Shawn Stokes of Luna: "I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it," + Black Wall Street Plaza still needs our attention


Looking at the corner of Main and Mangum streets, where the southern end of Black Wall Street Plaza is today.
Date of the photograph is 1963. Note that Mangum Street is already one-way south.
Courtesy of Durham County Public Library
Photo owned by Rachel Middleton Brown, Robert Lee Middleton, Sara Middleton Mocrich

“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space. What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.”
-- Joan Clos, executive director, United Nations Human Settlements Program


The Luna proposal died before it was born.

Less than a week after a public meeting about the future of Black Wall Street Plaza — a quarter-acre of city-owned green space bordered by Parrish, Main, and Mangum streets — Shawn Stokes, the chef/owner of Luna Rotisserie, withdrew his inquiry into placing outdoor seating in a corner of it.

“Based on feedback from the public discussion last Thursday, and subsequent coverage and commentary, we've decided to end our inquiry into a public private partnership to revitalize the space,” Stokes wrote to me in an email on Tuesday.

Stokes opened his popular restaurant at 112 West Main Street last fall. Previously, he had served in the Peace Corps and USAID in South America. In rural Ecuador, he worked with organic-coffee growers to help them export value-added products, not just raw green coffee beans. He worked on environmental and social equity issues in Brazil and preventing gang violence in Panama.

“I had a skeptical view of business,” Stokes said. “I wanted Luna to be more than a successful business but to have another [social justice] aspect to it.” The lowest-paid worker at Luna earns $12 an hour, he said. Several line cooks earn $45,000 a year.

On Tuesday afternoon, after Luna had closed for lunch, Stokes and I sat in the park and talked about his plan, the public reaction, and his wish that the community come together to determine the future of the beloved space. 

While we were there, the park did its thing: A man walked his dog along the path. A homeless woman, dressed in a winter coat and scarf on a summer day, lumbered by, burdened by her bags of belongings. She settled at a table, singing. Another man stopped at our table and gave Stokes and I each a peppermint.

Here’s a Q&A of our conversation. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. We also spoke to the building owners; that interview follows the one with Stokes.

Why did you want to put outdoor dining here?

The space was advertised with a patio. [The building is owned by Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige.] A tenant before us wanted a club but the people living across the street in the Kress Building didn’t want that because of the noise. Elaine and Dawn thought the city would be amenable not to a disco, but a restaurant patio.  When I was looking for a space, I thought we have so much nice weather here, and I love being outside, I love dining outside, it sets a really nice environment. The patio would have been open to the public when we weren't open. I didn’t think that there would be public outcry about it. 


The rental flyer for 112 West Main Street; the schematic includes a 560-square-foot patio. 
A quarter-acre equals 10,890 square feet. However, Duke Energy has two large transformer
boxes that eat up plaza space. Time Warner Cable also has a utility box.


When did you first approach the city about the idea?

Late last year we introduced the idea, but it sat for a while. The second discussion with the city was more recent. We were being affected by crime. One of our employees left the back door unlocked and someone took some things. An employee had his bike stolen. We used to let people use the bathroom, but then someone shot up in there. After that, we stopped allowing that. We tell people to go to City Hall.

What were some of your ideas about the park?

We wanted there to be seating without the barriers. We wanted to provided charging stations for the homeless who have phones. We wanted to make improvements that would cater to people who use the park, including the homeless. We really did think a patio would be an added value for the park. It would allow for eyes on the park, seating for guests outside helps prevent crime. It’s a special little place, and even though our proposal is withdrawn, it’s exciting to see people passionate about it. 

Nnenna Freelon, who attended the public meeting, had reservations about Luna’s proposal because it could have ousted homeless people from the space. She stops by the table with an “I Voted” sticker on her shirt. We invite her to sit and chat.

Freelon: I hate that you guys had to be flayed at the meeting. The way the city handled the meeting did not allow people to think creatively. People feel very protective of the this place. It’s the last green space in the neighborhood. But how do we build community around the park? There’s not enough investment in it, spiritually and economically. 

Stokes: I hope that people continue to express their feelings about the park to the city and other stakeholders.

Freelon: There’s an opportunity here. Part of the problem is that there is not enough open free space. We’ve entered a new phase, and we can still create what we want. We need a water fountain, it could be a memorial water fountain to educate people about segregation. We need more places to sit in the shade. These tables say, “People have to know one another to sit here.” We want benches. We want public bathrooms here. No one wants to pee in the park.

Stokes: And there could be emergency buttons in there if someone gets into trouble. You can build the bathrooms so you can see people’s feet, to see if someone is using it. We also could have low terraced walls around the park [instead of the chains and wooden bollards].

