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


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. 


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.


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



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


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. 

Curtis 2

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.

Download MIGRATE_PROPERTIES_LLC_Proposal_387972_690955

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.”


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, 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.


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.”


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.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.39.10 PM

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.”


Continue reading "When public becomes private: Luna Rotisserie interested in leasing part of Chickenbone Park" »

"I thought my child would wind up in jail": Budget cuts could close the Wright School in Durham, which helps kids with mental illness

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 1.09.27 PM

The legislature is as predictable as the Summer Solstice: Come June, budget season, it's time to swing the guillotine over the head of the Wright School. The school, which is on North Roxboro Street in Durham, serves kids with mental, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. For many kids, this school separates them from a future in the prison system.

The proposed state senate budget directs the Department of Health and Human Services to halt any admissions or readmissions to the school, effective June 30. That's just a month for the parents of these kids to try to find, as the budget states, "other appropriate educational and treatment settings." The school would officially close on Sept. 30.

Well, these very special facilities don't exist, at least not any significant amount. In fact, the Wright School is unique in its approach to helping these kids.

I spent time at  the Wright School for a story I published in the INDY in 2009, when the senate first made overtures toward closing it. I'm reprinting that story here (without the photos, which are wonderful but not mine; shot by Jeremy M. Lange). You can also see it archived on the INDY website. It was a heart-breaking, yet inspiring experience.

Wright School

3132 N. Roxboro St., Durham, N.C. 27704; 919-560-5790

•Year started: 1963

•Average yearly enrollment: 55

•Number of slots available at one time: 24

•Ages served: 6-12

•Maximum length of stay: 6-9 months

Trouble In Mind

By Lisa Sorg

Editor's Note: To protect their privacy, some children are not named in this story. The Indy identified children with their parents' permission.

"Who says country music makes you sad?" In the kitchen of his Chatham County home, Logan St. Clair explains the title of his science project that recently won an award at his elementary school. Zinnia plants exposed to music by Johnny Cash and Wilco, he found, grew faster than plants that weren't exposed to music at all.

The Wright School was to Logan what Johnny Cash was to zinnias. Since kindergarten Logan had been defiant, a "wild child," says his mother, Jennifer St. Clair, a social worker. Medications like Adderall, Concerta and Strattera didn't help; he was eventually diagnosed with anxiety. In October 2007, Logan, then in fifth grade, received his first suspension from regular public school. Finally, having exhausted all other options, St. Clair met with a social worker at Carolina Outreach who suggested that Logan apply to Wright School, which treats children with severe mental, emotional and behavioral illnesses.

"It was the hardest thing to do as a parent, but we had tried everything else," St. Clair says. "It's like admitting there is a significant barrier to your child's success and you as a parent can't handle it."

In February 2008, Logan enrolled in Wright School.

"We learned lots of good stuff," says Logan, who, other than an amped-up restlessness, seems like any 12-year-old boy. "Share stuff. Be respectful. Be aware of what you're saying."

He pauses. "Being polite was hard for me."

In August, he graduated. Two weeks later, he entered regular public school, where he earns mostly As and Bs, and excels in math and science.

"He has coping strategies," St. Clair says. "He can remove himself and be calm. And he can accept the adult decision."

A group of powerful adults in state government are deciding the fate of the Wright School. Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget, which the General Assembly begins tackling this week, would close the nationally known school, located in Durham, and its counterpart for teens, the Whitaker School in Butner. [Update 2016: Whitaker has been converted into a residential psychiatric facility, and now accepts Medicaid, and removes the financial burden from the state.]

Wright and Whitaker have been on the chopping block before, but never in a recession this deep and in a budget crisis this severe. Facing at least a $3 billion shortfall, North Carolina would save $5.8 million over the next two years by closing the schools; it's a small percentage of the overall $21 billion budget, but in desperate times, lawmakers are scrutinizing programs no matter how small—or how successful.

