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Over Durham Rescue Mission's objections, proposed Golden Belt Historic District clears another hurdle

Map of proposed Golden Belt districtCourtesy of City of Durham/MdM Consultants


Despite strong opposition from the Durham Rescue Mission, the city planning commission voted 7-4 Tuesday night to approve proposed boundaries for the Golden Belt local historic district.

The local historic designation would help protect the character of what city consultant Cynthia de Miranda called, “Durham’s most intact historic millage village.” 

It is located on the east side of downtown, in an area that while still primarily affordable, has become vulnerable to gentrification. The area is bounded by Elizabeth Street to the west, and extends east across Alston Avenue to Holman Street. The northern boundary runs along the former Golden Belt factories and Taylor Street. The southern line includes parts of East Main Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

In April, the Historic Preservation Commission also voted 4-0 for the district and the proposed boundaries. The State Historic Preservation Office also reviewed and approved them.

The issue will now go to City Council for a vote.

MdM Historical Consultants, who were hired by the city for the project, studied the history of the neighborhood and proposed the boundaries based on the historic period when the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company built houses for its workers in the mill village.

Download Golden Belt Historic District

Although over the past 100 years, some buildings have been demolished, “there is still a strong sense of place,” de Miranda said.

Parts of the residential and commercial neighborhood have been on the National Historic Register since 1985. A local historic designation, which can have different boundaries than the national one, would help preserve the character of the neighborhood, largely composed of former Golden Belt factories and the small mill houses built by the company in the early 20th century. The designation would also discourage tear-downs — demolishing small houses in order to construct larger homes— and possibly thwart or at least slow, gentrification.

But Rob Tart, chief operating officer of the Durham Rescue Mission, said the nonprofit wants to be excluded from the district because it doesn’t want to comply with historic preservation rules for new construction. 

“We don’t want to be a part of it,” Tart said. “If other people want to be a part of it, praise the Lord.”

The nonprofit owns 13 properties in the district, including five historically contributing structures and several vacant lots in the 1200 block of Worth Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

Tart acknowledged the Durham Rescue Mission has no firm plans for the vacant lots, only that a dormitory or community center is a possibility.

However, the area is not zoned for that use. The parcels would have to receive City Council approval for a rezone in order for those facilities to be built there. If a rezone were granted, a dormitory could be built, but, as senior planner Lisa Miller said, using smaller buildings and “not in one big block.”

“There would be likely be some additional cost and you’d have to take into account some design criteria,” she added. “But it’s possible.”

There are tax incentives for property owners who want to build or renovate homes in historic districts. Since the Durham Rescue Mission is a nonprofit, it would not qualify for those tax breaks, Tart said.

But the Durham Rescue Mission does receive tax breaks. It pays no tax on its 65 properties, which include commercial buildings, a church, vacant land and dozens of homes, which, according to county property records, have a combined appraised value of $13.1 million.

Several planning commission members noted that because of Durham Rescue Mission’s contributions to the homeless community, placing historic preservation regulations on the organization could be burdensome. “It would make it more difficult for them to serve our community,” said the Rev. Melvin Whitley, a commission member. 

But planning commissioner Tom Miller, who lives in Watts-Hillandale, supported keeping the rescue mission in the district to preserve the area’s historical integrity. The other major mill village, Erwin Mills, in the Ninth Street District, has almost disappeared. It originally had about 1,000 properties; now only 20 to 30 remain, Miller said.

 “This is about preserving the integrity of the last intact mill village in Durham,” Miller said. “The rescue mission has ambitions for vacant land there, but they can be consistent with serving the mission and the neighborhood.”

John Martin, a former Golden Belt neighborhood resident, was one of the people who helped start a petition to create a local historic district. Martin lived on Morning Glory Avenue when it was strewn with abandoned, boarded-up houses and empty lots. But over time, those homes were renovated. “They are modest, affordable and close to downtown,” Miller said. Without protection, the temptation will be simple. People will tear them down and build McMansions. It is still a fragile neighborhood that needs your protection.”



