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Of downtown decks and downtown developers

Rolling Hills: The debate begins

The N&O and the Herald-Sun both have good coverage of the debate at Council yesterday over the proposed three-year redevelopment of the Rolling Hills housing district and portions of the St. Theresa's/Southside neighborhood.

Rolling Hills, located across the street from the present Heritage Square shopping center, is a picture-imperfect example of what I sometimes think of as the bad ol' days of Durham governance -- two failed development projects led by locals who probably didn't have the money or the knowledge to make the outcome a success. In the end, the City was left holding the bag, to the tune of holding a number of foreclosed properties that are costing over $26,000 per year in homeowners' association fees alone.

Coming back to the plate on the project is the City government, which issued an RFP for redevelopment of this site and adjacent properties, many of which have been bought up by Self-Help in recent years. The total cost of redeveloping the area starts at up to $6 million to acquire properties the City doesn't already own.

One line of thinking goes, why throw good money after bad? Well, if you've never visited the area in person, you should. It's literally dispiriting to drive through the complex. Several properties have tarps covering their roofs; the temporary covers have been in place long enough that they're visible on Google Maps, which should tell you something.

In the end, there are a number of different ways to redevelop a neighborhood that's hit hard times in the way that Rolling Hills has. One approach is to create an 'island' of revitalization in a sea of poverty, as the City has done in a very classy way with the Eastway Village project neighboring the brand-new Eastway Elementary facility. (I've been meaning to get out there and take some photos of the project, which is really first-class aesthetically, and will try to do so soon.) In the end, you hope that the presence of a stabilized area will start to impact blight in neighboring blocks and streets and grow outwards.

Rolling Hills, though, starts at a different place. It and Heritage Square -- which is slated to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project with a major private-sector investment by Scientific Properties -- border a downtown that's booming with massive renovation and redevelopment itself. One reason for downtown's success has been the strengthening of commercial and residential interests bordering the core to many sides -- Trinity Park, Forest Hills, Old North Durham, the DAP area resurgence, and signs of life and renewal in the West End.

As successful as downtown's redevelopment is turning out to be, gentrification and economic segregation are too often unfortunate economic realities. Which is why the City's decision to get out of the local-developer business and to bring in national partners like McCormack Baron Salazar and Struever. Bros Eccles & Rouse involved. Rolling Hills presents a chance to create an economically-integrated community to meet the needs of current residents as well as citizens who might not otherwise move to the community.

And the key to this project lies at its heart in getting the right partners on-the-ground, something that seems at last to be at hand.

MBS, for its part, focuses its business on redeveloping urban neighborhoods that have been the victims of "decades of neglect and disinvestment." The firm is also in the early stages of involvement in the Wichita project discussed by a reader here on the blog earlier this year; the project has been highly successful in getting convicted criminals re-integrated into productive society on release, helping to find employment and social services opportunities through a program that is, in the long run, far more expensive than the costs of recidivism and the 'revolving door' so many prisons have. (SBER is well-known locally, of course, for their work in the American Tobacco and DAP projects.()

As the N&O pointed out in its coverage, MBS gained widespread recognition for its Centennial Place project in Atlanta in the early 1990s. From the MBS web site:

The partnership invented another first in public housing history – the first public housing development with mixed incomes. Seemingly the type of neighborhood that should be an ideal, an economically integrated community had never been promoted or financed by the federal government.  

With federal and private financing, with resident participation, and with the support of an entrepreneurial housing authority, the newly named Centennial Place became a model for urban community development. Over 900 families live in new garden apartments and townhomes. Some families make a few thousand dollars a year and some make more than $150,000. But you won’t know which by looking at their housing units. They live side by side in an attractive neighborhood of tree-lined streets. Two swimming pools and a fitness center in the development, and a new YMCA nearby, provide recreational opportunities. New commercial development is underway – being built with private investment. The neighborhood is ethnically and economically diverse.

But the pride of Centennial Place is its elementary school. Fueled by a fervent belief that public education must succeed if new urban communities are to succeed, McCormack Baron Salazar and its partners spurred the development of a new K-5 school for the neighborhood – one that would hold all children to equally high expectations. Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola joined the effort and provided funding and curriculum support. Today, Centennial Place Elementary is nationally recognized for its student achievement. The school won The Education Trust foundation’s “Dispelling the Myth” award in 2003 – proving that with the right environment and support, low-income and minority children can achieve. Children in public housing are exceeding standards as well as the children of Georgia Tech professors. In 2003, 98 percent of the school met or exceeded state standards in reading and 93 percent performed at that level in math.

Will some residents have concerns about the City possibly spending more money in an area that's already failed twice in redevelopment, as one councilperson pointed out in Thursday's session? Naturally. But if the City is finally ready to bring in the kinds of neighborhood-oriented developers who have real track records of success in similar cities, I think it's worth the investment. After all, the status quo certainly isn't getting anyone anywhere.

How divided is the Council on the issue? It's tough to tell. Bill Bell and Howard Clement seem soundly for the idea, as their comments in the local papers demonstrated. And if Bell's in support of a project, Cora Cole-McFadden's vote usually follows. My guess is that the concerns of the rest of Council -- who as a group are very progressive on economic justice and neighborhood investment issues -- will carry the day with the vast majority of them.

Assuming MBS and SBER can bring the same energy and success to Rolling Hills that they've achieved in so many other American communities, this project brings a real chance for lasting change that can ideally mark the last time bulldozers come to this stretch of the old Hayti.

Will the Hesters complain? Sure. But unlike their noisemaking over Heritage Square, this time the project is one in which they had their chance, and didn't succeed. One would hope their attention would turn more towards the management of the shopping complexes they've built on Fayetteville (with City dollars, notably) and towards ongoing advocacy for the Fayetteville corridor.

But in this project, the time has come for the City to bring in the best and most-qualified national players for this project, something the oft-criticized administration deserves credit for doing.

Comments

I'm really surprised that there hasn't been an entry on a political blog like this about the story in the paper on Friday that Duke has 39,000 employees. In a county with a total population of about 200,000.

This is genuine political power. Duke should annex Durham (the State Legislature would happily agree) and then flunk out all the gang idiots to Atlanta and DC and make Durham a great place to live for everyone.

Barry

What was really surprising about that number is that fewer than half of those actually, you know, live in Durham. Granted that's a significantly higher percentage than that of Duke University trustees who live in Durham.

But still, one of the great things about the internet is that whenever you see something lacking, rather than complain about why nobody else is doing it, you have the opportunity to start doing it yourself.

i'm looking forward to reading your blog and your insights on the Duke/Durham relationship.

Chaz

The trouble with your theory, 9:56, is that, clearly, not all the idiots in Durham belong to gangs.

Mike Woodard

The 39K figure is people who get paychecks, which includes post-docs and some other student categories. Also, an increasing number of Duke employees don't work in Durham: Duke Health Raleigh Hospital, Duke Marine Lab, various Duke clinics that stretch from Lumberton to Winston-Salem and Charlotte. Last figure I saw had about 19K Duke staff and faculty living in Durham County. Wonder how that figure compares with UNC-CH, NCSU, state government, and a bunch of private sector employees relative to their home counties?

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