Wright's size, success and uniqueness contribute, ironically, to its vulnerability. Each year, the school serves about 55 kids in a highly structured environment that combines individualized public school education with extensive mental health services. The "re-education principles" of finding a child's strengths and centering on the family have turned around the lives of hundreds of troubled children over the past four decades, many area parents and social workers say.

The financial sticking point is that Wright is not eligible for Medicaid reimbursement, placing the financial onus on the state and its Department of Health and Human Services. Yet, the savings in closing the schools may come at a later, more expensive financial, social and human cost: Without appropriate services, these kids could easily wind up imprisoned or hospitalized.

Continue reading ""I thought my child would wind up in jail": Budget cuts could close the Wright School in Durham, which helps kids with mental illness" »

An analysis of the Durham election snafu: It's about more than bad math. It's also the GOP legislature.

Durham County_Presentation_Page_16

Who and why, we don’t know, but what went amiss during the Durham primary in March has resulted in a state investigation, political gamemanship calling for a new primary, and a do-over for some people who cast provisional ballots. 

And arguably, the elections snafu is due in part to other factors: 

  • new voting regulations, including ID laws passed by the state legislature;
  • a new crew of election judges and poll workers who were poorly trained to deal with the changes;
  • and a baffling number of ballot styles, the result of gerrymandering by the state legislature.

First, the math: The total number of ballots in question is 1,039. The State Board of Election voted unanimously yesterday to allow 892 people to re-vote in the Durham primary because their provisional ballots were mishandled. This summer, those voters, who were flagged in the polling books as casting provisional ballots, will be mailed new ones.

The state counted 147 provisional ballots yesterday; those ballots were still in their envelopes with the voter information attached. 

Download Durham County_Presentation by the State Board of Elections.

Since the total number of provisional ballots in question —1,039 — would not affect the outcome, the state board rejected calls for a new election from Commissioners Michael Page and Fred Foster, challenger Elaine Hyman, and their supporters. Those included Lavonia Allison of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Anita Keith-Foust; both are pro-development, particularly pro-751 South. Foster and Page have long supported that controversial development.

Even the local board, which consists of two Republicans and one Democrat, opened the door for a new primary, saying there was a “great deal of public anxiety” over the results. (Republican county board chair Bill Brian is a lawyer with Morningstar firm; he previously was with the land use and zoning law division of K&L Gates, which represented 751 South developers.) The board has had a 2-1 majority since Gov. Pat McCrory was elected; the governor's party determines the board majority. In turn, the board majority hires the chief election judges.

Download DBOE_STATE_5_29016 (Statement by the Durham board)

Download Protest(Hyman)-2016-5-13  (Protests filed by the commissioner candidates)

Download Protest(Page)-2016-5-09

Download Foster_(Protest)_2016-05-25

To gauge the extent of that anxiety and where it’s coming from, BCR has requested all emails from constituents to the commissioners about the provisional ballots.

Second, the blowback: In March, the local elections board had approved or partially approved the 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 there were only 980 paper ballots, leaving 59 unaccounted for.

It appears that 59 ballots were not lost, but rather run through the tabulator twice, according to the state board’s investigation. In addition, a temporary elections employee had told Director Michael Perry that an elections staff member had instructed her to run some ballots twice in order to reconcile the numbers.

The staff member who gave that directive has not been publicly identified. BCR has requested under the open records law the public portion of the personnel files on all staff members who have left the elections department since January.

Continue reading "An analysis of the Durham election snafu: It's about more than bad math. It's also the GOP legislature." »

A thought experiment: What a do-over Durham primary could possibly accomplish — nothing

Update, Sunday 11:35 a.m.: Commissioner Fred Foster Jr., the eighth-place finisher, filed a protest on Friday.

While BCR was covering the spectacle otherwise known as the UNC Board of Governors meeting, Virginia Bridges over at The Durham News attended the Durham Board of Elections powwow. She reports that the local elections board isn’t ruling out the possibility of a do-over primary — if the state board asks for one — on account of the miscounting of provisional ballots in March.