Andrew Sugg

Amen to all that supported it. Building new houses consistent with the character of a historic neighborhood is not an impediment if one is willing to go into the process with an open mind. The Durham Historic Commission is very flexible and generally willing to meet someone halfway to find solutions. Smart decisions planning new development can contain costs. The long term stability of a community is at stake here. DRM can still accomplish their objectives as advocates for those dealt a difficult hand in society, and be a solid neighbor simultaneously. The energy spent to date opposing this process could have been used to further the goals of DRM. Come to the table.

Dick Ford

I always thought that exclusionary devices such at historic districts increased prices by limiting supply and development. Is it now thought that historic districts improve supply of affordable housing?? Would be interested to see data/research.


does someone want to knock that out of the park?

Will Wilson

Dick, I think the point was the teardown of small houses (less sq ft, lower price) being replaced by bigger houses (more sq ft, higher price). Prevent the teardown, then the houses are more that the logic?

Dick Ford

Thank Will, but I think you hit a fly ball without advancing the runner.

HD's make housing more expensive by limiting the materials and designs that may be used. That serves the interest of the affluent, but does not create or preserve affordable housing. I would be curious to know what affordable housing advocates are supporting the HD designation.

Take a look at Watts Hillandale, where the HD designation has created a terrific value bubble. But has it preserved or created affordable housing?

HD may preserve small houses but that doesn't make them affordable, i.e. Watts Hillandale.

Let's not be naive. HD and other preservation schemes do not serve the needs of affordable housing. In fact, the one group planning to provide affordable housing (DRM) is the target of the HD proposal.

HD's may have value but they do not serve affordable housing needs. To me, Progressives are using the affordable housing claim to have the boutique neighborhoods they prefer. No one thinks small boutique hotel are more affordable. And that applies to boutique neighborhoods as well.

John Martin

@Dick Ford: You need to look at Durham's historic districts more carefully. Habitat for Humanity has successfully restored existing houses and built new houses in both the Golden Belt and Old East Durham historic districts. Note that because Habitat receives federal funding, they are required to observe the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Properties when building or remodeling in a National Register historic district. The Secretary of the Interior's standards are roughly the same as the standards that are enforced in Durham's local historic districts. What this shows is that intelligent historic renovation is NOT necessarily more expensive than other methods, e.g., scraping and repainting existing clapboard is not more expensive that covering it up with vinyl siding. Restoring existing windows is more economical in the long run than installing cheap vinyl windows.

As Will says, what is happening in many parts of Durham is the tearing down of small, existing houses to build larger houses. I can show you five separate lots in Old North Durham, within a few blocks of my house, where this has happened in just the last year or so. On another lot in OND, the owner of a large, expensive, house bought the adjoining lot. He then combined it with his existing lot, and fenced the whole thing in with a taller-than-code fence that he was rich enough to get the Board of Adjustment to approve. In effect, he created a suburban lot in an urban neighborhood, and precluded the building of another house so he could have a Treyburn-sized lot. If you drive along 1000 and 900 block of 9th St., you will see where Jeff Monsein has torn down many early twentieth-century houses to build large duplexes that he rents at high rates to covens of Duke students. But the 1100 block of 9th St. is intact, including the properties of Monsein. Why? Because the 1100 block is in the Watts-Hillandale local historic district.

I think it is a little silly to ascribe the high prices of houses in Watts-Hillandale to simply being in a historic district. Trinity Park is just as expensive and it is not a local historic district. Proximity to Duke might be a better explanation.

Ram Neta

Local historic districts impede the construction of larger homes on smaller lots. They also impede the huge increase of housing inventory that would be needed to make Durham as affordable as it was 5 years ago. You want to see prices in Trinity Park drop? Do with housing inventory what Walmart does with merchandise: build several 1000 unit condo buildings in the middle of Trinity Park (not these meager 50 unit buildings going up here and there) and watch Trinity Park housing become affordable again. Sadly, we know why such a plan would never fly in this area's car-bound culture. As long as we are attached to our cars, we can choose between sprawl, depopulation, or unaffordability. Now think which of those choices we make every time we create another LHD.


Where exactly in Trinity Park would you put a 1000 unit condo building? Seems a bit extreme, although I do agree with your basic point that supply and demand is what controls pricing.

