Durham Magazine, NRDC stories coincidentally highlight two sides of new high school debate
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for August 3, 2009

More musings on building a sprawl-free Durham high school campus

We talked here yesterday about the twin specters of sprawl and socioeconomics facing Durham Public Schools' proposed new high school site at the intersection of Erwin and Cornwallis on the edge of Duke Forest.

The proposed site, sitting on an undeveloped greenfield site, has led some to scratch their heads as to why an undeveloped parcel is under evaluation for a new school -- a decision that likely has something to do with the widely-reported desire of DPS to apparently find a 50-acre site for a new high school to accommodate surface parking and athletic fields that go with a school.

Before we look to build a school on a parcel big enough to swallow half of Winnie-the-Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, though, many (including us here at BCR) would rather see an examination of how you could reuse an existing space -- an old shopping center, say, or other locales within the heart of Durham rather than its periphery.

It's not clear whether DPS has been looking at the feasibility of how such an existing site could be adapted to this use, but one BCR reader has been. That'd be Yonah Freemark, a recent Hillside High and Yale grad who's also a nationally-focused blogger on transportation policy and researches new urbanism and development practices. (Yonah commented on yesterday's BCR story, and was summarily interviewed for the Durham Magazine blog. Welcome to Durham's version of the 24-hour news cycle.)

Yonah put pixel to digital canvas and came up with some interesting representations on how Hillside and Durham School of the Arts fare on an in-town urban site -- and how the old Lakewood Shopping Center, the University Ford dealership, and the old Erwin Mills site near Ninth and Main could fare as urban school sites providing most or all of the amenities of a larger campus. He was also kind enough to allow us to share his sketches, so here goes.

First, a look at what exists today at DSA and Hillside. A brief key: C refers to multi-story classroom buildings; A to administrative, cafeteria and auditorium space; G to gyms; P to parking; and for other sports facilities, we have (B)aseball, (F)ootball/track, (S)occer and (T)ennis.


(DSA also has newly-constructed tennis courts north of Minerva, at the northern edge of the picture, and has some parking just north of that south of Trinity Ave.)

In Freemark's model, the three in-town locations would all see four-story academic and administrative facilities, allowing the schools to fit snugly into sites that are snug, yes, but not necessarily more so than DSA -- or than pretty much any urban high schools being built in America.

A facility at Lakewood would be able to fit all high school facilities directly on site, without even reusing the old movie theater and former Duke Surplus Store (just north of the northern parking lot) or some of the outparcels on the eastern side of the center.


For their part, both the Ninth Street area site -- located between the remainder of Erwin Mills and the Erwin Square office tower, and to the north of the site of a proposed hotel -- and the American Tobacco/University Ford site would rely on off-site parking such as the Hillsborough Rd. lot owned by Duke and the Ambacco city/county-owned decks for a portion of their parking, though a remaining portion of the old hotel site could be used for parking as well.

(Of course, University Ford is an active dealership and reports of renovation of the old hotel continue to hover out there, but this is a thought experiment, after all. Right? Right.)



(Download all sites and a legend in a single file: View this photo)

Naturally, there are challenges inherent in any of these designs.

But clearly, it would be nice to see the public discourse -- and, importantly, the governmental-private one, since the County Commissioners and DPS can and likely will negotiate behind closed doors on sites until one is announced, a common practice to avoid land speculation -- incorporate a closer look at the alternative use of sites.

Naturally, there'd likely be some consternation over the higher costs of constructing an in-town site versus a greenfield parcel, though from what we've heard the Erwin-Cornwallis site would likely already have some multi-story structures.

On the other hand, an in-town site would go a long way to reuse existing transportation and utility corridors, and would provide more activity and more traffic in urban areas, something that goes to support and revitalize local businesses. Check out the number of presumed DSA students shopping at Brightleaf Square after school one nice afternoon, for instance.

Here's hoping the fresh thinking doesn't end at the digital graphics tablet on this one.


