Previous month:
October 2015
Next month:
December 2015

November 2015

County reveals old Courthouse's proposed new look, retail; HPC weighs in this week

I'll be the first to admit it: I've often been underwhelmed, like many of you perhaps, at the County's idea of urban development.

While the County got a great recession-era price on the new Courthouse, for instance, its entry plaza is a barren wasteland at stark contrast with well-activated, engaging urban spaces elsewhere in downtown. And heck, when the project was under discussion, it took a ton of community grousing from this site and hundreds of other folks to preserve even the glimmer of a street-level retail future for the new Courthouse's parking deck.

Similarly, the Human Services building on East Main has managed to be uncharmingly similar to the old Sears department store there that once housed the functions. Sure, there's glass and windows, but it's still a big-box-on-the-block, with all its attractive green space on the inside and no street-level retail to engage East Main -- to say nothing about the big ol' parking lot next door. (Witness the resulting scrutiny over a planned Durham Police HQ just to the east of here.)

It's for these reasons, then, that I feel more than a glimmer of optimism about the proposed refresh of the 1978-era County Courthouse, on the northwest corner of Roxboro and Main.


Compare this to the structure we've known and un-loved for so long:


The old structure -- said by Jim Wise and others to have been outgrown almost as soon as it opened, and brought to obsolescence less than forty years later by the jail-blocking tower -- is proposed to become administrative office space.

And we'll give the County credit for thinking imaginatively on a couple of fronts. The new proposal calls for a recladding of the structure that modernizes its look significantly, though there likely will be some appropriate scrutiny on the cost and ROI of this effort.

And just as importantly, the plans call for retail space along the entire south side of the building, activating the Main Street corridor.

Durham's Historic Preservation Commission gets a crack at the plans on Tuesday. Let's delve a bit more into what this looks like and what it means.

Continue reading "County reveals old Courthouse's proposed new look, retail; HPC weighs in this week" »

After 32 years, Fishmonger's in Brightleaf Square closes because of tax problems


Photo by Lisa Sorg

On each empty table, packages of saltines rest in plastic blue baskets atop plastic blue-and-white tablecloths. Napkins billow from their metal holders. Placemats of brown butcher's paper await customers. If there were a today, the specials would include grilled swordfish, cajun catfish tenders and banana pudding, all scribbled in colored marker on a whiteboard.

The orange neon sign announcing "Oyster Bar" is still lit, but nobody's home.

"It's closed!" a man yells from a passing car. "What an institution." 

On the front door and window, lemon-yellow signs posted by the N.C. Department of Revenue warn, "No trespassing!! The personal property here within has been seized for nonpayment of taxes."

Fishmonger's, a 32-year fixture of West Main Street, of the Brightleaf District before there was a Brightleaf District, shut down this week after running into tax trouble.

Although the details of the most recent financial difficulties are unclear, Gary Bass, the longtime proprietor, has a history of tax problems. Bass could not be reached for comment.

In December 2005, Bass owed $21,803.01 in past-due federal taxes, some of them three years old. That same month, he was "released" from those taxes.  Download Gary Bass tax lien 2005

 The respite didn't last long. In April 2006, Bass filed for bankruptcy. Creditors included the state ($67,000) and federal ($38,000) tax collectors, his landlord, SEHED; several newspapers and phone directories, even the company that serviced the restaurant dishwashers.

Download GARY BASS 1

Bass adhered to a court-ordered payment plan for four years, but then fell delinquent on the monthly installments. By the time he finished paying the secured claims in 2011, Bass had shelled out $114,000, with an additional $11,000 and change in unpaid, unsecured claims.

Download GARY BASS 8

While the restaurant had its diehards who were unfazed by its gritty atmosphere, many of the Yelp reviews had been dismal over the past year: the smell (it was fishy), the service (inconsistent) and the cleanliness, seconded by county health inspectors who, on Oct. 15, gave it a abysmal 77 score. 

The Durham-based SEHED Investment Group, managed by Terry Sanford Jr., owns the building—a former Dodge dealership—and much of the 800 block of West Main. The company also owns the space next door, the erstwhile Triangle Pint and Plate. It also closed, although that appeared to be for lack of business, not any dustup with the revenuers.

