Tobacco Campus, including the lawn in front of the Aloft Hotel, is privately owned (only within the last few years has photography been allowed), with security to keep the homeless from loitering there. Brightleaf Square is also private.

One of the joys of erstwhile lawn adjacent to the Green Wall at Main and Corcoran streets was that the public took de facto ownership over a neglected private space; the city even mowed it. Now the grass is gone, replaced by is a gaping maw while a 26-story skyscraper is built there.

If there were private space in Chickenbone Park, it should be shared and unobtrusive: a coffee kiosk, for example, or a bikeshare program. However, cordoning off the space would likely alienate some park patrons the way velvet ropes outside trendy nightclubs separate the desired from the undesirable. The homeless who encamp there during the day could feel less welcome, said Nnenna Freelon. “There should be a direct benefit to the least powerful of the users,” she said. “This is one of the few places in Durham where the homeless can sit and feel they don’t have to move.”

 

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