BCR: In Chinatown in San Francisco, people do tai chi in the park. It’s beautiful to watch.

Freelon: Everyone is feeling possessive about this space. Things work better when there’s synergy.

Stokes: The business owners, people who live here, who hang out here, there’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of momentum about the park right now. We need to keep it going.


Elaine Curry and Dawn Paige have owned the building for three years. BCR spoke with Curry on Wednesday.

Did you speak with the city about a patio?

Curry: We did speak with the city about the possibilities, including this option, but they didn't really have a process for it. 

What do you think of the public response to Luna's proposal?

We think all of the public should have a voice in Luna's proposal. I was at the meeting, and there wasn't a broad spectrum of stakeholders there. Shawn never got to make his proposal. He's very community minded. He never wanted to desecrate the park, like some people have said.

What is your vision for the space, being its neighbor?

We're stakeholders. I've lived and worked in Durham 15 years. I patronize downtown Durham businesses. It's a beautiful space, but it could be more than that without changing what's important about it. We want it to be open, with lighting and bathrooms. We've donated money to the church that holds services for the homeless there [Bridge Ministries]. We like that it's a place for everybody. 


To that end, Bull City Rising would like to co-sponsor a block party this summer in the park/plaza (with the proper permits, of course). There, the community at-large could informally discuss and brainstorm about how to improve and protect the space for everyone: lighting, public bathrooms, benches, other public amenities — and how much it would cost. Since the city owns the land, those suggestions would be forwarded to General Services, which maintains the space.  

Contact Lisa Sorg at [email protected].



When public becomes private: Luna Rotisserie interested in leasing part of Chickenbone Park

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.

We contacted Aaron Cain, who is on the city planning staff, about this. The plaza on the north side of Parrish Street was dedicated as Black Wall Street Plaza a couple of years ago. Since then, improvements have been made to the parcels on the south side of Parrish Street, including the pergola, that mirror those on the north side. So, as part of a rebranding effort, the City administration has asked city staff to start referring to the open space on both the north and south sides of Parrish Street as Black Wall Street Plaza.
Here is the lowdown: The city used the term "Chickenbone Park" in its press release so that only to make sure that those reading the press release would know which area we were addressing, again because it's the name that many people use. However, it's a term that City staffers avoid.


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.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.39.10 PM

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.”


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Durham Rescue Mission wants no part of Golden Belt's local historic designation

Golden Belt (dragged)


It cost just $265 to build a three-room house on Morning Glory Avenue; for an extra $4, the carpenter would toss in a privy. That was in 1900, when the 20-acre mill village, then known as Morning Glory, housed the workers who made cloth and thread at the nearby Golden Belt factory.

Download Golden Belt

More than 115 years later, the Golden Belt neighborhood is one of the last areas near downtown that is relatively affordable for the middle-class. And with its tight street grid and modest former mill houses, the neighborhood feels distinct — character that residents want to preserve through a local historic designation.

“It’s our hope that local designation will guide further development, small-scale in form and character in the future development,” Jennifer Martin Mitchell of MdM, the city’s consultants for the project, told the Historic Preservation Commission at a special meeting Wednesday morning.

The HPC recommended the designation and its boundaries at a meeting Wednesday morning, although with concerns about criteria that could guide future development.

While residents at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the designation, a major property owner in the neighborhood, the Durham Rescue Mission, wants to secede from the proposed historic district. The mission owns 13 properties in the neighborhood, including five historically contributing structures and several vacant lots in the 1200 block of Worth Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

 “We want to be sliced out somehow,” Rob Tart, the rescue mission’s chief operating officer, told the HPC. “We don’t want to be part of it. It’s onerous. It doesn’t help us accomplish our goals of serving homeless people. This will not help what we’re trying to do. We don’t think it’s profitable or helpful.”

However, what the rescue mission is trying to do is unclear. Tart acknowledged the nonprofit, which has been in the neighborhood since 1974, has no concrete vision for its properties, only to say it doesn’t include single-family homes. He also said he had not read the design criteria, only that he had been “briefed on it.”  

“But we have no desire to build what you want us to,” Tart told the HPC. “You’ll leave those lots empty. Nothing will happen on those properties, because we’re not going anywhere.”

Since the mission is a nonprofit, it does not pay property taxes. It has assets worth $23 million, according to its 2014 federal tax statements. The mission CEO, Ernie Mills, earns nearly $150,000 annually. Tart is paid $110,000 per year.  Download 2014_DurhamRescueMission

Vacant lots provide an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of a historic neighborhood, said Cynthia de Miranda of MdM. “They can help reestablish street patterns. They can enhance what has been lost.”

