When public becomes private: Luna Rotisserie interested in leasing part of Chickenbone Park
June 05, 2016
Update, Tuesday, June 7, at 12:50 p.m. We received arrived on what constitutes Black Wall Street Plaza: It is both the parcel with the gazebo along Orange Street (north side of Parrish) and extends to Main Street and encompasses what is colloquially known as Chickenbone Park.
At Chickenbone Park, a fleck of green space in downtown Durham, about 20 people have gathered in the shade, seeking refuge from the noontime sun under the crape myrtle trees. Grocery bags bulging with belongings rest on the grass.
“It may get better. It may get worse,” the preacher, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, tells the crowd. “You know how things go. But the Lord will always be with you.”
Music for the church service and luncheon Photo by Lisa Sorg
They sing a song and break for lunch — pork sandwiches and sodas — and then disperse to the air-conditioned library, Five Points plaza, the bus benches along Main Street. A few stick around.
The life in this park — which isn’t technically a park, but instead a quarter-acre of city-owned open space bordered by Main, Parrish , Orange, and Mangum streets — largely keeps to itself. And there in lies its intrinsic value. The park, also known as Black Wall Street Plaza, is one of the last two public green spaces inside the Loop. It offers a respite from the concrete. It is one of the few places downtown where you can hear the birds sing in the morning. It is a place, a woman told city planners last week, where everyone can “just be.”
The city’s planning department had called the meeting at the behest of the city administration to gauge public sentiment on privatizing a portion of the park. Although no one has formally submitted a proposal, Shawn Stokes, who owns Luna Rotisserie next door, has been interested in carving out a piece for outdoor dining. In return, Luna would pay for improvements to the park, such as lighting. (However, a city ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol in Chickenbone Park; City Council would have to amend the law to allow Luna patrons to drink there.)
“What we would propose would be a win-win. It would make the space more inviting and open,” Stokes said. He’s filed five police reports in the nine months his restaurant has been open, he said, including an incident in which “someone was shooting up in the [Luna] bathroom on the baby-changing table.”
Yet privatizing even a sliver of a public green space — at the crossroads of downtown, the parcel also faces historic Parrish Street — sets an uneasy precedent for Durham. Already the city has leased and sold easements and air rights to condo projects abutting Durham Central Park. If Luna is granted a lease on a part of the property — clearly one of the most valuable downtown — then who else will want a piece of it?
Most of what we think of as public space is actually private. American Tobacco Campus, including the lawn in front of the Aloft Hotel, is privately owned (only within the last few years has photography been allowed), with security to keep the homeless from loitering there. Brightleaf Square is also private.
One of the joys of erstwhile lawn adjacent to the Green Wall at Main and Corcoran streets was that the public took de facto ownership over a neglected private space; the city even mowed it. Now the grass is gone, replaced by is a gaping maw while a 26-story skyscraper is built there.
If there were private space in Chickenbone Park, it should be shared and unobtrusive: a coffee kiosk, for example, or a bikeshare program. However, cordoning off the space would likely alienate some park patrons the way velvet ropes outside trendy nightclubs separate the desired from the undesirable. The homeless who encamp there during the day could feel less welcome, said Nnenna Freelon. “There should be a direct benefit to the least powerful of the users,” she said. “This is one of the few places in Durham where the homeless can sit and feel they don’t have to move.”
From OpenDurham.org, courtesy Durham County Library
The first store in Durham was built on what is now Chickenbone Park. The spot was then known as Angier Corner, named for M.A. Angier, who operated a general store here before the Civil War. According to Open Durham, the city’s first post office was inside Angier’s General Store. And in 1878, Eugene Morehead, the son of the governor, opened Durham’s first bank next door.
Over time, Angier’s became the Haywood King drug store, and then in the 1930s a Walgreen’s.
Under the federal urban renewal program — the same one responsible for the destruction of the Hayti neighborhood and construction of Durham Freeway — the buildings were demolished in the 1970s. The land lay vacant, becoming green space, and in 2013 dedicated as Black Wall Street Plaza.
A black-owned business, Dell’z Barber & Spa, has operated off the park for 14 years. A sandwich board reading “Barber Shop” points to short set of wooden stairs that face a grassy alley, which runs from the pergola past the shop to Luna’s back door. Inside, two African-American women read magazines, their heads encased in hair dryers.
“We’ve had yard sales out here and the church feeds the homeless,” said Dell Pettiford. “I’ve never had a problem here.”
While it’s true that Chicken Bone Park is poorly lit at night, the solution is not to divvy up the space, a quite welcoming spot during the day. Although Stokes said he’s seen needles and human feces in the park, General Services grooms the space and has planted petunias. Public bathrooms either onsite or a block away at City Hall, could help alleviate the waste problem.
A few more benches would give people more places to sit; removing the wooden bollards and chains would eliminate an uninviting barrier. (In that spirit, former Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver, now the head of parks in New York City, recently deployed a “parks without borders” program.”)