That leaves prime real estate adjacent to Torero's, the last restaurant standing on the block, near Duke Street.


Laws of attraction: Magnets Durham School of the Arts, City of Medicine in high demand

 If your kid wants to attend a magnet middle or high school—and is new to the magnet game—then he or she should apply to Hillside IB, Middle College at Durham Tech or the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability. There are seats to fill.

But budding artists who are eyeing the Durham School of the Arts, don't put your Fame leg warmers on yet. Only 23 percent of the 2,300-plus applicants get in or on a waiting list in the lottery. Ditto for aspiring doctors at City of Medicine Academy, sans the dance wear.

If your child is already in a magnet elementary school, she has a leg up on the competition for the "linked" schools. For example, an Easley student is linked to The School for Creative Studies, should she make that her first choice. Pearsontown is linked to Rogers-Herr Middle School, too.

Download Secondary schools (2 pages)

Earlier this week, we wrote about the demand for elementary school magnet schools, and the confusing hierarchy used to decide which groups get priority (siblings, residents of the priority zone) in the magnet seat lottery. However, secondary schools, while competitive, do seem to have a few more slots, if you're willing to accept a second or third priority. Eight of the 13 secondary magnets have acceptance rates of greater than 50 percent.

Download Annual-lottery-applications-seats-and-assignment-snapshot-2015-16-xlsx-1115

The application period for magnet schools runs Jan. 11–29.  

Roll the dice: Number of seats vs. number of applications at DPS magnet schools

Note: at 3 p.m., we updated the chart with the most up-to-date free/reduced lunch stats we could find, at the state Department of Public Instruction.

If you want to get your kid into Watts Montessori Magnet School, good luck. A lot of luck. Of the 929 children who applied to the school in last year's lottery, only 82 of them—9 percent—were selected to fill 73 available seats. ( The wiggle room allows for projected wait lists, school capacity, transfers, etc.)

A third of all DPS students—10,000—attend one of the district's 23 magnet schools, which are either curriculum-based (arts, science) or calendar-based (year-round, traditional). And there is more demand than supply, even after DPS added magnet schools several years ago.  Download Annual-lottery-applications-seats-and-assignment-snapshot-2015-16-xlsx-1115

The lottery application period for the 2016–17 school year Jan. 11–29, and already more than 2,000 people have attended magnet school fairs, according to Durham Public Schools.  

Because both magnets and non-magnets have attendance zones, there's isn't room for all the kids who automatically can go to a school, and those who want to. "You can't just designate any seat [in a school] as a magnet seat," says Margaret Henderson, director of DPS Magnet Programs. 

School capacity is important because Durham's population is projected to increase by another 37,000 people—15 percent—within the next decade, and presumably, some of these new residents will have school-aged children.

How does it work? By lottery: The selections are computer-generated, based on applicant pools. Kids with siblings in a school are considered first, followed by those who live within the priority zone, an area close to the school (which is different from the walk zone.) The third pool of applicants is everybody else.

Walk-zone kids—those living within a half-mile of Club, Harris and Burton—are automatically enrolled, so they don't have to sweat a lottery.

Let's break down the acceptance percentages by elementary school (hold on middle-schoolers, you're next). The lottery doesn't take into account demographic factors—the computer is blind to those attributes. However, we tossed in the percentages of kids receiving free/reduced lunch as one way of gauging economic diversity. The district average for elementary school free/reduced lunch is 71 percent.

Annual lottery apps

Source: DPS, NC Department of Public Instruction     *2014–2015 figures


Continue reading "Roll the dice: Number of seats vs. number of applications at DPS magnet schools " »

5 questions with new Durham Co-op board member Amelia Freeman-Lynde

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 7.53.24 AM

Amelia Freeman-Lynde, 32, is one of three new members of the Durham Co-op Market board of directors; Tyler Jenkins and Clarence Terry, who is also an employee, were also elected at the Nov. 8 annual meeting. (We’re scheduling interviews with them as well.)

Freeman-Lynde grew up in Athens, Ga., the daughter of “hippies,” she says, who raised chickens, gardened and were early adopters of solar power. “I didn’t have a dryer until I went to college,” she adds, laughing. 

