Durham City Council won’t act on 751 South until pending lawsuits end

The Durham City Council decided early this afternoon to defer a possible utility extension to the controversial proposed 751 South development

The council voted to wait until current lawsuits about the Southern Durham project come to a close, which staff estimated could take anywhere from 18 months to three years. The council was motivated at least in part by fear of becoming entangled in litigation itself. 

“It’s clear to me that moving ahead now before the litigation is resolved does raise expectations and anxiety,” council member Mike Woodard said at a special meeting on the subject that was held today.

“I think there’s just way too many questions about this with confusing and uncertain answers about constitutional issues,” he added. “That’s always a red flag for me.” 

“I just don’t understand why we would move forward,” council member Diane Catotti said. “I don’t see the advantage to the city.” 

The decision against extending utilities makes it unclear when Southern Durham Development might be able to start building 751 South, a high-density project that could include 200 residential units, 125,000 square feet of shops and 25,000 square feet of offices by the three-year mark. The project can’t be built to that scale without water and sewer service, and the city of Durham is the entity most likely to provide it. 

A group of Durham residents have sued the county over its controversial decision to rezone the 751 South property. The new zoning permits dense development. 

Opponents of the project say that the property is so close to Jordan Lake that its high-density facilities will harm water quality thanks to unfiltered stormwater runoff. 

Southern Durham Development and its allies, however, assert that the project can be built in such a way that the lake is protected. They also tout the development as being a potential source of 3,000 new jobs

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North Durham minimum-security prison to close; future of site unknown

Durhamcorrectional One little-heard provision in this General Assembly's session work: the closure of a number of minimum-security correctional facilities throughout the state as part of a cost-cutting move that could shave almost $11 million from the state's spending line this year.

Among the four facilities impacted, per the N&O: the Durham Correctional Center, a facility that houses more than 200 inmates and which sits just to the northeast of the Horton Rd./Guess Rd. intersection in North Durham, right near a few shopping plazas and backing up to the popular West Point on the Eno city park.

With its October closure, it turns out a small piece of Durham County history will come to an end:

In 1925, Durham County built a prison for $95,000 to house 150 inmates. Constructed of brick and surrounded by a heavy wire stockade, the three-story structure was noted as being the best planned prison of its kind in the state. On the first floor was dormitory space for inmates, as well as a dining hall. The second and third floors provided space for offices and staff. The building was heated by steam and showers were in the basement.

Durham was one of 51 county prisons for which the state assumed responsibility with the passage of the Conner bill in 1931. It was one of 61 field unit prisons renovated or built during the late 1930's to house inmates who worked building roads.

No word on what the future of the site is, i.e., whether the state will hold on to this little chunk of land or sell it off for development. In the latter case, even with the current downturn in residential and commercial development, one wouldn't doubt that there might be people lining up to buy it.

Rare, after all, is the prison facility that's zoned for some of the better schools in any community's school district.

BCR's question: if someone did redevelop the site, would they keep the name Prison Camp Road? We're just saying.


Durham, get your geek on -- Forbes calls us one of the five nerdiest American cities

Nerds Once upon a time, being called nerdy or geeky? Most definitely not cool. 

Back in the 80s, all the cool kids were looking to work on Wall Street or in D.C., where the corridors of power did not admit the pocket-protector set.

But with the Internet, mobile technology and the rise of tablets, apps and all manner of things technological, the nerdly are back. The revenge, one might say, of the nerds.

And a recent Forbes blog post highlights Durham as being among the most geeky of all geeky cities, noting a National Science Foundation's ranking of our MSA as fifth-highest in the US for the percentage of workers in science and engineering-oriented occupations.

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Report: Robinson "terminated" at Durham DSS, less than two years after appointment

From the That-Was-Quick Department: Two separate sources have told BCR that Durham County's social services director Gerri Robinson was axed Wednesday by the department's oversight board.

Chalk this one up as officially unconfirmed at this time, as the County's public information office isn't currently in a position to offer confirmation or more information -- but from what we're hearing at BCR, this one is a done deal.

The DSS Board -- which, as the Herald-Sun points out this morning, picked up a new chair in Stan Holt, vice-chair in BOCC'er Joe Bowser, and a new board member in Gail Perry, all through an organizational meeting -- reportedly terminated Robinson's employment for unspecified reasons.

Intriguingly, Perry, who herself is a guidance counselor at Durham's Lakeview alternative school, is poised to assume the directorship on an interim basis as of Aug. 8, with Jovetta Whitfield serving in the position in the interim, according to an email from Holt.