Doug Roach

I'm still convinced the Lakewood site offers the best of everything to all concerned.
--It's the closest site listed in this really good blog to what the clowns at DPS have chosen.
-- It doesn't require shared facilities (be it parking like at AmBacco or baseball & parking at 9th street).
-- Also, I USE the abandoned parking lot at the old motel across from University Ford whenever we go to a ball game... just sayin'.
-- In order to save a few more schekels, there is a baseball diamond at Wrightwood Park less than two blocks away from Lakewood. Perhaps the school board wouldn't mind investing about ten percent of the cost of building a NEW one and just upgrade that one.
-- DPS could do the entire community a great service by revitalizing a parcel that's well on it's way to being patently irrelevant and at the same time NOT alienating a boatload of people in the community who are adamantly opposed to paving over yet another large part of our county.
-- I suspect that any investment in right-of-way of outright purchase at the Lakewood site would benefit the community in that neighborhood a lot more than handing over yet another big check to the Duke Endowment.
-- The infrastructure is already in place along Chapel Hill Road. You wouldn't need to run new sewer or water or electric to that site.
-- You wouldn't be adding to the storm-water run-off problem that paving at Erwin Road would entail.
--Bus transportation of students would no doubt be cheaper than trucking everyone five more miles west on a single two-lane road.
This seems like such a no-brainer that IMO it would be VERY suspicious if they choose to continue to pursue building a HS in the woods. If they persist in that unreasonable quest it'll be clear - at least to me - that the board members (or whomever is responsible for this decision) are certainly fiscally brain-dead, illogical and thus totally unqualified for their decision-making positions.

Many thanks to you, Kevin and to Yonah for presenting this in such a clear and concise manner.

anne slifkin

Thanks for opening up this question for public discussion. Although the school system persists in seeking the Jordan/Riverside model, perhaps the school board and administration would be well served to look at the extraordinary success of DSA. A lot of kids apply to the school- not because they are that interested in the arts, but because they want to be at DSA. I belief that the urban interest and edginess of the school adds to its appeal. Durham is at its best when the urban environment is respected and developed- and our natural areas are left undeveloped.

Kevin Davis

@Doug: On the point of fiscal responsibility, in defense of the school system I will point out (to play devil's advocate) that we don't know what price, say, the owner of the Lakewood Shopping Center would want for the property. As an income-producing property (even a failing one) it would certainly be more expensive per acre than greenfield. OTOH, would the acreage you'd need be so much smaller that it makes up for it -- or can you justify the extra expense because it's adaptive re-use?


What about the car dealerships in the South Square area? Not only are they relatively close to the Erwin and Cornwallis site, but they're actually out of business.


Great post!

One additional advantage to an in-town site: the number of students living within 1-2 miles of the new high school who could easily walk or bike there on a reasonably safe urban grid. Think of how many car trips could be saved, how many calories burned, and how many kids would arrive at school well-oxygenated and ready to learn!

(BTW, I'd argue that calling the Duke Forest site a "green field" is misleading, although I understand that's the term of art. More like "densely forested rural wilderness area".)


Excellent coverage. It puzzles me that the school system needs such large space for a school. There is a growing movement to build smaller schools and convert large schools into smaller schools. You can read this article that provides more details and how the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is supporting such efforts, http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/19_04/gate194.shtml. There is also this Virginia Tech article: http://delta.cs.vt.edu/edu/size.html

Chicago Public Schools supports smaller schools and has two major grant initiatives supporting small schools in Chicago Public Schools: The Chicago High School Redesign Initiative and the United States Department of Education Smaller Learning Communities Program. Read more at http://smallschools.cps.k12.il.us/research.html

As someone who studied at urban and suburban schools, I have to say that there is nothing wrong with studying in a two or three story building, with a physical education gym instead of a campus full of athletic fields. I played competitive sports in a county league, which is a voluntary effort and does not require and expect taxpayers to subsidize organized sports in schools.

Here are my questions to Durham Public Schools: Are they considering smaller schools? Why did they sell school buildings on Club Boulevard and other locations? Why can't they build smaller schools in various different locations? Why does an educational institution, whose focus should be on academics, need to look like a sprawling sports complex? What is the cost of each athletic field? How much does it cost to maintain each field? How often do students use such fields every year (are they open when school is closed)? And...how many students use them?