She graduated from Barnard College in New York City, where she worked in theater, and moved to Durham with her husband in 2011. She is interested in food justice, sustainable agriculture and local food. Freeman-Lynda was the first employee at Monuts Donuts, where she worked for three years. She now works at the Scrap Exchange and the Carolina Theatre.

We spoke with Freeman-Lynde about the direction of the grocery, the role of worker governance and the importance of co-op in the greater Durham community.

[Photo from Facebook]

BCR: What prompted you to run for the board?

AFL: I became a co-op member in December 2014, before the store opened. As a consumer, I felt in the co-op being successful. I had conversations with peers and friends who had concerns about how things should go at the co-op. 

The store posted an $87,000 loss in its first six months. This is typical for businesses in their early years, and is much better than original projections. What are the steps to profitability?

The trajectory is very positive and hopeful. If people were to buy one more item—two more dollars in their shopping cart—the store would break even. We need to educated people make sure they know why they should choose to shop there. We need to improve the prices and find more products, staples that are less expensive.

The controversy at the annual meeting focused on the role of worker governance on the board and worker-owner shares. How is that going to be resolved?

I feel really good about the direction of the board. We’re going to find a good solution, and we want the process to be transparent, to get input from people who are being affected. We’re setting up a timeline and several meetings to come up with a solution. We want to balance idealism with practicality. No one on the board is letting go of any idealism. there is no question that workers will be represented and their feedback will be part of the board’s conversations.

Frank Stasio, the board chairman, has emphasized that the board’s job is not to micromanage the store operations. In your view, what is the board’s role?

We’re figuring this out. What’s the most practical way to make it work. I really value direct communication, making sure the agenda is posted ahead of time, that it’s transparent.

What do you see as the co-op’s place in the greater Durham community?

We need to tell people what the co-op is. Not everyone who goes to the grocery story can think about anything but affordability. It’s exciting to think something so integral to daily life could be a community activity we can be invested in. But Kroger isn’t asking me what I think. People  feel invested and they want to have a voice, and a good representation of local growers, to make sure it’s affordable. 

People ask, ‘Why should I shop here?’ It’s our job to let people know how this is designed to be more involved in the community. Also reducing waste, getting more bulk foods. That we have a choice is a luxury to shop somewhere that has local produce, that reduces waste. It’s a way I can contribute to something sustainable.

Developers unveil site plan, more details on controversial Publix center for north Durham

A crowd of more than one hundred packed the Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church's sanctuary on North Roxboro on Thursday night to hear the latest from the development team proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center at the corner of Guess Road and Latta Road in north Durham.


The logistics contrast from this fall's last go-round on this subject couldn't be starker: a crowded, uncomfortable elementary school cafeteria where speakers couldn't be heard and unruliness reigned at times, versus the pews-and-pulpit auditorium with PowerPoint, amplified audio, and (Publix-provided, natch) refreshments.

Similarly, while the developers were often on the defensive in the first meeting, in this session the agenda (there was an agenda) was tight, the presentation carefully crafted, and unanswered questions that raised hostility the first time were sometimes -- though crucially, not always -- answered in this second go-round.

Most crucially, residents got to see the developer's projections on the impact their Latta Road improvements would have on the congested road's traffic flow. It was an argument, backed by simulation data, that seemed to get murmurs of assent from the crowd, but follow up questions from two residents asking for before-and-after vehicular volume counts were pointedly left open.

The developer also put forth a working site plan and likely renderings for the commercial district, along with examples of single-family detached homes that Durham-based homebuilder Cimarron Homes is proposing for the site. 

There were again clear opponents in the audience -- though this time, met by what appeared to be, based on who was applauding, an equal number of proponents. 

Proponents noted their complaints over the lack of retail (or the poor quality of current retail) in north Durham, the corporate track record and store experience of Publix, and the positive impact to traffic flow from the road improvements planned.

Opponents shared their love for the quasi-rural nature of the northernmost city limits, concern on adding more retail where strip centers exist down the Guess and Roxboro corridors, and a reminder to residents that City legislative action is still needed and the project isn't a done deal.

All of which has a Durham Planning Commission and City Council hearing window targeted to summer 2016 looming as the project moves forward.