Lisa Miller, a senior planner and urban designer for the city, told Tart that multi-family housing could be built in the historic district, as long as it’s “not a big block of apartments of monolithic faces to the streets.” For example, after several design iterations, the Greystone apartment complex in historic Morehead Hill was ultimately approved by the HPC. 

“This isn’t hamstringing or forcing someone to build single-family homes,” Miller said. “There is a lot of leeway but you do have to hold on to basic elements of building placement and design.”

Without a local historic designation and its associated design criteria, the Golden Belt neighborhood could be very much in jeopardy. The widening of Alston Avenue — construction is scheduled to begin in August — threatens to divide the eastern and western portions of the neighborhood. 

“We see this local designation to give the neighborhood some leverage to be the walkable, integrated, inclusive community we want it to be,” said Mel Norton, who lives on Wall Street. As part of Durham Congregations and Neighborhoods, she has conducted extensive research on gentrification in the city. “I’m afraid we’ll see what’s happening in Cleveland-Holloway happening here” — teardowns replaced by “bigger non-descriptive homes that don’t relate to the neighborhood.”

And with the its proximity to downtown, former Golden Belt resident John Martin said, the neighborhood “is still very fragile. “If you don’t do this, you’ll start seeing gentrification in a bad way, people tearing down mill houses that can be protected and preserved.”

Construction and renovation projects by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity and Scientific Properties, which purchased the old factories and several blighted homes, have kept prices modest, often under $150,000. But the asking price for a new house on Worth Street is $295,000.

“There are already high development pressures that will increase over time,” said Ben Filippo, executive director of Preservation Durham

Maintaining connectivity on the east and west sides of Alston Avenue is “essential” he added, and that tax breaks for preservation could help achieve that goal.

“If we can’t include those residences — the working class housing-stock that Durham was built on — if we don’t provide incentives to protect that,” Filippo said, “we are doing a major disservice to our residents.”

The issue will go to the planning commission in June, and ultimately to City Council.

Timeline of Golden Belt neighborhood

1900: Julian Carr begins construction of the cotton mill and bag factory, plus the first phase of the village 

1906-1930: Golden Belt expands to six factories, including hosiery and cigarette cartons

1910-1920: Mill village expands to accommodate additional workers.

1985:  The 39-acre Golden Belt Historic District listed on National Register of Historic Places

1996:  The district boundary increased to add a building at the southeast corner of East Main  and North Elm streets. The building has since been demolished but the parcel remains in the district. 

2008: Period of significance is extended from 1935 to 1958

2010:  Petition is circulated to also designate the National Historic District a local historic district.

2015:  Creation of local district initiated with public meetings and initial research by MdM   Historical Consultants

The affordable housing possibilities at the soon-to-be old Durham Police Department

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.16.44 AMPhoto from Durham Police Department annual report, 2008

Here’s a morning mental exercise: This fall, Durham County is expected to place a bond referendum on the ballot to help pay for a $40 million major renovation of the Main Library downtown. The bond will likely pass — let's hope — because libraries are beloved, vital community resources.

Now, if $81 million in funding for the new Durham Police Department were put to a bond referendum, would voters pass it? I’m not so sure.

Last night, Durham Beyond Policing held a public protest at DPD headquarters objecting to the city’s financial priorities: the money budgeted from city coffers for the new DPD mothership on East Main Street versus funding for affordable housing, free and expanded public transit, living wages for city workers, restorative justice.

Realistically, it’s doubtful that the city will cancel the deal. It’s just too far in the process, with Council approving the architectural designs last month.

However, there’s an opportunity here: The current headquarters at 505 W. Chapel Hill St., is prime, city-owned real estate for affordable housing. The building sits on 4.1 acres of land, 3.35 of it surface parking — quite a waste.

It’s next to the bus station and across the street from the Amtrak stop. In other words, ideal for low-income households, especially those earning less than $25,000 a year. There’s a serious shortage of housing for the very poor, a point that Karen Lado of Enterprise Community Partners underscored to Council last week in her presentation about a proposed affordable housing strategy.

One of the goals Lado laid out was adding 300 units citywide over the next five years for these households — “particularly near transit lines and rapidly appreciating neighborhoods.”


That sounds like 505 W. Chapel Hill St.

There needs to be a public discussion on which is the wisest course to develop the land for this purpose: a City/Durham Housing Authority partnership, a nonprofit, such as Self-Help, or a private developer, albeit one that is required to allocate a percentage of the units as affordable. 

(That type of “inclusionary zoning” is illegal in North Carolina on private land, but the city has more latitude to place covenants on its parcels.)