Personally, I would rather see my tax dollars go to teach music than organized sports. Could we replace one sports field with a music rehearsal room (for kids who want to learn and practice classical, jazz, folk or rock music) or small recording studio or a small performance stage or mini auditorium? Numerous studies reveal that learning music is good for learning math. This article reveals numerous links related with the topic, http://www.math.niu.edu/~rusin/uses-math/music/


Love the Lakewood urban campus idea, although the implied loss of one of the few remaining walkable neighborhood grocery stores is a definite blow to connectivity...


I think that much of the opposition to the West Durham site is from a bunch of NIMBY neighbors. They don't want the natural area developed next to their houses, but they didn't mind building or buying their home in what was part of that natural area. They want the best of both worlds. They are environmentalists when it suits their needs.


A more urban location with 'recycled' buildings will help with the issues of an distinct identity and attracting a more diverse student body. For example, when NCSSM set up in old buildings (admittedly a really special space) the school immediately felt established--the School of the Arts has the same feeling. Traditions take time to develop in a new space.

The out-of-town location makes all students feel they are leaving their 'world' to go to school. If the school location is more familiar and within neighborhoods, it makes it more attractive. This is especially true of the Lakewood location or the 9th Street location. I can see that drawing of kids from close neighborhoods could create a school with a student body representative of our city.

Doug Roach

@Surfer: Your point?
Whether it's NIMBY or people who merely don't agree with boneheaded decisions is really irrelevant.
Are we to presume that you agree that paving fifty acres in the woods and paying to build out the necessary infrastructure such as road expansion, electric, & sewer as well as site grading makes more sense than investigating the purchase of an in-town parcel that is clearly large enough, has necessary infrastructure in place and would be more conveniently located for the majority of students and families?
Or do you simply favor wanton development of natural areas because you have "Cary-envy"?


I would hope that the Lakewood site could continue as a commercial area that serves the surrounding community and its retail needs. Many urban ommunities in Durham like Northeast Central Durham would love to have a Food Lion in thier neighborhood. Maybe their are other urban sites But I would perfer a redeveloped Lakewood Shopping center to a high school at that site.

Michael Bacon

I don't know if it's possible, but I've often wondered about the enormous amount of open land that surrounds the County Stadium, only a portion of which is actually in use for parking. While it would take a whole lot of earth moving and retaining wall, there's probably 15 acres of unused land in the sloping area on the south side of the parcel. If you add in some of the space on the northern part, and then build out to the street along Duke St., I'd guess there's plenty of land to fit a high school there, even preserving the parking lots and new practice fields. This site has the added advantage that you could have a health careers magnet program affiliated with DRH, and I'm sure there'd be someway to tie in to the Museum of Life and Science.

The hospital and stadium parcel is 100 acres, most of which is severely underused. Even if the huge amount of cleared, open land there isn't enough, one could build a parking deck to replace the oceans of surface parking around the hospital. Plus, the county already owns this land, meaning the cost of land acquisition goes away.


My point is that the neighbors leading this charge are a bunch of hypocrites. They espouse their environmental positions but yet disregard them when they built their home. They are just trying to protect their little piece of nature and privacy. They could not give a crap about the environment. If you want nature and privacy, then buy more land.

We just went through a similar debacle a few years ago when some other land from Duke Forest about to be developed was bought by the City/County to please the neighbors that built their subdivision in the Forest.

Maybe the County should buy Lakewood and turn it into a forest for the neighbors that live there!

If you live in the City and want to protect that natural area, then I can respect your position. But I just cannot stand the hypocrisy of the neighbors that live there.


Have you ever been to the area they are talking about ? It is very heavy forest w/ MANY deer, quite a few large ponds, horses, pastures, & single-lane roads. There are few neighbors in the immediate area. W/in a mile or 2 are new subdivisions that have already upset the area & increased the traffic immensely. My parents have lived there since 1978 on 7 1/2 acres - when there were very few others. They even bought land that was already open for their house and horses - no trees were killed. These original people have been unhappy all along when these new subdivisions have been built. They are in the county, NOT the city and are the closest to the proposed HS site - NOT the subdivisions where all the kids are coming from. Building this behemoth would destroy all of the beauty & wildlife left there. This area is one of the last peaceful areas left on that side of town. Duke's lemur center is down the street - this can't be helpful for them, either. Just adding 1 new lane to the road will realy make an enormously bad impact. These residents have been environmentalists long before it became trendy. Your mean-spirited name-calling and easy assumptions just don't apply in this case. case.