Continue reading "Developers unveil site plan, more details on controversial Publix center for north Durham" »

Concerned about pot arrests? Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez says just stop smoking weed.

If the tone between City Council and Police Chief Jose Lopez publicly, anyway, has often been chilly, then last night’s interaction was Arctic.

Witness Lopez’s zinger regarding Council’s hiring of a consultant to analyze DPD’s staffing and operations: “When common sense isn’t enough, you hire a consultant.”

Brrr, the room temperature dropped 20 degrees.

Over the past two turbulent years in particular, Council has peppered the chief with questions about the uptick in homicides and reports of racial bias. Now Council has bestowed accolades on DPD as well—for solving robbery cases, clearing homicides and a decrease in the number of lesser offenses—but officials’ concern about the state of violent crime in the city has been clear.

Last night’s presentation on the third-quarter crime statistics was Lopez’s last, with mixed results. (And the report was not available to the public on the DPD website yesterday; it is today.)

The good: Through September, reported sexual assaults hit a two-year low, although an attack occurred earlier this month on the Ellerbe Creek Trail near Club Boulevard and Washington Street. Overall property crime and burglaries have also dropped by 3 percent and 12 percent respectively.

The bad: The big news is the number of homicides: 34 year-to-date over 21 at this time in 2014 (that's the most recent number; the report shows them just through September). This fall, three people were killed and six were shot within one week. And as Lopez explained, four of the shootings injured kids younger than 3 years old. Nine homicides were the result of domestic violence.

For the victims, their families, friends, neighborhood and the entire city, this is tragic. If you think of Durham as a human organism, an infection or injury in one part affects the entire body. If you have a good heart and a bad liver, you’re still sick.

How sick is a question of a crime index—the murder rate per 100,000 people, which would tell us more about the true increase in homicides. Durham is a rapidly growing city, and more people, unless they’re all nuns, often means more crime.

Curtailing the murder rate is even more difficult, Lopez has long complained, because his department lacks enough officers to keep the streets safe and to build more trusting relationships with communities, particularly those of color.

In the last budget cycle, Lopez asked for 56 new officers and 15 new investigators, but he didn’t get them, because, City Manager Tom Bonfield said, the chief didn’t adequately make his case. (The News & Observer has a good wrap up. )

Councilman Eugene Brown asked Lopez about community policing—officers getting out of their cars in walking the neighborhoods. The chief invoked what he sees as a continued staffing shortage. “As far as officers just parking and walking, with our staffing we can’t do it [more],” Lopez said. “But we’re looking at reallocating resources to see what we can do. It’s always good to speak to and to meet your community. We emphasize that with our officers, but we have to look at workload.”

The workload could be reallocated away from petty marijuana arrests, City Council, the mayor and social justice advocates say. Although Lopez says DPD has never prioritized low-level pot busts, the ones that occur still disproportionately affect people of color. White pot smokers get away with it; blacks do not.

To which Lopez, ever charismatic, replied, “I would recommend to people concerned about this issue that they not smoke marijuana.”

That comment—which didn't consider the non pot smokers who are nonetheless concerned—sent the temperature in City Council chambers plummeting to about minus 16, about the same as in  Barrow, Alaska.

This happened: Durham developer requests affordable housing density bonus—first in city's history

Z1500020- Rose Walk Club Boulevard_Page_11

ANNOUNCER: Let’s play Real Estate Jeopardy! 

CONTESTANT: I’ll take local developers for $600, Alex. 

This developer is the first in Durham to request an affordable housing density bonus, since it became available in 2003.

a) What is Scientific Properties? No, sorry.

b) What is Austin Lawrence Partners? Only if you consider $500,000 affordable.

c) Who is Roger Perry of East West Partners? You’re kidding, right?

The correct answer is: Who is Bob Chapman?

Chapman developed Trinity Heights and parts of the Geer and Foster streets neighborhood. He’s also behind Church & Cleveland Partners, which is advocating for a two-way downtown loop and the infill development that will likely follow. 

His latest project is Rose Walk, 5.6 acres in the 700 and 800 blocks of West Club Boulevard; for further orientation, that’s between Duke and Ruffin streets.  Download Z1500020- Rose Walk Club Boulevard

Chapman plans to build 70 units there, which includes the density bonus. City ordinance states that to qualify for the bonus, a developer must designate as affordable 15 percent of the maximum number of units allowed by the zoning. We won’t bore you with the math, but in this case it equals nine affordable units.

