Making (dollars and) sense of the downtown library renovation bond

Durham has seen an outstanding turnout in early voting -- just short of 120,000 souls made it to early voting, just over half of the county's registered voter base. And given our bluer-than-blue shade on political maps, it seems nearly a fait accompli that all four bond issues will pass, including that for the main downtown library renovation.

Still, we noticed with some interest discussion on local neighborhood listservs wondering about the library's cost -- a $44.3 million project, about three quarters of which is allocated to construction. 

That is four times the cost projected in 2008 -- then, an $8 million construction budget out of a total project cost of approximately $11 million. (For background, see BCR's extensive July 2008 and September 2008 coverage, and Lisa Sorg's March 2016 update.)

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 7.56.10 PM

Of course, when the project was first under discussion back in '08, there was plenty of grousing from residents and elected officials alike about whether that number was sufficient to develop a first-class library for Durham, given that the renovation cost was only a bit more than the new-build cost of two of Durham's final new-build regional libraries.

The project team at the time put their best foot forward, pontificating on the building's panel/curtainwall exterior, and noting that communities with strong regional libraries (like Durham) needed less space than others.

Then that renovation project went away, only the resurface in the past couple of years with a new project team, a new library director, the departure of the former county engineer -- and, a budget that is a multiple of its old self.

Over the past few weeks, BCR has been taking a look at other library projects in the US and talking with Durham County Library (DCL) staff and project team members to try to figure out what's driving the cost.

Our take? While it's a steep rise in cost and a larger library than was proposed in 2008, it also is at least commensurate with other projects in smaller/mid-sized cities, and likely reflects a more realistic project than was initially proposed a few years back.

Continue reading "Making (dollars and) sense of the downtown library renovation bond" »

Lisa Sorg: Farewell, BCR. It's been a great ride.

On an overcast Saturday morning last August, Kevin Davis and I hunkered down at Ninth Street Bakery and hatched a plan. After a several years’ hiatus, he had recently restarted Bull City Rising, and, as a loyal reader of the blog, I was eager to chat with him about it.

And, personally, I was still stinging from a one-two punch: The Wednesday prior, I had been abruptly “let go” from the INDY after nine years, eight of them as editor. My husband had been diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer and was undergoing radiation, which would not save his life, but hopefully prolong it. 

I had long considered BCR the INDY’s main competitor for Durham readers. BCR was smart, informed, analytical. Influential people read BCR. Kevin had great sources. He broke stories. Sometimes BCR beat the INDY. And I did not like getting beat.

What would Kevin think about my joining BCR? Perhaps he would be game. In 2010, we had successfully co-moderated a congressional candidate forum between incumbent Democrat David Price and B.J. Lawson a Republican with Libertarian leanings. (Successful meaning the questions were thoughtful, the room was packed, and the police did not have to intervene. Democracy was served.)

Fortunately, Kevin said yes. And over the next 11 months, he and I have worked together to again make BCR a go-to source for deeply reported, well-written news. In addition to the civic responsibility of election coverage, BCR often achieved what every respectable journalist wants: positive change. 

Our reporting about the Durham Co-op allowed rank-and-file workers to have a seat on the board of directors, a right that had been in jeopardy under proposed by-laws. BCR called out the Durham Housing Authority when it misinformed Section 8 voucher holders about where they could live. Stories about Black Wall Street Plaza alerted people to the importance of preserving the city’s last piece of prime green space downtown. Consistent coverage of development and affordable housing kept the issue in front of the public.

Sometimes Kevin and I disagreed, and one of us would write a counterpoint. Exhibit A being the funding disparity between The Art of Cool and Moogfest. Each of us was glad to have the push-back; it made our respective reporting sharper. (Our approaches to news were different as well; we used to joke that Kevin is Google satellite view and I’m Google street view.)

And here we are, 11 months later, and I must leave BCR. On Monday, I start a new job as an environmental investigative reporter at NC Policy Watch, a state-wide journalism outlet that I’ve loved and respected for many years. My husband, thankfully, after several failed treatments, is responding to chemotherapy. He’s still alive and has a decent quality of life.

Writing for Kevin and BCR has been one of the most rewarding journalistic experiences of my career. I had creative license, the freedom to pursue any story, and the opportunity to continue reporting on the city that I love.

BCR will continue under Kevin’s leadership. I’ll be a loyal reader. I hope you will be, too.



Jason Baker: Correcting the record on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project

This guest post, written by Jason Baker, originally appeared at We're reprinting it here with permission. It's a full-throated response to the Indy Week's cover story last week on the Durham-Orange light rail project. 

As always with guest posts, the opinions expressed here are those of the original author -- but heartily seconded by your editor here. -KSD

The June 29, 2016, “Off the Rails” INDY Week piece by David Hudnall, which discusses the Durham-Orange light rail transit project (DOLRT) is a poorly researched opinion piece that does a tremendous disservice to INDY Week readers, residents of Durham and Chapel Hill, and—most importantly—current public transit riders in Durham and Orange counties who stand to benefit greatly from a significantly enhanced bus and rail transit network with DOLRT at its core.