I'm curious about the ongoing examination (and testing for toxins) of sites in north central Durham. These are pretty much the remaining brownfield sites close to downtown. Are none of these sites big enough for a school? Even if they were, DPS might say they area is too close to Southern High.


Doug Roach

"...If you live in the City and want to protect that natural area, then I can respect your position. But I just cannot stand the hypocrisy of the neighbors that live there...."

We live in the city about a mile from Lakewood Shopping Center.
While there may well be hypocrites among opponents of the Erwin/Cornwallis site, I really think that most who object are simply of the opinion that it's an inappropriate site for a high school.
I would not be personally impacted as much by the rural site as I would by the in-town one but I favor Lakewood as it's, (in my opinion) a much more sensible and economically viable option.
Now, all that said, I have no idea if it's even for sale but then it's already been stated that no one from Duke has said that the Erwin Road property is for sale either. So while this whole thread may be moot, the argument for "saleability" is a wash as well.


@Michael: there is already a planned expansion for a high school on the County Stadium site. City of Medicine Academy, once a school within a school at Southern HS, will have its own multi-story freestanding school built off Wisteria Drive at the northern edge of that site. Students will then more easily be able to do clinical rotations at Durham Regional and nearby medical offices. The funds for this construction were included in the 2007 bonds package and the plan is to occupy that space in the fall of 2011. For more info see http://www.dpsnc.net/news/community-news/city-of-medicine-academy-closer-to-freestanding

Michael Bacon

Thanks, Steve. I just drove by the stadium site, and it still shocks me how much unused land is there. (I had thought there was already a magnet program, but couldn't remember the name of it.)


@Kevin- Can't we just wait until the next foreclosure or tax auction? They seem to happen at least once a year, and we're due for one soon...

In all seriousness, however, I would like to see the Lakewood site become a thriving commercial area. I think that the Food Lion is very important to the community, and it would be nice to see a pharmacy take up shop either there or nearby some time soon. This doesn't preclude a new high school at the site--the high school can set up shop just north of the grocery store. Heck, the shopping center is already divided into 10 parcels....


The problem with a site like University Ford, besides the high cost involved in purchasing an operating commercial site, is the opportunity cost of losing the site for an even better use. Just as the Elkins Chrysler site has been proposed for more than a million square feet of brand new highly dense development, the Ford site has tremendous potential for high density, transit friendly development. The same can be said for the 9th Street site's development potential, as both are within easy walking distance of a future TTA transit station. It is not a good idea to limit the future success of transit by using these sites for a comparitively low-density school used only 180 days a year.

In addition, removing a property like this from the tax rolls, or the Lakewood property for that matter, simply increases the future property tax burden on the rest of the community. Durham's property tax base is already limited by the huge amount of property held by Duke, plus having RTP unavailable for annexation by Durham, plus watershed limitations for Falls and Jordan lakes, and removing valuable commercial sites from the tax base just adds to that.

The County Stadium site would have been ideal - infrastructure in place, surrounded by good roads, and already County-owned - but the nutty BOCC decision to spend $8 million on the stadium there pretty much killed any chance to use that site for a high school.


@Yonah: Was the baseball field drawn to scale? I used a rough visually estimate by looking at other fields and fit a baseball and soccer fields in the same area.

I also kept all of the classroom and administrative spaces on the northen side (Old Krogers/Sportsman Lounge) of the shopping center. I also place a gym and tennis courts on the site of the old Lakewood theater.

I was thinking most of the parking lot could eventually be developed into a grid, mixed-use developing with structured parking. In other words, the entire should become denser and more connected with the surrounding neighborhoods.

Can you imagine a 800-1000 student HS...more community-accessible recreation options...600-800 apartments/condos...300-400K Retail...600-800K Office space? Of course these are very rough numbers but used to show the potential of this site. It would be nice for Lakewood to become the center of this community again over the next 10-20 years.

