Like most people in City Council Chambers Monday night, Durham attorney Ken Spaulding was doing the math. After more than an hour of Council debate and public comment, a controversial rezoning case of 19 acres along Farrington Road would soon be put to a vote. At this point, there were three for, two against, and two unknown.
This was Spaulding’s last chance to win over the two question marks on behalf of his client, developer Wood Partners.
“I’m going to throw away my notes,” said Spaulding, who last week lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary. And with that, he also threw away his statesmanship.
In a tone reminiscent of a parent scolding a 12-year-old for failing to clean his room, Spaulding unloaded on Council. “It’s fine to say what fine developers we are,” he barked. “The goals of the city are the goals that we’ve met [on this development]. I’m speaking up because you’re trying to set a precedent in regards to placing a moratorium on development in Durham.”
Councilman Don Moffitt did not appreciate what he called Spaulding’s" bullying" tactics.
Earlier in the meeting Moffitt had noted that of any project he has considered as a councilman, and in six years as a planning commissioner, “I’ve spent more time thinking about this one.”
Moffitt was leaning toward a yes vote, but after Spaulding’s diatribe, he told him, “You’re making this really hard.”
The case before Council was a rezoning of 19.5 acres at 5708 Farrington Road, near N.C. 54, from a low-density designation to higher density. This would allow Wood Partners to construct a mixed-use development, including 500 to 600 apartments on four of those acres.
The developer would spend $1.7 million on road improvements — although they really would only offset the traffic impacts of the development. The service level of N.C. 54 would remain “D,” which is defined as “speed and the maneuverability are severely reduced. Low level of comfort for the driver, as he must constantly avoid collisions with other vehicles.”
Last December, the planning commission had voted against approving the development; Council had continued the case from February, in order to hear a March 10 affordable housing presentation from city consultant Karen Lado. Council wanted to consider her findings because the Wood development would be near a proposed light-rail stop — Leigh Village. And just 20 of the 600 apartments — 4 to 5 percent — would be affordable, and built in Phase 2. That falls short of the city’s goal of 15 percent of affordable units within a half-mile of light-rail stops.
Also, Leigh Village area will eventually be in a compact neighborhood tier, a designation that allows for greater density, but whose actual implementation is still at least three years, if not more, away.
Part of the problem was not a legal one, per se — Wood Partners had checked off all of the city’s boxes for a rezone — but an existential one. For at least the past year, both the City Council and County Commissioners have maintained that Durham, now an attractive place to live, no longer has to cave to developers’ requests, even reasonable ones.
Councilman Charlie Reece, one of the no votes, restated that point. “I could have supported this had it not been in the transit zone,” he said. “We have to be willing, as hard as it is, to look developers in the eye and say, ‘This time and this place that doesn’t work for us.’”
However, Mayor Bill Bell, who voted yes, countered that, “We don’t need to penalize developers who’ve done what we’ve asked.”
Another part of the problem is that the city was unprepared for its own renaissance, albeit one that is leaving many people in Durham behind. In 2014, the city passed a resolution establishing a 15 percent goal for affordable housing near transit stops, but only now are planners and elected officials working in the economic thicket of what that means: public subsidies, selling city-owned land with stipulations for affordable units, density bonuses and the like.
“A lot of this is on us in terms of urgency,” said Councilman Steve Schewel. “The market changed really quickly around us. In 2007 and 2008 we were cutting planning staff; we weren’t thinking about this.”
Lado of Enterprise Community Partners, the city’s affordable housing consultant, pointed out two weeks ago, that a public subsidy — from the feds, the state, local funding — is necessary to fill the financial gap between what a unit costs and a lower-than-market-rate rent. Otherwise, a private developer can’t earn a profit.
The city has an affordable housing fund, fueled by a 1 cent levy on property tax rate, but even at $2.5 million a year, it falls far short of meeting the need. (The Farrington Road development would generate about $150 million a year in the property tax base noted Woodland Partners’ Deb Anderson, which would generate money for that fund.)
“Somebody has to pay for affordable housing,” Moffitt said. “It’s a basic economic issue here. To pay for affordable units, the rent goes up in all the other units, making them less affordable.”
Building affordable housing in the suburbs addresses the concern that not everyone can live — or wants to live — downtown. The Farrington spot is ideal for residents who work in Chapel Hill, the far South Side, or even RTP. (GoDurham bus routes 800 and the 805 service the area.) Affordable housing would help those in service jobs (or in the case of Chapel Hill, about any job) live closer to their workplace, especially if they don’t have a car.
“The concerns about equity are important,” Councilwoman Jillian Johnson said. “And I don’t want that to take a back seat.”
“These are the most critical areas,” Johnson went on. “We want to prevent the light rail from becoming a vehicle for displacement. Without our intervention these areas are likely to become very expensive, and without tools and incentives, [affordability] won’t happen. If we approve rezoning like this piecemeal, we can’t go back and do it over again.”
This brings us back to the original existential problem: Neither the city — nor anyone — can predict the future. Just as officials didn’t foresee the market shift, it’s difficult to know what would be built on these 19 acres under the current zoning. (The Morehead Hill neighborhood faced a similar quandary with the Greystone Apartment project in the historic district — aka, “It could be a lot worse.”)
“The danger is in denying this, the developer could put in single-family homes at two homes an acre,” Schewel said. “And you can’t develop density next door when you have single-family homes.”
It was nearly 9 o’clock, and time to vote.
The no votes: Jillian Johnson, Charlie Reece and Steve Schewel.
The yes votes: Mayor Bill Bell: “Unless council fills the funding gap we’re doing disservice to the people and the development community. We need to sit down with the development community and ask them what would it take to get to that affordable housing goal.”
Cora Cole McFadden: “When I go home I have to be able to rest, and know I made decisions based on my principles, and that they are fair.”
Eddie Davis: “I have concerns, but I’m voting in favor.”
And ultimately, in a difficult decision, Don Moffitt.
The rezoning passed 4-3.