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Durham budget highlights

Durham's Parks & Wreck

We talked last week here at BCR about the future of the Lakewood Y -- a sore point for many in southwestern central Durham, given its imminent closing by a Raleigh-centric regional YMCA. At that time, I argued that we ought to scratch our collective heads about allowing the Lakewood facility to close even as we prepared to spend nearly $20 million building new rec facilities in Walltown and North-East Central Durham.

Well, in the last week, the rec center debate has publicly taken a couple of new turns... and strange ones to boot.

First, the Walltown rec center is still moving forward, as expected. However, there's a fight within the city to add a pool to the complex, which could as much as double the cost of the already $8 million project.

Secondly, and new for the budget grist mill seemingly, stands the idea of spending $4 million to purchase and renovate the old -- wait for it -- Trinity Ave. Durham YMCA, currently the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. Which would serve, of course, as a rec center for the City.

And, of course, elected officials are fighting over whether the choice of one project over the other would "favor" Walltown (an historically black community) or Trinity Park (an historically white one.) Never mind that these neighborhoods border each other and that either facility is accessible to both neighborhoods.

Let's stop a moment and get some perspective, shall we?

It's 1.5 miles from the existing Edison Johnson Rec Center (recently updated, with a pool) to the proposed Walltown Rec Center. At the same time, it's only 2 miles from Edison Johnson to the possible new Trinity Ave. facility.

The kicker? The Trinity Ave. facility is itself a mere half-mile from the new Durham YMCA downtown, which has, naturally, a pool in it.

Why, perchance, does Durham need as many as four publicly-owned or non-profit recreation centers in the area of literally a few square miles? A deeply cynical man would suspect kickbacks from a heretofore-unknown exercise equipment repairwoman or pool maintenance man living on Green St., perhaps trying to eke a living out of cornering the market on rec facility upkeep.

Joking aside, it's hard to understand how we've gotten to the point of letting the Lakewood Y close even as we want to build rec center upon rec center in the northern part of central Durham. Look, I live in central Durham on Duke Street, and sure it'd be nice to have facilities close to me -- but I already have several choices open much closer to me that folks in north Durham and south Durham do.

City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden intimates that Walltown deserves a first-rate recreation center because of past community neglect towards African-American neighborhoods. Did Walltown have to build its own existing, outdated community center out of cinderblock because the white-majority city decades ago refused to invest in or provide decent services to their neighborhood? Yes, and residents of the area are still proud of what they achieved -- as they should be. I've been in the Walltown center, and it's a testament to hard work and community pride during a period of time that Southern whites should be ashamed of.

But we shouldn't be talking about building a rec center for a particular neighborhood in Durham -- we're building citywide facilities these days for all citizens, and we have to look at services that are needed based on macro-level demand. And what's the need for another pool in central Durham, be it at Walltown or Trinity Ave., with the Durham Y and Edison Johnson in close proximity? (It's also worth noting that, far from disinvestment, every one of the rec centers in current existence is in either racially-integrated areas or historically black neighborhoods... a sign that past neglect of these neighborhoods has been a thing of the past for the city for some time.)

Commcenter_2003parkrec A big question is, how do we measure if a new rec center or a new pool is "needed" or not? Well, why don't we start with the City's own 2003-2013 Parks & Rec master plan, as adopted by the City Council. Their standard is written in the report in black and white -- and seen visually in the diagram at left:

Data have shown that a large center will serve an area about 1.5 to 2 miles in diameter, while a small center will serve an area about 0.75 to 1 mile in diameter. Surveys have also shown that only a limited number of users will travel across town to attend programming, and even those users will only travel to centers where they have some other connection. The data suggest that community center-based recreation and programming must be local to be successful (unless it is a very special service such as therapeutic programming or competitive aquatics) and should be based at a center large enough to offer users a range of services.