I'm glad Bacon mentioned the County Stadium site. It would not take much creativity to add another 800-1000 student school to this site in addition to the City of Medicine Academy. There is also a nearby park with a softball field and not sure of other amenities.

It takes a little imagination and vision to get win-win situations like this within the community.

Nathan Norris

Several different options should be proposed for intelligent comment by the citizens after all costs are considered. A laundry list of costs can be found in the Smart Growth Schools Report Card at the following web site:


The only major cost that is not reflected in that version of the Report Card is the economic impact on surrounding neighborhoods.


Oh I forgot...the Lakewood option that I presented above would require a public-private partnership with the current owner. I am assuming that the owner is willing to have the remainder of their property appreciate in value and/or participate in the redevelopment of the remainder of the site.


@Khalid- The current owner can't be counted on. He lives in Alabama, and never visits the site. You can tell by looking at the plaza that he doesn't care about his investment. I don't understand people that like to treat their property this way, but they definitely exist.

Kaid Benfield

First, thanks for the shout-out in your previous post to my own blog post on this situation last week (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/school_sprawl_is_alive_and_kic.html).

Second, your readers may be interested in a post from earlier this summer on Smart Growth America's site (http://tinyurl.com/mg7cf5). Sara Wolfson discusses how outmoded minimum-size guidelines often send school boards to sprawl sites, and how Minnesota has recently modified its policy in a way that's more favorable to infill and redevelopment sites.

Keep up the great work.

Bryan Gilmer

I love this line of thinking. However, I think the three sites presented are not the right ones, with the possible exception of Lakewood. The University Ford property should become very dense mixed-use downtown residential/commercial like Elkins Chrysler plans. And I believe that Terry Sanford and friends already have such plans for the Ninth Street site, which would almost certainly make acquiring the land cost-prohibitive or impossible.

I hate to say this aloud, but how about re-purposing Northgate Mall? Based on the patterns we see with malls of similar age, it will not last forever as a mall. I'm not sure of the financial situation or the family's desire for an exit strategy, but there were quite a few vacancies before things got tough, and the recession can't be helping. Parking decks already exist and should stay. Department store buildings could become the gym, auditorium, cafeteria (although maybe the food court would be a better place with the power/sewer connections already in place), indoor tennis/vollyball courts, etc, with storefronts along corridors to become the classrooms (easy to move partition walls to make them the right size and/or push current storefronts into mall concourse). New outdoor plaza near cinemas becomes student common area. And here's the real genius of the idea: BROGDEN MIDDLE IS DIRECTLY ACROSS I-85. With a pedestrian underpass under the freeway (just a simple concrete box), the site is connected, and the existing football/track and baseball fields there get upgraded and are shared for both schools' use.

Outparcels of the Northgate site, such as the strip center, could remain, as well as other outparcels such as the little Tripp's/Wachovia area on Club near Gregson. (This does mess up my ultimate dream of seeing the site returned to the city grid and becoming a mixed-use extension of Trinity Park with first-floor dining and shopping with apartments/condos above in the middle and maybe townhouses on the periphery, but with I-85 there, the idea could only go so far), and anyhow, you'd have to demolish valuable infrastructure to make that work.

Other possibilities: The former KMart on Avondale drive and/or the rest of that shopping center (and there is some vacant land along the freeway behind them if more acreage is needed. Maybe that's wetland or something; I don't know.

The portion of Hillandale Golf Course west of Hillandale Road, with the portion east to be master planned as additional residential/neighborhood commercial a la Southern Village to become a part of Watts Hospital-Hillandale.

Can I get an amen?


I enthusiastically support repurposing existing unused structures or cleared land for new schools. Cost comparisons aside, it is the most sensible option for our community and environment: we would revitalize run-down and unsightly properties for our kids and keep our wooded areas and wetlands in tact. It would raise nearby home values and make Durham a more attractive city -- aesthetically, and to visitors and potential residents. I think the benefits of repurposing land far outweigh any (unlikely?) cost-savings of developing on virgin land...