Hudnall’s piece mistakes anecdotes for data, ignores significant differences between Wake County and Durham-Chapel Hill, ignores the ways in which current low-income residents travel today—and what that tells us about the usefulness of DOLRT—and, finally, skips reasonable fact-checking of anti-rail project critics’ claims with publicly available documents, including past INDY Week stories on DOLRT.

In an effort to correct many of the misrepresentations of facts, and errors made by Hudnall, below are excerpts from his piece with added context, data, and information so that readers can get an accurate understanding of DOLRT, the benefits it will provide for our community, and why light rail will meet the needs of Durham and Orange Counties and move us forward.

Continue reading "Jason Baker: Correcting the record on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project" »

Why I was disappointed by the Jillian Johnson Facebook tempest, and why it really matters

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 4.25.51 PMUnless you've been trapped in Faraday cage these past couple of weeks, unable to discern the blue-light glow of your latest smartphone Twitter alerts, you've certainly heard about Jillian Johnson's famous Facebook fracas.

The first-term City Councilwoman was apparently taken aback at the reaction that her post about police and the military being the "most dangerous people with guns," as the N&O's Virginia Bridges notes in today's very good summary of the matter:

However, Johnson’s outspoken, activist style drew backlash last week after she posted a statement on Facebook as members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully called for measures to curb gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists following the Orlando shooting in the Pulse nightclub.

“I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people,” she wrote, “but I feel like more of us should be pointing out that the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers, and that the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling and Islamophobia.”

Johnson posted a clarification Wednesday morning, saying “state-sanctioned violence causes more harm” than non-state sanctioned violence.

Every action has an opposite and likely unequal reaction, and the comments -- circulated from her personal Facebook page to an audience far wider than she expected -- led to a predictable reaction from those in and related to the law enforcement community, some of whom called for her resignation.

And, of course, the comments section of sites like the N&O's web site were as banal as one would expect, with predictably-racist diatribes involving returning to Africa, or criticism of black men and fathers.

And, just as predictably, came the full-throated defense of Johnson's comments from the most progressive in Durham's progressive community, many of whom seem to be members of the activist community that Johnson has long participated in, organized and championed.

All of which has made for, I am sorry to say, a terribly unenlightening and unenlightened debate. It is possible, indeed far more important, to disagree with her comments without the jingoism and call to proverbial arms we have seen in the initial pushback.

But the progressive defense of Johnson's comments is also, to these ears, tone-deaf and unable to be supported by the facts on the ground -- as we note beyond the jump, the CDC's statistics find that homicide is, by a factor of 50x, a more likely cause of death for young black males than police action.

In a sense, this very debate is emblematic of the poor coin of the current political discourse's realm. 


Because the concept that police officers are among the "most dangerous" people with guns, while touching emotionally raw wounds in the shadows of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many others, is logically inconsistent with the sources, uses and users of guns and violence, in a way that undermines the very important point underlying Johnson's comments.

Because the use of policing power in the public interest is a necessary function of any division of government, and while Johnson shows great promise as one who can reform the work, the seeming eschewment of its validity and purpose could undermine that end.

Because the intersection of the fundamental tensions here -- the acknowledged misuse of power at times by law enforcement, coupled with the inalienable necessity of policing functions to exist -- makes it crucial that elected officials engage and not pigeonhole the subject.

At the end of the day, Johnson's activist background is one of the things that drives the passion and engagement so many citizens have with Durham's newest elected official.

Yet it may be hard to hold the reins of power and a picket sign simultaneously.

Continue reading "Why I was disappointed by the Jillian Johnson Facebook tempest, and why it really matters" »

Christian Laettner has 14 million problems: Creditors try to force him into Chapter 7


Former Duke University basketball star Christian Laettner was a great player — if despised by his rivals — but his money management skills are the equivalent of an air ball.

The Wall Street Journal reported today (sorry, the story is behind a paywall) that five creditors are trying to force Laettner into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The creditors claim that Laettner owes them a total of $14 million.

The lawsuit was filed in the Middle District of North Carolina, which has courtrooms in Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem. Documents field online show that all of the creditors are involved in real estate:

Download Laettner lawsuit

Randy Nietzsche of NSA-SP#3, LLC, in Minneapolis, claims he is owed $7.32 million;
Ernest Sims III, of Raleigh, $1.48 million;
Jonathan Stewart, of Raleigh, $3.62 million;
Park Lane, IBS, LLC, of Los Angeles, $236,192;
D&F DCU, of Newport News, Virginia, $1.382 million

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is more serious than Chapter 13, which allows a debtor to reorganize and file a repayment plan. Under Chapter 7, the bankruptcy trustee liquidates the debtor's non-exempt assets (the definition of which can vary from state to state) and pays off the creditors. A lien also can be placed on a debtor's property.

Even though Laettner earned a total of $61 million as an NBA player, his subsequent real estate deals, including the West Village development in downtown Durham, mired him in financial problems. In 2012, he was sued for $30 million by several of his pro colleagues, including Scottie Pippen. And in another complicated deal, he sued his own real estate company, Blue Devil Ventures, for $10 million. 

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?


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.”