Commcenter_2003parkrec2_2 Where did the master plan recommend adding new full-service rec centers? Certainly not in Walltown, or Trinity Park, or anywhere else in central Durham. As the map to the right shows, more peripheral locations recommended in the report would serve members of the Durham community that currently lack any recreation center in the vaunted two-mile radius -- without duplicating and overlapping services within the City, as either a Walltown or Trinity Ave center would do.

It's times like this that you have to scratch your head and ask, why are we writing master plans when we ignore them at the next opportunity? Why do we plan sidewalk and bike plans, or greenway plans, or park plans, only to discard them at the next opportunity?  Why do we build facilities that overlap each others' services, even as other neighborhoods in Durham lack local options for services?

As with so many other issues in Durham, this one's getting framed by our elected leaders (at least through the lens of the local paper) in black and white, when the decision itself should lack the grays of any uncertainty whatsoever. Let's go back to the plans we've paid for and let the data drive where we're choosing to invest, not the vagaries of political interests.


Michael Bacon

Well, I'll grant you that having Edison-Johnston, Trinity Ave., and Walltown all lumped together wouldn't make much sense. But if that's neighborhood overkill, it's hard to avoid noticing that a city rec center at Lakewood would be right around the corner from the Lyon Park center.

I'm also rather glad that we're ignoring that "Priority Areas for New Community Centers" map, with one exception. Looking at the actual locations on those things, it just shows the folly of thinking about urban geography as flat Euclidean space. Look at where those rec centers would be built, and the areas they'd be serving. We'd be providing excellent coverages to large areas of Eno River State Park, Duke Forest, and the Falls Lake Watershed. The Sparger/Cole Mill area is rather sparsely populated, the Garrett Rd. site would put it on the border of Orange County, and while an out-east site is probably a good idea, most of the growth is happening down further along Miami Blvd, not up towards Falls Lake. On the other hand, both this map and presumably the YMCA have both identified the area most in need of a new facility: the suburb that's not a suburb, that we might call Woodcroft/Southpoint.

To get back to the original point though, when the Comprehensive Plan was being worked up, I strongly argued to Frank Duke that, while I think people should have every right to live in low density areas, part of that means that they accept that they'll have to go farther to get to certain services. I have no interest in throwing rec centers all over the northern part of the city to chase folks who've decided they want to live on two acres of land. It's a recipe for financial ruin and poorly used recreation centers. Duke agreed with me, for the most part, which is one reason why I'm a little surprised to see this map in here. For God's sake, if you live in northwest Durham, you've already got the palatial Whipporwhil Park as well as the Eno River State Park. Do we really need to build these people a weight room and a pool as well?

The other fact which should come into play when talking about proximity to Edison Johnson is that the place is bursting at the seams. Full teams wait three and four games to get on the courts for pickup basketball. I've been told to not even try the weightroom except before 7 AM. Proximity to the YMCA shouldn't be an enormous factor either, if you ask me. There's a $250 joining fee plus a ~$30/month rate, or a $10 one-day visitor fee. Just this past Sunday I was checking in at the downtown desk, and a man with a thick accent of some sort brought in his two kids, hoping to use the pool. He was turned away, both becasue the pool was closing in a half hour, and because he'd have to pay $30 just to get them all to a pool.

I'd say we should cheat all of our rec centers back towards either the city center or one of the sub-centers lying around the perhiphery (the old South Square area, N. Duke Mall/Durham Regional, Southpoint). Otherwise, you end up with 300 households sharing a rec center in N. Durham, and 3000 sharing Edison Johnson. By a strict 2 mile buffer, EJRC serves Walltown, Old West, Old North, Trinity Park, and Watts/Hillandale. But in reality, the population it serves best is the sweep of north Durham neighborhoods, including ones like Croasdale or Old Farm that lie outside the 2 mile line, and those of us on the other side of 85 really should have our own.