That email went on to add:

This has not been an easy process and I know this will create some uncertainty in the agency. However, rest assured that we will now move quickly to find a new Director for the Durham County Department of Social Services.

We've noticed a seeming uptick in closed-door DSS board meetings of late, which can be an indication of personnel intrigue (though at least one recent meeting purported to be over a matter involving a juvenile, which is a closed-records matter in most non-criminal cases.)

That included two meetings this spring (April 4 and April 12) described as falling under the rubric of N.C.G.S. 143-318.11(a)(6), a section of the general statutes that encompasses contemplation of "the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee[.]"  Though of course, we don't know whether those meetings were in reference to Robinson or other staff at the agency.

Still, DSS' Robinson -- who only arrived in Durham in fall of 2009 -- is no stranger to moving along, or being moved along, from positions.

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A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data

Durham public school system officials released some negative but expected student test results on Thursday. They also backed away from a key achievement claim that they had made when announcing test scores on Wednesday. 

Preliminary results under a federal school assessment program showed that only seven Durham Public Schools met the federal government’s adequate yearly progress standard. 

These results, released Thursday for the recently concluded 2010-11 academic year, were down from 2009-10, when 14 of the district’s schools made AYP. 

That kind of dip wasn’t confined to Durham, though. The News & Observer reported Thursday that just 22 of the Wake school district’s 163 schools made adequate yearly progress. Last year, by comparison, 61 of 159 schools made progress under the standard. 

Why the drops? It’s certainly not that the students, teachers and schools in North Carolina, or in either of these two districts, got markedly poorer between 2009-10 and the school year that just ended. 

Instead, the major factor is probably something that made these kinds of results entirely foreseeable. The goals rose, and by significant margins. 

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UPDATED: Graduation rate, test scores rise for Durham Public Schools

Author’s note: This post was updated late on Wednesday, July 20. 

Test scores by Durham Public Schools students rose slightly in the 2010-11 academic year. 

“We believe that these are some significant accomplishments in Durham Public Schools,” said Eric Becoats, the district superintendent, who recently completed his first year in office. 

The results, which will be considered preliminary until next month, were announced Wednesday morning at Spring Valley Elementary School by school system officials. 

Perhaps the best news the Durham school system had involved the graduation rate, which rose from 69.8 percent to 73.9 percent. 

While the graduation rate hike is certainly laudable, the overall increases in student passing rates — performance composites, in educational lingo — were incremental at best. 

In grades 3 through 8, the percentage of students passing the state-mandated end-of-grade or EOG tests rose from 63.7 percent in 2009-10 to 64.1 percent in 2010-11. In high school, the percentage of students passing state-mandated end-of-course or EOC tests rose from 67.6 percent to 67.8 percent. 

Each increase was less than half a percentage point. 

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"Bargain Furniture" building to get a Pit below, Underground above?

309-e-chapel-hill In one of the opening scenes of the dreadful, horrendous, abysmal, and also badly-acted film "Main Street" -- there's a reason, friends, you haven't seen this straight-to-DVD movie in theaters anywhere -- Amber Tamblyn's character drives her late-80s beater car up in front of the Bargain Furniture building downtown, checking her voicemail.

(If I were Tamblyn, I'd be waiting to hear a message from my agent, apologizing for booking me in a piece-of-crap film.)

The shuttered furniture store makes a perfect backdrop for Main Street's message of Southern discomfort, of old money gone broke and new money gone toxic; it's a symbol of desertion and loss and emptiness.

But no longer, it seems. There's activity downstairs and possibly up for the building, long controlled by Raleigh entrepreneur Greg Hatem and Durham architect and developer John Warasila.

In an ironic turnabout, the American Underground -- the incubator space that's nicely humanized a pit of a basement in the Strickland and Crowe buildings at Am'bacco -- may be expanding to the upper floors of 309 E. Chapel Hill St., while an a Durham location of the Raleigh barbecue restaurant called The Pit may be opening up on the ground floor.

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Daisy Cakes signs lease on permanent home at 401A Foster St.

Durham's Daisy Cakes -- the popular food truck (well, food Airstream) eatery -- has found a home downtown for a brick-and-mortar expansion of its mobile cupcakes biz.

It's not the first Durham food truck to go wheel-free; that honor belongs to Only Burger. It's not the first downtown bakery to bloom from an irregular-hours Durham Central Park niche; that'd be Phoebe Lawless' awesome Scratch Bakery. And it's not the first "cupcake bar" announced for downtown Durham -- that'd be The Cupcake Bar from Durhamite and former Greenfire staffer Anna Branly and her sister, pegged for Scott Harmon's Five Points revamping.