Because the land required a rezoning to allow for higher density, 10 units per acre, Chapman presented the proposal to the Durham Planning Commission Tuesday night. Z1500020- Rose Walk Club Boulevard_Page_12











After much back and forth between the commission, Chapman and the planning staff, the proposal passed 11–0. However, that approval came with the stipulations that Chapman and planning staff work through the buffer and green space commitments.

Landscape architect Dan Jewell told the commission that Rose Walk will be designed as a pocket neighborhood, characterized by homes of different styles that face a common green space, and thus, have smaller private yards. Cars park behind the houses, accessing them via a loop, which obviously, will be two-way. 

Pocket neighborhoods have been heralded as the Cure for Ugly Developments.

“These pocket neighborhoods are a wonderful alternative to the four-story apartments going up all over the place,” local Realtor Bill Anderson told the commission.

But they’ve also been cursed as the Ruination of Many a Neighborhood. I wrote about pocket neighborhoods in September, noting that a developer could tear down an old house, even an historic one after waiting the required year, and build a couple of expensive homes on the lot with some shared space. While a pocket neighborhood by definition, it would not be one in spirit. 

"I have to eat my words. I didn’t think the density bonus would come before us." —Planning Commissioner DeDreana Freeman

Although the acreage is largely vacant and heavily wooded, there are two brick rental houses at 708 and 710 W. Club Boulevard, which will have to be moved or torn down. According to Durham property records, they were built in 1944 and 1945. Since their owner lives elsewhere in Durham, the houses appear to be rentals.

What will replace them? Currently the plan calls for four to eight row houses, 18–36 cottages, 27 single-family homes and eight to 12 flex units, most of which will be affordable rentals. However, as Patrick Young of the city planning staff pointed out, “cottages” and “flex units” are not defined in the development ordinance—and will need to be before City Council holds a final vote on the project. 

(Young also seemed miffed that Chapman had sprung several aspects of the proposal, including the affordable housing density bonus, on staff at the last minute.)

A gully and creek run through the middle of the property, raising concerns among neighbors about drainage and flooding. “We could preserve the creek and retain the topography as much as possible,” Chapman countered.

Yet every Rose Walk has its thorn (sorry, it’s late). “I’m extremely excited at the prospect of using the density bonus,” said commissioner Rebecca Winders, also a member of the Coalition on Affordable Housing and Transit. “I think this is going to be a great project. But I think it needs some more work. It’s not quite there yet.” 

One shortcoming is buffering. Commissioner Tom Miller asked Chapman to guarantee that a buffer would be erected to shield the development from the I-85 ramp. “You need to shield your residents from that,” Miller said. Chapman agreed to plant a thick stand of evergreen trees and shrubs to drown out the noise of semi trucks braking and motorcycles revving toward the interstate.

Abby Bartel, who has lived on Ruffin for 13 years, told the commission she is concerned about traffic, which is already congested along that stretch, and the effect of extra students on Club Boulevard Elementary. 

“I always knew there would something go there,” she said. “But I thought it would be better.”

Alas, it could also be a lot worse. Just look at 605 West and 300 Swift. The Ruination of Many a Neighborhood.


Workers didn't know they were to lose governance rights, and other revelations from the Durham co-op meeting

This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 9, to include comments from Marilyn Scholl, who is with the consultant group CDS.

Disclosure: Until mid-August, I was a co-op member  as part of the INDY's company share. After I left the INDY, I was no longer a member. Since only members could attend last night's meeting, I asked people who were going to take notes. So these accounts are second-hand; if you attended the meeting please chime in with more info and insight.

Durham co-op workers were blindsided by the news that they would lose their shares and seats on the board if a referendum passed stripping them of those rights. In fact, some of them didn't know until last Friday that such a vote was pending. The referendum was canceled after public outcry over the lack of transparency on the measure.

These and other bombshells were dropped at Sunday's annual Durham co-op meeting.  Davis Hodge, grocery manager and three employees told the crowd of more than 100 that, “The entire staff definitely felt blindsided by this referendum.” Employees came to work at DCM with promise of ownership. “We felt like that was something that was owed us, and something that was going to be taken from us unjustly. This feels so ridiculous to me.”