The last Comprehensive Plan finally added the notion of tiered services to Durham, and I'm surprised rec centers didn't follow suit. I'd argue that instead of 2 miles for everyone, households in the urban tier should within 1 mile of a rec center, those in the suburban tier should within 2-3 miles, and those in the rural tier should be within 4 miles. Again, I'm not trying to hate on those who want a more rural lifestyle, but I don't have any sympathy for people who say they never want to see their neighbors but want city services around the corner.

Finally, the continuing specter of George Williams and his architecture firm is just ridiculously frustrating. He's not the worst example of cronyism in the city government, but he's certainly one of the more recurring examples. The good news is that he's farming the work out to Phil Szostak, who despite my objection to his exterior design of the Performing Arts Center, is a very good architect.


What i'd really like to see is a policy that says all kids in Durham will live within a 10 minute walk of a recreational facility.

that facility need be no more than a half acre with some climbing equipment for 6-12 year olds, some swings for the preschoolers, some open space to kick or throw a ball around, some benches for the parents to sit at, and a drinking fountain. If it's a 10 minute walk back home, you don't even need to build a bathroom.

Parents with small children looking for informal, easy to access recreational facilities that don't require signing up for 6 month programs are pretty much not served at all in Durham. Come to my neighborhood park (Duke Park) on a Saturday afternoon, and see how many parents are bringing their kids to a park that is nothing more than a large playground. Why? Because they live in neighborhoods that don't have these simple, basic, facilities.

Kevin Davis

Barry, Michael -- thanks for bringing your usual insightfulness to the comments section.

Michael, I should add that I also don't necessarily buy into the exact locations shown on the map for potential new centers, save to make the point that every one of the potential city rec centers on the table -- Walltown, NECD, Trinity Ave Y acquisition, Lakewood Y acquisition -- is within what I call "Central Durham" (I-85, US 70, MLK Jr Pkwy, 15-501). It's clear to me there are unmet needs on the northern and southern sides of the city, and that crowding at places like Edison Johnson would be better if there was relief for those.

My problem is with us choosing rec center sites simply because a neighborhood advocates loudly for one -- which I suspect is what's happened with NECD and Walltown, and could happen with Lakewood too. (Lakewood I've seen as a special case to the examples above, partly because Lyons Park doesn't have a pool, and partly because if central Durham really *does* need another center due to demand, I'd rather we help make a neighborhood's existing Y a free service and slough off demand that way.)

You raise an interesting point about where in the city we choose to locate services. I don't know if I'd advocate in the case of rec centers that folks need to be 1 mile away from them inside city areas, but I think the general idea of more of a tiering holds. The tiering makes sense given the car-centricity of more suburban areas so you keep travel times the same.

That said, though it should be totally clear from this blog that I am not a fan of suburbia at all, to say the least -- I still think it's unfortunate to see that there are massive areas of the city underserved by rec centers. Building at the Orange County line may make no sense, but the Southpoint area is underserved. Similarly, reducing crowding at Edison Johnson by building a new center inside Central Durham still doesn't make Edison Johnson a closer resource to Infinity Road.

Would I make suburban developments my lifestyle choice? No. But Durham happily annexes them, and on new developments takes in impact fees that go towards park facilities. To do so and then to consistently underserve those areas in terms of rec centers doesn't strike me as good planning.

Barry: absolutely agreed in re the 10 minute walk philosophy, particularly in an age of rampant childhood obesity. If you want to see something sad, check out page 36 of the 2003 park/rec master plan. The *entirety* of Central Durham is covered by parks that meet the 10-minute walk criterion (as measured by .75 mile distance -- ignoring the fact that small children have shorter legs!) You've hit the nail on the head, though -- many of these parks don't have the quality play equipment that Duke Park received (though only after DPNA had to fight the city for a decade.)

Which brings up another point -- the worst-case cost for a model new rec center with a pool added is 40 times the cost of the Duke Park renovations. FORTY. How many Duke Parks could you build in the city for the cost of one new facility?