The state board meets Tuesday, May 31, at 1 p.m. At that meeting the state board will consider the protests filed by County Commissioner Michael Page, who came in sixth in a contest for five Democratic seats, and Elaine Hyman, the seventh-place finisher.

Virginia’s story lays out the math, which, despite the protests, would not change the outcome of the five winners: Wendy Jacobs, Ellen Reckhow, Heidi Carter, Brenda Howerton, and James Hill. (Since there was no Republican primary, the winning Democrats are the de facto commissioners unless an independent candidate files for the fall; it’s happened before.)

But as a thought experiment, let’s say Durham did hold a sequel to the March election — aside from costing taxpayers $500,000 and disenfranchising 80,000 voters.

It’s doubtful that Page would improve his position, especially considering his recent vote to allow 751 South developers to delay required payments — for “cash flow” reasons — to the state for an environmental mitigation fund. 

A new primary could give Page more time to raise campaign funds. In 2012, Southern Durham Development, which is behind the 751 project, created and funded a SuperPAC, pouring $50,000 into its independent support for several 751-friendly candidates, including Page and Brenda Howerton.

Yet Southern Durham Development can’t very well support Page’s redux (independently of course, under SuperPAC rules) while crying to the county that it can’t quite come up with the cash for its watershed mitigation payments. SDD is also on a payment plan with the county tax administration, trying to pay down its overdue property taxes.

Ditto for Howerton and Southern Durham Development. Now here’s where a new primary could get help Hyman. While she finished 1,880 votes behind fifth place, it’s feasible that in a second primary Hyman could carve into Howerton’s vote count. Howerton also recently voted for giving the 751 project a financial reprieve, and then went on a strange rambling about how she had received death threats in 2012 over her previous support for the project. That incident is fresh in voters’ minds, if not permanently burned into them. (Fred Foster, Jr. was the third yea vote; he placed eighth in the primary.)

Yes, it would take quite an effort for Hyman to leapfrog into the top five, but stranger things have happened.

Like the provisional ballots in the March primary.

Durham Housing Authority clarifies arrest policy for Section 8 applicants

Durham Housing Authority board voted unanimously to clarify the arrest policy for people applying for Section 8 vouchers. New language on the DHA website will specify that prior arrests without a conviction do not constitute proof of past unlawful conduct. An arrest alone will not preclude someone from applying or receiving a voucher.

Applicants with felony convictions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A conviction alone might not disqualify someone from the Section 8 program. “We must look at the nature of it,” said board member Bo Glenn, accounting for mitigating circumstances such as the applicant receiving drug treatment.

As BCR reported last week, Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham, which works with ex-offenders, had approached Glenn and board chairman Dan Hudgins about the housing crisis facing people leaving jail or prison.

Glenn broached the issue based on a directive from federal housing and justice officials that gives local housing authorities leeway in accepting ex-offenders and people with an arrest record but not convictions into Section 8 programs and public housing. (Certain offenses are still off-limits: registered sex offenders and people convicted of felony meth distribution charges.)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “states than an arrest alone can’t be grounds for denial,” Glenn said, noting that in the DHA administrative plan regarding Section 8, “the word arrest appears in nine places.”

Nor can a voucher be withdrawn solely on the basis of arrest.

Glenn was concerned that DHA would violate the Fair Housing Act unless the agency ensured people with an arrest record were allowed to apply for Section 8.

DHA attorney Eric Pristell countered that DHA policy does comply with federal law, but that  policies need to be updated to better mirror the Office of General Counsel.”

Upcoming meeting on bike/ped plan, plus corrections to the May 8 post

First, a key presentation is coming up early next month about the bike/ped plan. Whether you walk, bike, or drive, anyone who leaves his/her house should attend the city’s open house about the bicycle/pedestrian plan update. The event happens on Monday, June 6, at the Durham County Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St., from 4 to 7 p.m. There will be maps, surveys, and interactive presentations, the latter of which occur at the top of each hour. (And then, civically minded readers, head over to City Hall for the City Council meeting.)


Secondly I need to correct and/or clarify several points I made in writing about the state of Durham’s sidewalks in the May 8 post. I apologize for these errors and the lack of clarity.