The difference between a park and open space is largely semantic. Being designated as park, said city planner Aaron Cain, confers no special protections to city property. Open spaces are maintained by General Services, parks by Parks and Recreation. However, the latter brings an expectation that there will be additional maintenance and public events to “activate” the area. But at the public meeting, the consensus was that the park should be “unprogrammed open space,” what one woman called “the beauty of happenstance.”
“It’s a little shabby around the edges, but that’s OK,” another woman said. “That’s who we are.”
The Downtown Open Space Plan calls for Chickenbone Park to remain open; the forthcoming Downtown Master Plan is expected to do the same. “Open space is purposely flexible and vague,” said Sara Young of the planning department, “because there are so many types of uses and users.”
Last fall, Kofi Boone, associate professor of landscape architecture at N.C. State University, deployed several of his students to Chickenbone Park to study how people used and felt about the space. (Earlier last year, Boone, who lives in Durham, also studied the racial and equity aspects of the American Tobacco Trail.)
Boone’s report lists responses that underscore the love of the space, but the need for more amenities. Respondents — tourists, professionals, residents, building owners, restaurant patrons and homeless people — agreed that more benches, tables, trash cans, and water fountains are needed. Many also requested public art, a community garden, and activities in the space.
The report lays out two scenarios that include Luna: one in which the restaurant would rent a art of the park, with the revenue being used for improvements. The second proposal is to allow Luna to have outdoor patio seating in the park, but that it could be used when the restaurant was closed.
Troubling, though were comments from a unnamed building owner, professionals, and restaurant patrons that there are “too many homeless people” and that there “are too many people on Wednesdays” — code for the weekly homeless church service and luncheon.
Photo by Lisa Sorg, December 2014
Yet great cities are built around egalitarian open spaces that nurture both body and soul. Here, people, regardless of race and class, cross paths. And by doing so, in the land of buildings and artifice, we have an opportunity to become more compassionate, more human.
“It’s one of the only places that’s democratic,” said Randy Hester, who lives across the street in the Kress Building. “What’s important about a place like this is that everyone in Durham can feel comfortable people interact who would not otherwise not speak. In many ways, it defines the best of Durham.”
Excellent article. But what is problematic for me is the fact that we are dealing with all that is left of the historical Black Wall Street. If there was a plan to put a soul food restaurant on a Confederate memorial ground, there would be protests from here to kingdom come.
Also, where did this "open forum" take place and when and where was it announced? Did the general public even know about this?
Posted by: Min. Paul Scott | June 05, 2016 at 01:49 PM
@Min. Paul: It was publicized via the city's email and website. It might have been on the city's Facebook page as well. BCR did post on its FB page that it was happening. I imagine there will be a follow up meeting; this certainly isn't the end of the story.
Posted by: Lisa Sorg | June 05, 2016 at 02:28 PM
I might add that Durham's Open Space and Trails Commission was sidestepped (read "avoided") on this issue. The Planning Department has gone rogue.
Posted by: Will Wilson | June 05, 2016 at 03:41 PM
Durham desperately needs more public parks. And not just parks that reside in neighborhoods that aren't accessible (Duke), or ones in flood plains (Forest Hills). I desperately wish that the city would buy back the part of Lakewood shopping center that isn't owned by the scrab exchange and turn the whole thing back into a big park.
Then complete the idea with a free trolley that runs around the city and stops at all the parks.
Posted by: Jessie | June 05, 2016 at 04:28 PM
In Europe restaurants and cafes using part of public spaces like sidewalks and plazas is quite normal, as long as the they pay a fee a follow a normative. I see no problem is the use is limited to a few tables close to the wall from Luna. It will not be privatization because Luna would not have ownership or a lease but a right to use a clearly marked space.
Posted by: Asterion | June 05, 2016 at 05:16 PM
@Asterion This is not Europe. This is another strategic move to divest in Black Durham, and to invest in a young hipster-techy-foodie-yuppie-white durham. Lets just call it urban renewal 2.0.
How many black owned buildings are left on Black Wall Street or in Downtown Durham?
To the restaurant owner who so casually decides to not be in solidarity with Durham and Black Durham residents on this issue of privatization. My comment is, "why should you care you don't know the history, you are not from here, these are not your people, this is just a business move to support the growth of "local", "organic", "young entrepreneur", "sustainable", "green", and "Durham’s rapidly evolving culinary scene."
I will not support this business. We need to support black, brown and white businesses that are about equity, reconciliation, and cooperation.