At your basic 3 mph adult pace, 3/4 of a mile is still 15 minutes, not 10. And with a 5 year old holding your hand and a 2 year old in the stroller, 3/4 of a mile is closer to half an hour. i guarantee you that the kids who live east of Avondale Dr., on Colonial, Camden, Alcott, Nancy, or McGill, cannot walk to a park in 10 minutes. And if they try to walk to Duke Park, they have to cross both Avondale and Roxboro Streets. Parks and Rec showed absolutely no interest in establishing a neighborhood pocket park on city/county owned property at Avondale and Alcott to serve that small community. I can't imagine someone living at or near, say, Club and Gregson, can walk to either the Trinity Park, Northgate Park, Duke Park, or Walltown Park with small children in less than 10 minutes. Plus look at the streets you've got to cross to get to any of those parks.

there's a little park that time forgot (Warren Park, according to the tax maps) on a half acre off of Sovereign Street at the very north end of Watts Hillandale. Even though Indian Trail park is less than half a mile away, that little guy is still there. And the city could use about 4 or 5 dozen more just like it.

Unfortunately, those aren't very sexy projects to build.

As far as 40 Duke Parks go, it would have been interesting to see what the city could have gotten for its money at one Duke Park had it not spent 7 years and how many tens of thousands of dollars dicking around with designs and amenities that served no populations, and were never in the budget to begin with.

Dave W.

Thinking for a moment not about where to have rec centers and Y's but about pools and rec centers in design and use...

Are other peole as tired of/uninterested in indoor pools as me?
Seems there is a definite lack of outdoor public pools for kids and adults to play in and "beat the heat" in a refreshing way (in the city, the burbs, and in between)

Indoor pools suck, it just ain't refreshing.

If you agree with this line of thinking please tell the parks and rec folks. The amount of outdoor public swimming pools is ridiculously small and the ones still open have EXTREMELY limited hours. If we are going to build a public pool in this climate with five month summers it should be outdoors.

another weird parks and rec thing... why is basketball pickup time so limited at the rec centers (Lyon Park, Campus Hills, Hill St. Edison Johnson)?
Those gyms are underused because they don't allow much access--many of them have pickup hoops at weird times (middle of work day morning, first thing in morning) when a lot of people can't get there.

Open those gyms at 5 for after work pickup every day. If you agree tell the parks and rec people and see if they will open the doors more.
I've been told by parks and rec staffers they recommend this themselves but gets voted down cause they don't like the idea of so many basketball players congregating and the potential for "problems". Lyons is one of the few that has had after work pickup (Weds) and when I was going it was getting like 50-70 folks a night yet they won't consider opening up other work evenings.

I hope this isn't terribly off topic but I'm trying to rally some like minded folks into hollering so the parks and rec facilities get better at serving what I think are overdue needs a lot of people would like. okay hopping off my soap box now.

Chuck Clifton

I am one of four neighborhood / community organizers trying to Save the Lakewood YMCA. While I think much of the discussion above is useful at a macro level, we should be careful lumping the current Lakewood YMCA issues in with the other recreation facility discussions. The primary difference is that the Lakewood YMCA is a large, comprehensive facility currently IN OPERATION and serving many neighborhoods all in a walkable neighborhood setting. Because of the long list of services and facilities (comparison of nearby facilities below) and its 40 year history, this facility serves to unite all the diverse groups of this city (young/old, white/black, poor/affluent, working-class/professional, ...) into what many Lakewood YMCA members refer to as a "community" and a "family." Therefore, the issue with losing the Lakewood YMCA is the collapse of a micro-community and the associated impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods and communities (recall the impact of the shuttered Lyon Park Community Center on the surrounding West End and Lyon Park neighborhoods decades ago). While the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood and surrounding neighborhoods have held onto their stability, closing this YMCA and snuffing out the community it fosters will invariably cause a serious decline in the surrounding neighborhoods and sever casual ties to these diverse groups that are hard to cultivate in the best of conditions. Make no mistake, this is not a planning issue nor is this a development issue. Saving the Lakewood YMCA is a neighborhood stabilization and preservation issue.