1) I walked all of Dearborn Drive from Old Oxford Road — near Oxford Manor — to Maplewood Drive. Parts of this stretch southeast of Ruth Street don’t have sidewalks; however, according to the city’s transportation department, it is a separate project that did not score highly in the DurhamWalks! plan. This was not clear from the post.

2) The sidewalk petitions plan is no longer in effect; so if you want a sidewalk, you can petition City Council. If Council approves the petition, then your request goes into the project queue to be constructed when funding became available. In other words, no jumping to the front of the line anymore.

In the comments section, there was a discussion about the sidewalk petition process. It determines that sidewalks not in the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at full cost of construction at the time they’re built.

Sidewalks on the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at $35 per linear foot once constructed. According to the city, there has not yet been a discussion regarding whether this process will change as the plan update is adopted.   

3) And finally, four of the top unfunded sidewalk projects that I listed are now either funded or partially funded. Here’s a timeline from the city:

•      North Roxboro Street from Pacific to Murray: This project is in design, with anticipated construction beginning February 2019.

•      East Geer Street from Midland Terrace to Glenn School Road: No current funding, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.

•      South Alston Avenue between Cecil Street and Riddle Road: Design complete, anticipated construction beginning June 2018.

•      North Duke Street between Carver Street and Roxboro Road: Funding for sidewalk on East side of road from Murray Ave to Roxboro Road. Construction anticipated to begin August 2021.

•      Horton Road between Stadium Drive and Roxboro Road: Partially funded, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.


Nosh owners ask city for grant to open new restaurant on West Chapel Hill Street

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.49.30 AM

Photo courtesy of Durham County 

As recently as two years ago, tumbleweed could have rolled down West Chapel Hill Street. Among the several empty storefronts and bleak parking lots, there was an odd, but endearing jumble of businesses, where you could drop your kid off at day care, get your windows tinted, have your leaky tire inflated or your transmission fixed, then grab a bag of chips at the convenience store. West Chapel Hill Street also represented Durham’s religious diversity. The Tabernacle of Joy, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center shared a three-block stretch of the neighborhood known as the West End.

Then, the city center began its renaissance and several homegrown businesses settled on the downtown’s western frontier in search of cheaper space or land: the Cookery, a Middle Eastern grocery, Taiba Market — and a year ago, Kent Corner, which includes the Durham Co-op and the Center for Child & Family Health.

Now  Wendy Woods, co-owner of Nosh and Pipers in the Park — and a resident of the adjacent Burch Avenue neighborhood — plans to renovate and expand a former gas station at 1200 W. Chapel Hill St. for a new restaurant. The building sits diagonally from Kent Corner. A church held services there from 2004-2013, but the 1,288-square-foot building has been vacant since.

Woods’ company, Habitable Space, which has owned the building since 2015, is requesting a $170,000 city Neighborhood Improvement Grant to help fund the project. (Update: A City memo from April 19 has countered with an amount of $100,000 Download 11088_MEMO_HABITABLE_SPACE_LLC_387974_692589.) Woods said Friday that she is still working out some details, and thus couldn’t go into the finer points about the new venture. However, documents filed with city show that in addition to a total gutting and renovation of the building, a 300-square-foot second level would be added for a green roof or garden system. The restaurant would include indoor dining and an outside patio.  Download Habitable Space

A Pure gas station was built on this quarter-acre in 1956, but closed in the 1990s. Because of its history, the property was designated as a brownfield by the state Department of Environmental Quality. However, a previous owner removed the underground storage tanks and removed any contaminated soil. DEQ didn’t require any further action, clearing the way for the property to be revived. Download 1200 W. Chapel Hill Brownfields

The restaurant, as yet unnamed in the documents, would “serve reasonably priced, quality food so that neighbors from Burch Avenue, the West End and other neighborhoods” could afford it. It would create 23 full-time jobs that pay $13 to $20 an hour.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $822,000.

The City Council could discuss Woods’ request within the next month.