Daisycakes But that doesn't make it any sweeter to learn that Daisy Cakes has formally signed a lease for space in 401A Foster Street, the industrial building rehabbed by Scientific Properties that's also home to Piedmont, Urban Durham Realty and the Bull City Arts Collaborative.

BCR's learned that the Foster St. space will be the home for Daisy Cakes, which put out a Kickstarter project last year looking to raise $20,000 in pledges towards a brick and mortar location. (The news, received from a source on Saturday, was confirmed in a tweet by the DaisyCakes folks that day.)

And the choice of locales shouldn't be a surprise, given that a Central Park-area location has been the goal for the small business' owners since they launched a fundraising campaign towards a permanent locale.

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Like a good neighbor: Durham Rescue Mission and North-East Central Durham try to make plans together

A major player in North-East Central Durham got together with its neighbors Tuesday evening to start collaborating on a shared vision for the area’s future. 

While nothing was finalized at Tuesday’s public input session, it seems something important may have been decided by its end. Both sides — the Durham Rescue Mission and North-East Central Durham residents — proved themselves willing to listen to each other in charting a course for the mission’s expansion. 

Gail Mills, a co-founder of the mission along with husband Ernie, was among the presenters at the session, which the nonprofit group Durham Area Designers convened. 

“We have spent time envisioning how can we create a model campus on the men’s campus to meet the needs of not only the men that come to the Rescue Mission but the community around us as well,” Mills said. 

“We’re hoping to make a glittering gem on this corner, to make it something attractive, something that people would like to look at,” the Rev. Robert Tart, another Rescue Mission official, told a group of about 40 people who gathered in the city of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services conference room at Golden Belt Arts. 

 

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The mission opened a modern, comfortable women’s and children’s campus, the Good Samaritan Inn, on East Knox Street near Interstate 85 a few years ago. Now the mission’s attention has turned to its men’s facilities in the organization’s original neighborhood, North-East Central Durham. 

The big challenge is a lack of space for both regular activities and special events, the Millses and Tart told listeners. The average number of daily residents at the mission has risen from 150 in 2008 to 206 last year — a jump of one-third. The men’s campus kitchen, which prepares three meals a day, has only 150 square feet. The dining room seats just 70 people at a time, less than half of the needed capacity. 

Moreover, mission officials want expanded housing for three types of clients — those in need of emergency shelter, those who are in transitional housing while they study, work or get medical treatment, and those who are nearly ready to live independently. 

But the organization also stages four annual events — for Easter, the start of the new school year, Thanksgiving and Christmas — that can draw around 4,000 people each. These events are geared toward the community, especially the working poor, and involve giveaways of food, clothing and (in August) backpacks and school supplies. Attendance has been so large that mission leaders have grown concerned about safety. 

“We need more room, not just to feed people. We need more room for these people to move and if you will to play,” Tart said. “If you will, to conduct the activities that we do at these events. And under our current setup, it’s extremely difficult.” 

It’s worth noting that by the mission’s own calculations, it provided $7.9 million in value to the community in 2010 by providing shelter, giveaways, classes and other services. The mission does not receive any government money, Gail Mills said. 

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The mission is raising funds for a new Center for Hope that would help meet its needs. Officials hope to secure $4.5 million in the first phase of their capital campaign, aided in part by a 1:1 matching grant from the Stewards Fund of Raleigh. If the mission can collect $400,000 by Oct. 31, the fund will double that amount. 

Those numbers, however, weren’t part of the presentation Tuesday. Nor were other specifics given. 

At the end of the meeting, mission leaders were asked for additional details. “We haven’t come up with a whole lot because we wanted to get the input from the community first,” the Rev. Ernie Mills replied. 

Still, mission officials seemed amenable to providing at least a partial description of what they want to build by July 30. On that morning, at 8:30 a.m. at the Eastway Elementary School library, Durham Area Designers will lead a session at which community members will try to make plans that fit their needs as well as the mission’s. 

That spirit of cooperation, and the determination at least to check with residents before drawing up construction documents, is helping to set up a process that has a chance to leave both sides satisfied. 

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As the old saw goes, of course, it takes two to tango. Neighbors, for their part, are willing to be consulted — and to listen to the mission’s desires. 

Which isn’t to say that everyone’s happy about what the mission is contemplating. 

For instance, resident John Martin took issue with Tart’s saying that the mission wants to close parts of Morning Glory and Worth streets in order to expand the campus. 