Moreover, there are over 75 children in after-school programs at the Lakewood YMCA ... because that facility has copious space for such programs. Many of these kids' parents won't be able to make it home in time to take them to the Downtown YMCA (or, worse, Southpoint). So then where will they go after school? With whom will they spend their time? I doubt it will be learning to swim or playing sports or any of the various other opportunities available DAILY at the Lakewood YMCA.

Issues of preservation and stabilization are about the real people impacted by reversible, pending decisions and not about the hypothetical "demand" that carefully planned facilities might draw if all the urban stars are well aligned and the multi-year funding needed is sustained through several city administrations that alter their investment decisions on a whim.

The Lakewood YMCA is not as bleak as it has been portrayed. Sure, if you divert all revenue from a small facility to its peer 1.8 miles away to service its debt instead of re-investing it into the maintenance of the facility, yes, there will be structural decline. And if you don't ever ask the surrounding neighborhoods and communities if they are interested in joining or what kind of programs would drive you to that facility ... sure, there will be flat membership and unsustainable operating costs. But if you really wanted to keep a facility solvent, you would never do these things. We must wonder then, why did the YMCA management make these choices. This is what the local community hopes to find out and, more importantly, hopes to suggest how to reverse.

Comparison of facilities nearby the Lakewood YMCA ...

Lyon Park Services (from the Parks & Rec website)
basketball courts
picnic facilities
meeting rooms
after school programs: therapeutic & explore teen

Emily K Center Services (from their website)
basketball courts
7 meeting rooms
after school programs
summer programs

Lakewood YMCA Services (from my memory of my visit several days ago)
basketball courts
racquetball courts
soccer fields
outdoor running track
gymnastics room
weight training equipment
cardiovascular equipment
meeting rooms
after school programs
summer programs
youth athletic leagues
steam room
whirlpool baths
yoga room

Kevin Davis

Chuck: Thanks for coming by and explaining where your group is coming from on this. As I mentioned last week, there's a lot to like about keeping the Lakewood Y around -- both from the neighborhood stabilization perspective and the financial savings to the City versus new centers. The comparison of services at the facilities is also a useful list to see.


We really need more outdoor pools in Durham. This is North Carolina where one can swim outdoors from April to October. I used the pool one time at the Downtown Y and sorry, but it was nasty. Enclosing a pool with four walls is nuts. Just my opinion.

Michael Bacon

The comments about outdoor pools raise a really good point. Why not make Walltown an outdoor pool instead of an indoor one? If we're acquiring the Trinity Ave. location (which I think on the whole is still a good thing), why not try to make the facilities a little less redundant?

Given that what just happened is the budgeting of the money, I imagine such a shift is still possible.


I suspect that maintenance costs for outdoor pools are greater than for indoor pools, even allowing for the fact that they are not open year round.

this was a major factor in the closure of the old pool at Duke Park. Erosion under the pool kept resulting in cracks in the concrete lining, allowing chlorinated water to leach into the Ellerbe Creek system. After the third lining cracked, there was no desire to pour a 4th.

There were also usage issues, which may or may not be addressed by making the pool part of a larger rec center, unlike the Duke Park pool, which was essentially a stand alone facility plopped in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Mike Woodard

Thanks for the good, healthy discussion here. I just wanted to add to the mix that the Trinity Avenue facility not only has a pool, but also a gymnasium, a large kitchen, plenty of multi-use space, and fields that are in good shape.

The pool is actually a therapeutic pool that would be ideal for seniors and other special populations; the City has a dearth of those kind of options.

Currently, Parks and "Wreck" is forced to rent gyms from the school system in order to conduct its various leagues. I was at Lyon Park last week and the week before, and both times saw players having to sit on the sidelines and hang out in the hallways due to overcrowding on the basketball courts.

Parks and "Wreck" has been offering over-enrolled classes on healthy cooking options in small cooking facilities (can't really call some of them kitchens) with support from a number of civic groups.

