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