“I was hoping that you’d leave those streets open so that we’d have connectivity in the neighborhood,” Martin said. “I think that’s something that’s important.” 

Gary Kueber is the chief operating officer of Golden Belt Arts owner Scientific Properties, which has rehabbed and even built houses near the complex. He tacitly agreed with Martin’s concerns about connectivity. 

Referring to designers of the nearby Few Gardens complex, Kueber said: “They created a superblock that was entirely inwardly focused. That was — that has failed. That method of blocking off communities, blocking off streets, creating dead ends, et cetera, has failed in these neighborhoods.” 

The recently reconstituted Franklin Village, to the north of the rescue mission’s properties, reconnected residential streets, Kueber noted. 

It was suggested that the mission hold its four annual events not on its property but at Eastway Elementary, which has a big parcel and is across the street from a city park. Such a move might obviate the need for street closures. 

Resident Chloe Palenchar said that she wanted the mission’s overhauled campus to be open to the community, at least visually. 

“When I’m in West Durham, I can go on Duke campus so easily and see across their two- or three-foot walls to their gorgeous campus,” she said. “I mean, that’s such an asset to West Durham. If you guys can put that in my community, I would thank you. I would really thank you.” 

She also expressed the hope that North-East Central Durham might get a garden similar to the one at Good Samaritan Inn. 

DeDreana Freeman pointed out that the scale of most of the houses in Golden Belt’s old mill village, to the plant’s east, are similar. And there are just four styles of homes in the area, she noted. 

Others pointed out that lot sizes in the area tend to be similar, although different streets have different setbacks from the street, and only some have sidewalks. 

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Architect Steve Gaddis of Durham Area Designers led perhaps the most interactive part of Tuesday’s meeting, in which a panel of residents and members of the audience discussed the neighborhood’s future. That was the segment in which Martin, Palenchar, Freeman and others aired their views. 

While fielding the comments — which included a desire for more commercial storefronts — Gaddis boiled them down to three statements. Residents and mission leaders will try to apply these guiding principles on July 30 when they hash out some more specific plans. 

And those principles? In no particular order, that the neighborhood’s historic architectural stock should be preserved; that neighborhood connectivity should be maintained or increased; and that community safety should be improved. 

“I think we have at least a fruitful start to our effort,” Gaddis said when the time came to wrap up the meeting. 

Which isn’t to say that working out a mutually acceptable compromise will be easy — after all, the Rescue Mission wants to increase its presence in the neighborhood substantially, bringing more residents who are by definition troubled. The ability of existing single-family homes to serve that group, and the extent to which the mission and community value separation of such residents for security’s sake vs. integration of them for community’s sake, could require significant discussion. 

Interestingly, the major upcoming construction project that drew heated criticism was not the mission’s growth (which, after all, has yet to be charted). Instead, it was the planned Alston Avenue widening, which has been ruffling feathers in the area for years. 

As Melissa Norton, a Golden Belt resident and the government relations director for Downtown Durham Inc., said: “Alston Avenue is really bad. The way that it’s designed now is creating a lot of problems for people getting through and around these neighborhoods.” 

By contrast, there was no overt opposition to the Rescue Mission’s growth — although that may change as the process moves forward. 

For now, though, there’s a spirit of partnership that could serve both sides well. Here’s hoping that it lasts. 


Bigger and better? Expanded CenterFest to feature broader spectrum of attractions, powered by wide-ranging gamut of ambitions

The state’s oldest arts festival will take a hiatus this year in order to reinvent itself. 

The 38th annual CenterFest Arts Festival will be held not in September (as the event Website still erroneously states) but in 2012, officials with the Durham Arts Council and partner organizations announced this morning. 

“We want to reshape it and grow it into something even more exciting that reflects the tremendous creativity going on in Durham today,” Sherry DeVries, the executive director of the council, said at the announcement. 

So what does that mean in practical terms? The expanded event will feature an enlarged name — tentatively, CenterFest: Festival of Arts, Music, Food and Creativity. That reflects what should be a broader palette of attractions. 

“Edible arts” will be among the added features, showcasing the city’s foodie culture as well as local brews and beer gardens and in-state wineries. Organizers also want to add hands-on features such as arts and fine craft demonstrations; more entertainment stages and venues; a Saturday-night “music party”; and “showcases for design, gaming and technology arts.” 

“There’s so many cool, creative things happening in Durham right now,” DeVries said. “We want to incorporate as many of those things as we possibly can in this process.” 

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