Ram Neta

@HML: the only way to do it would be to allow a developer to buy a large single-family home ((like the ones on Buchanan or Gloria) and erect a skinny tower there, 10 units per story. Of course we all know that it will never happen because the neighbors would protest and... Where would people park? So I'm not suggesting a realistic plan. I'm just pointing out that LHD's do exactly the opposite of serving the cause of affordability. Promoting the cause of affordability in Durham can be done only through sprawl or depopulation, both of which also diminish economic opportunity. But, since no one will push for the kind of density that would really make a dent in affordability, that's where we are stuck. We are following the path of Boston and San Francisco, both of which became unaffordable because they refused to build up their housing inventories at a rate sufficient to absorb demand.

Ram Neta

Sadly, the push for LHD, like all other forms of NIMBY, is a case of "Think Local, Act Global".


Well at 10 units per story, the tower would be 100 stories. Doubt that would be cheap...

John Martin

@Ram: What you are really complaining about is zoning itself. Local historic districts are a type of zoning, but they have nothing to do with Trinity Park, because Trinity Park is NOT a local historic district. Most of Trinity Park is zoned RU-5 or something similar, which would prohibit the type of urban tower that you're talking about without a zoning change by the City Council. I agree that the City Council would probably oppose such a rezoning request, and the neighborhood certainly would, but why do you want to drag that into a discussion of local historic districts? And in your reply, please clarify if you would favor ending the zoning that exists in most of Durham's urban neighborhoods. If so, that's a vastly larger issue than local historic districts. If not, what are you talking about?

I am not going to argue that local historic districts will make a huge difference in affordability, but to the extent that they limit tear-downs of small houses and their replacement by McMansions, they can have a marginal effect. The Durham Rescue Mission has been tearing down small, single-family, houses in the Golden Belt Historic District, and simply leaving empty lots. This is bad for the City, bad for affordability, and bad for the other property owners and residents of the neighborhood. Ernie and Gail Mills don't care: they live in Orange County. And Rev. Tart, cited above, doesn't care: he lives in Black Horse Run.

As to NIMBYism, I don't live in Golden Belt, and don't own property there, though I once did. But as a person who spent his adult life teaching history, I'd like to preserve a bit of it.

Ram Neta

@HML: which would be cheaper per square foot to build, a 5-story bldg or a 100-story bldg?

@John: all forms of zoning that restrict housing supply either raise housing prices or generate sprawl. So, yes, all such zoning itself puts us in the position of having to choose between the Earth and affordability. I'm not saying that historical preservation doesn't have value (why are Boston, Paris, Rome, etc. such beloved cities?), but I do wish that its value would be weighed against the environmental and public health costs of sprawl, or the demographic costs of unaffordability.


Well, I'm not a an architect, but I'd guess 5 would be cheaper than 100. Buildings that large are a serious feat of engineering...

Ram Neta

@HML: Per square foot of occupancy?


On a square foot basis, Multifamily costs more than Single Family. This is because of parking, common space, and life safety requirements (particularly sprinkler systems).

Paolo Shirazi

There are a lot of good points being made above, but something that's being left out of the discussion of the decreasing affordability of in-town neighborhoods like Watts-Hillandale and Trinity Park is the fact that there are certain people who have a powerful preference for living in older houses (like those you find in Trinity Park and Watts), and since there is going to be a fixed (or declining) supply of such houses, the tendency is for the prices of those homes to increase over time (given population increase [i.e., increase in demand]), regardless of whether there are additional new-construction units being built in those neighborhoods (or elsewhere). People who live in Trinity Park and Watts are typically paying 50 percent or more per square foot than people buying new-construction homes in subdivisions. The reason that they're willing to pay such a whopping premium is not primarily because the older neighborhoods are closer to Duke. It's because these people appreciate the character and aesthetics of such homes. For this reason, building a "1,000-unit condo building" (which exist only in Manhattan anyway) would have only a marginal impact on the prices of homes in most of the more desirable older in-town neighborhoods.

Ram Neta

@Paolo: I take it that nobody is worried about affordability of homes for Duke doctors or tenured professors. The worry about affordability is about people making less than the median income: will there be anyplace at all for them to live in or near downtown?

@Dave: yes, parking! That was just my original point about the relation between car culture, affordability and the environment. If you want affordability, you either have to have sprawl, or else forget about cars.


On a different note-
Well-stated and clarified councilwoman Johnson.

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