Posted by: equitydurham | June 06, 2016 at 07:51 AM
to Minister Paul Scott: In answer to your question asking where this meeting was announced, it is listed in this month’s Durham Skywriter and was announced on Bull City Notes (daily show announcing Durham NC events). By the way, I couldn’t attend this meeting because another dealing with changes to Fayetteville St/Rd was held at the same time! I will be discussing this issue on “TV Skywriter” within the next couple of weeks. I invite anyone interested in this not only to watch but also to participate. I can easily be reached on Twitter at durhamskywriter. — patricia A murray
Posted by: Durhamskywriter | June 06, 2016 at 08:40 AM
@equitydurham, the building in which Luna operates is a minority (black), women-owned building. They also support the public private partnership to provide outdoor seating for the public and diners at Luna.
Posted by: 3bottomline | June 06, 2016 at 09:35 AM
The main take away from this article should be that private entities are significantly better at creating public space that public entities.
Chickenbone Park is currently underutilized, and, apparently, dangerous. Chickenbone Park is an un-activated, poorly designed urban space. Not by coincidence, Chickenbone Park is city-owned and managed.
Additionally, Luna is offering to improve public space they don't even own? We need more, not less, private involvement in activating downtown spaces.
A big thank you to Luna for leading here.
Posted by: Dave | June 06, 2016 at 01:25 PM
@Dave Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The private sector isn't always better, nor is the public always better. Each individual project brings it's own requirements. The best approach, in my opinion, is to be flexible. I also don't agree with the dangerous part. I walk through the park almost every weekday, often with my 5 year old son and I've never felt in any more danger than any other place downtown.
For over 50 years my hometown(a small city up north called New Yawk) has had a concept known as "Privately owned public space(POPS)". It has resulted in some great open spaces in the central business districts. The idea is a private entity builds and/or maintains a space and is required to make it open to the public. This is usually done as part of a zoning variance.
Chickbone park might be a perfect place for POPS in Durham. As long as the terms are fair to the city and the people that use the park.
Posted by: Jeff Bakalchuck | June 06, 2016 at 01:51 PM
I'm still trying to wash the bad taste out of my mouth after reading this priceless yet depressingly predictable dispatch filed by equitydurham: "To the restaurant owner who so casually decides to not be in solidarity with Durham and Black Durham residents on this issue of privatization. My comment is, "why should you care you don't know the history, you are not from here, these are not your people,.."
The "your people" is always a nice, welcome touch, don't you think? (Although kudos are also given to the inclusive "not from here,")
Posted by: Paolo Shirazi | June 06, 2016 at 06:01 PM
Maybe you're late to the game Paolo, but these days "Equity" is synonymous with "I'm all about Me, so Screw You". You've read equitydurham's statement correctly. It is the antithesis of "Equity", offered by someone who has no empathy for those whose opinions differ from their own. As in 1984, this person believes their interests are more 'equal' than others.
But you wont see them pulling weeds in Chickenbone Park.
Posted by: anon | June 07, 2016 at 12:35 PM
problem solved-Moogfest donates the proceeds from the revenue derived from the allowances the city gave to benefit the park to the standards and expectations that Paolo and Luna require.
Posted by: root | June 07, 2016 at 12:46 PM
"Black Wall Street" :-)
Posted by: t-town | June 07, 2016 at 03:01 PM
Do you visit this park often? What does it mean for a park to be "underutilized?" Not enough people sitting in it?
I work very nearby and enjoy sitting in that park multiple times a week. It's not dangerous. Just because the article mentions someone 'shooting up' in the Luna bathroom, does not make the park dangerous. It has beautiful trees with benches and picnic tables underneath. To me, that sounds like a nice public park. I have nothing against Luna, I know they are in desperate need of more table tops and are clearly and logically considering/pursuing this option. I get it. It's not unreasonable. I just don't think their need/want trumps the value of a public space. Have they looked into expanding into the space above? Mateo has done something similar.
Do we really need to question the inherent value of publicly owned green spaces? Like, for real? This is one of the last green spaces in downtown.
Give me a break.
Posted by: Alex | June 07, 2016 at 06:02 PM
I'm in full agreement with what you wrote. Nicely put.
I think I need a code breaker to fully work my way through your mangled syntax, but I'll just respond by pointing out that my prediction in an earlier thread that Moogfest would be lavished with national attention while Art of the Uncool would get no meaningful coverage or mention at all in the national press, turned out to be spot-on. (Moogfest got written up seemingly everywhere, including in such distinguished publications as the New York Times and The Atlantic and in websites as venerable as Pitchfork.) Like I wrote before, it's up to the city of Durham to decide whether it's serious about becoming a cultural player at the national (and international) level - which so far only Moogfest has shown it can help them do - or wishes to continue to place the tax revenue trough near the mouths of the usual, tired players that dot its politically "progressive" landscape. Memo to the moldy commissars of Durham: The blues, soul music, and jazz might fit your idea of politically "authentic" and "progressive" music genres, but they are largely moribund cultural forms. They are not your ticket to cultural relevance.
Posted by: Paolo Shirazi | June 08, 2016 at 04:20 PM
I'm glad Alex gave you a thought worth sharing.
Posted by: root | June 09, 2016 at 06:48 AM