I agree with you, clbr! By all means, let's revitalize the many big box sites that are now abandoned throughout Durham, rather than waste money on turning natural areas into concrete. I just don't understand why people feel the need to debate the benefits of reusing existing developed land over destroying natural areas. Aren't we better served, anyway, by being a city that seeks to work and live on a smaller scale rather than developing as though there is no tomorrow?

And by the way, most of the houses in the neighborhoods along Cornwallis, between 15-501 and Erwin were built in the 1950s and 60s. The houses are small, modest, and placed to do much less damage to their natural environment than any houses built in the last 20 years. These are not people who are hypocritically tearing down trees to build big mcmansions.


Kevin, in regards to DPS looking for a site 1/2 the size of the M Kingdom, I wonder if DPS is oversizing so they can have the potential for 2 schools on the site if needed. (Remember they wanted to build 2 schools, middle & elementary on the South Durham parcel but because of environmental concerns are only approved for one school.)

Earlier this year I had the chance to hear Tim Carr, Program Director of Construction & Capital Planning of DPS speak on the results of the demographic study which showed currently Durham is short 2 elementaries, one in SW & one in SE Durham. It also showed once the new middle school in North Durham is built DPS will have enough middle school seats. And once the new high school in "West Durham" is built there will be enough high school seats. All of this is to meet TODAY's capacity. Given how long it takes to get these sort of construction projects done, once the last construction vehicle rolls off the last of these site, DPS will probably be again short school seats. So quite possibly DPS is trying to find a site large enough to house a K-12 complex? Or a high school & middle school. ???

Also, keep in mind, DPS got priced out of South Durham pretty quickly after Southpoint went in. Maybe they are looking for a large lot so that they don't get priced out of West Durham.

I do not necessarily support the cutting of 50 acres of trees for a new school. But demographic studies tell DPS that West Durham & South Durham are the 2 areas that are going to grow the most. School Districts do not control development. If citizens do not want sprawl then they need to lobby their city & county governments for a strict urban growth boundary. Without regulations, developers will build, people will come, land values will go up, schools will be overcrowded, and IF DPS has not planned ahead they will again be chastised by the BOCC. To me it seems DPS is trying to make the best of a horrible situation that the City Council & the BOCC puts them in. This year I've heard a well liked, long time BOCC board member basically say that once a school is built (in South Durham in this case) it encourages development near the school... (basically blaming the school for development.) But this BOCC member did not account for ALL the development that already had occured under BOCCs watch that created the need for the school in the first place!!!

I personally would rather see a vacant commercial area refurbished and reused and a school is a creative reuse. But keep in mind there are probably fire regulations regarding how many stories a high school can be. I don't know Durham's regulations but I would doubt that 4 stories would be allowed. Also, keep in mind all land purchases DPS wants to complete has to be APPROVED by the BOCC... so if you don't like this complain to the BOCC. But the BOCC is all about how much money it's going to cost. And I imagine it cost a whole bunch more to reconfigure part of South Square into a school than to cut down trees. So in that letter to the BOCC make sure you give them funding ideas.

And lastly, I'm sure DPS would LOVE suggestions on how they can accomplish their goals.... to house, keep safe, and educate today's and tomorrow's students. So instead of waiting 'til DPS comes up w/ a potential solution and then land blasting them, let's be proactive on this. Find out DPS's needs (the demographic study that shows there current needs is on their website) and create solutions that fit for today and TOMORROW.

As a parent, I don't care if my kids go to a new suburban school or an old urban school. (They've been educated in both and it's not about the building but what goes on in the building.) But I would like them to have a reasonable number of kids in their classes and room to learn, grow, and be kids. They all need this... especially teenagers.

Duke Vickers

For a new school site serving West/South Durham, I propose repurposing the block mostly occupied by the late Ronnie "We Want Oprah" Sturdivant's motel/nubian art gallery and thrift shop--on Chapel Hill Street across Vickers from the Durham Police HQ.

Isn't this eyesore a grand example of a good use of Eminent Domain?

Map: http://snipurl.com/oos4d

It can clearly hold 15 school buses!

Hope Murdock

Even considering the loss of tax revenues, I think the Lakewood site is the best one of those proposed. It will be interesting to see what develops.

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