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.