And P&W can always use more space for computer labs and meeting rooms. Just look at how crowded EJohnson and Lyon Park can be on some evenings.

And I don't think I need to tell the folks here about the need for playing fields of any kind, but especially soccer.

Bottom line on Trinity Avenue: the City is getting a multi-purpose facility that has been well maintained for $3M and will be able to have it up and running with $350K of renovations and work (compared to less stuff at Walltown for $8M, before the pool). The location is in the middle of a densely-populated, racially diverse group of neighborhoods. This is a good investment for the taxpayers of Durham.

Mike Woodard

Kevin Davis


First, thanks for the insightful comments and thoughts. If it seems there's a veritable lovefest at times on Durham's blogs for the councilperson from the Old Bull River, it's because you're consistently the one Durham city official who presents reasoned arguments back to citizen and neighborhood inquiry. For that, as always, thank you.

I agree that the Trinity Ave Y is, relative to other options, a much more cost-effective way of bringing rec facilities to the city. Ditto the Lakewood Y. And, in light of the information you've provided in re therapeutic, senior citizen and gymnasium activities, there is a logic to it.

What's ultimately concerned me in all of this is that this kind of logic and planning has seemed to be missing from most of the debates. Which raises the specter in my mind, are we building these rec centers because we need them and we've thought through where they should go, or because neighborhoods and community activists want them?

To wit, the 2003 master plan. In it, one of the "master plan" activities was better marketing and better statistics-gathering of how heavily the existing rec centers were being used. To me, that's code-speak for "increase the usage and justify existence." Hearing that there are waits for basketball courts, kitchens and pools certainly sounds like good anecdotal evidence that the need has increased in the past four years. That said, it would be nice to see the quantitative data that shows this need, and that shows the change since 2003.

Secondly, the matter of the existing master plan's call for more geographic balance in the centers. I was disappointed that this discussion never came up, at least in the daily fishwrap, when our council has debated centers now, or when the Walltown and NECD centers were prioritized in the CIP process back in 2005. Has something essential and fundamental changed in the city's long-term vision for recreation centers since 2003, when the plan clearly called for an increased focus on northern and southern Durham?

I agree that when moments of opportunity arise -- like Trinity Ave., and hopefully Lakewood -- it makes sense to put old plans on the back burner for the moment and consider new realities. But when we're planning for brand-new facilities, I wonder, what's changed since the last plan?

My concern is that we're not analyzing these kind of problems this way, but that we're throwing plans for new facilities to the wind based on what individual neighborhoods want. Which may be OK -- if there's concrete data and rationale to back up neighborhoods' requests. Personally, I would no more support unsubstantiated capital improvements for my own neighborhood than I would support them for any other.

Of course, this debate is two years too late, and should have happened during the last CIP process. But I think the general concern holds in my mind at least for future projects the city looks to undertake.

Thanks again for the feedback, Mike, and for fighting the good fight.


Any news on the Trinity Ave former "Y" location? Is the city's purchase of it moving forward?


All are making valid points and as a Parks and Recreation employee, you really dont know the inside of the whole story. Yeah these neighborhoods will be over crowded with pools but the YMCA charges an arm and a leg for there services while city pools are only two dollars or so. Also there are only five City pools, (Campus Hills, Edison Johnson, Long Medow, Hillside and Forest Hills). All of which are of close proximity to each other. I work at Lyon Park so I know that there are alot of Neighborhood teens that have to walk to centers but cant use the amenities of YMCA's for transportation issues or cost. Also Lyon Park is a 51,000 sqft facility that has a full sized gymnasium with a suspended walking track, auditorium, game room, dance studio, four or five classrooms and more. There is no need for another close center that has about the same perks. Also the Old Lyon Park is about to open up as a Teen Recreation Center and that is right across the street from the new one so there is no reason for another rec in that neighborhood. A real overload is about the be East Durham with NECD or Holton, ED Mickle and East Durham really close to each other.

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