Cris Rivera, finance manager, also spoke to the membership: “We just felt really disrespected. There’s something very different about a worker’s owning the means of production.”

Board chairman Frank Stasio admitted that the board hadn't talked to members or to employees about any of this. “It’s a huge error and I made it,” he said. He added that worker-ownership is a "core value" of the co-op.

How worker-shares came to be written into the articles of incorporation was also a point of contention. Stasio told the membership (and me on Friday) that the bylaws were essentially cut and pasted from those of Weaver Street Market and Chatham Marketplace. Both those co-ops include worker shares and up to two seats on the board of directors.

However, former board member Michael Bacon piped up from the back of the room, disputing that account. He said founders of Durham Co-op looked at both Weaver Street and Chatham Marketplace and made deliberate decision to include worker-owned shares. “This was a very intentional act," he said. "It wasn’t a simple photocopy.”

“Sadly, this is the first time I’m hearing about it," Stasio replied.

CDS, a coop consulting group based in Vermont, advises against worker shares and board seats because it can create a conflict of interest, Stasio said. (Marilyn Scholl of CDS commented on the original story about this issue.)

But worker shares as a separate class also allows employees to participate in profit-sharing, should the co-op turn one. That could help buoy their hourly wages, which start at $9.04. Some workers are up to $9.17. “That’s what most people are making” a worker, Anna, told the membership. She would get health benefits if she worked full-time at the co-op, but can’t afford to because she makes more money as a barista.

Which brings the discussion to finances. Co-ops, like most fledgling businesses, initially lose money. In the first six months, the store lost $87,000, below projections. Actual sales, $2.2 million, are well above projections, $1.3 million. 

But the co-op is still in the red, and paying low wages. General Manager Leila Wolfrum said average hourly wage for full-time employees, including health benefits, is $11.72, "above what I thought I'd get it at this point."

That makes it nearly impossible to reign in turnover, even though Wolfrum said, “We want people to look at this store as a career. We want them to come and stay.” 

“We caused pain," Stasio said at the meeting, "and I beg your forgiveness.”

Continue reading "Workers didn't know they were to lose governance rights, and other revelations from the Durham co-op meeting" »

Under scrutiny, Durham Co-op withdrawing referendum on worker shares, governance

Faced with a public backlash over a change to the Durham Co-op Market articles of incorporation, the stores'  board of directors won't hold a vote on worker governance as planned. The vote, which is open to all co-op members, has been going on for nearly two weeks; it was scheduled to end tomorrow.
As we reported yesterday, members were being asked to vote on whether to strip co-op employees of their governance rights. This includes the ability to buy a separate class of shares, and to elect two people to the 10-member board. However, many members did not fully understand the ramifications of their vote; the board's explanation of the proposed change—that it reflected "best practices" was both vague and potentially misleading.
According to documents we obtained, 11 employees have requested to buy worker shares, which could allow them to receive a share of co-op profits. However, as board president Frank Stasio told us yesterday, the board can elect not to issue shares.
Profit-sharing, though, is important because most of the co-op's rank-and-file workers earn less than a living wage, starting at around $9 an hour. 
This is the email the board sent to members:
"As you probably know, the board of directors of the Durham Coop Market asked you to vote on a proposed amendment to market’s articles of incorporation (AOI). In talking with many of you over the past couple of weeks, we’ve realized that we erred in offering such and important choice with so little time for consideration and discussion. Therefore the board has decided to withdraw the referendum. 

Moving forward we will create opportunities for our owners to hear from experts on all sides of this issue and engage in dialog. This full and robust conversation should make a sound foundation to decide whether you would like to re-consider the issue and put forth another referendum.

Please know that the board acted in good faith. We have very worked hard for many years to make the dream of this market a reality. You have always shown great faith in us. With your help and confidence, we opened the store that is on the path to success.  

We want to boost that success going forward by continuing to work closely with all of you to maintain the strong sense of collaboration and unity that has brought us this far.

Please join us at our Annual Meeting tomorrow (Sunday) at 6 pm at the store. 

The Durham Co-op Market Board of Directors