To add urgency to this situation, consider that over the next five years, subsidies on 1,240 of 6,100 privately owned, affordable units in Durham will expire — 930 of them by the end of 2017. These units have generally been subsidized via low-income housing tax credits and Section 8 programs. The apartments/homes, many concentrated in Northeast-Central Durham, could become market-rate, thus creating an even more severe housing crisis for the poor.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 9.05.00 AM



Need more urgency? Landlords are bowing out of the Section 8 program because they can charge higher market rates without having to navigate the inspections and paperwork from the Durham Housing Authority. 

There also needs to be a public discussion about the fate of the building, which needs at least $4 million worth of rehab. At one time, the building, which in the late 1950s, originally housed Home Security Life insurance company, looked swanky, with a lot of glass. But now, of the Mid-century modern style buildings downtown — the Durham Hotel, the old Jack Tar motel, for example — DPD HQ is the least attractive because of the tinted windows, security grating and other fortress-like architectural details that accompany a structure devoted to law enforcement. (O’Brien/Atkins, the architects on the new DPD HQ, have been directed: No fortress on East Main.) 

Durham Beyond Policing has valid concerns about the $81 million expenditure. But I’m ready to cry Uncle and acknowledge that a new station will be built. Yet in doing so, we should consider what can be gained on those four acres on West Chapel Hill Street. 



The Scrap Exchange is buying 10 acres at the Lakewood Shopping Center to further its grand vision

Mural2A mural on the side of the strip mall was painted by Sandee Washington in 1998. Photos by Lisa Sorg

Note: This story has been corrected to say the strip mall is 82,000 square feet, not 130,000 square feet. 

Ann Woodward strolled down the alley behind the threadbare Lakewood Shopping Center, admiring the broken concrete and chipped brick; the rust, dilapidation, and decay.

“This is my favorite part, the back,” said Woodward, owner executive director of The Scrap Exchange, which is nearby. “It’s looks like New York City.”

Her eyes, hidden behind large, round sunglasses, suddenly spotted something lying in the dirt.

She snatched a crumpled dollar bill, straightened it and held it over her head.

“Money!” she exclaimed.

Now she and The Scrap Exchange need only $2,499,999 more.


On the second floor in the rear of the strip mall, a former dance studio. 

Woodward and the board of the 25-year-old reuse and creative arts store plan to purchase 10 acres of the Lakewood Shopping Center, including a largely vacant 82,000-square-foot strip mall and its parking lot, on Chapel Hill Road. The property, owned by Fund-15 LLC out of Cornelius, North Carolina, encompasses the buildings and land north of the Food Lion building, which has separate owners.

The vision, Woodward said, is to redevelop the area into a creative reuse district that would include a sculpture park, a mall made from shipping containers in the parking lot, and leased, affordable space for local businesses, nonprofits, arts organizations (yes, there’s a stage inside), and restaurants in the former strip mall.

It would complement the existing Scrap Exchange store in the old Center Theater building, which the nonprofit purchased in 2014. The Scrap Exchange also received a $5,000 grant from the Durham Soil and Water District to dig up 2,000 square feet of asphalt parking lot and replace it with trees and green space. 


“I’m a reluctant servant to this,” Woodward laughed. “I want to do my little job. But we’re confronted with the need. People need low-cost resources and jobs.”

The Scrap Exchange would charge $9 to $16 per square foot, far below the downtown rents that are approaching or exceeding $35 per square foot. Those prices are pushing small enterprises to urban neighborhoods within a mile or two of the city center. In fact, Woodward said, El Centro Hispano will be one of the district’s first new tenants. The nonprofit will be ousted from the Carpenter Building, which is slated for demolition as part of the new police station project on East Main Street. 

(Makin' Choices and Belle Amour are the only two current tenants in this portion of the shopping center.)


The Durham Co-op, the Cookery and the Southern Documentary Fund went to the West End; Ponysaurus got in on the eastern border of downtown before the gentrification started in earnest.  Lakewood, in southwest-central Durham, has long been thought to be next for the development frenzy. But with The Scrap Exchange’s substantive purchase, it’s possible that this racially and economically diverse neighborhood will thwart the displacement that often accompanies gentrification.

“It’s about getting community assets in public hands,” Woodward said. “A lot of displacement is happening.”


In fact, the Scrap Exchange wound up in Lakewood because of displacement. It was housed in Liberty Warehouse until the roof caved in — a result of neglect by Greenfire, then the building’s owner. The historic tobacco warehouse has since been demolished, with apartments under construction on that spot. In 2011, the shop then headed to the Cordoba Building near Golden Belt, a complex that’s also being sold. In 2014, The Scrap Exchange then purchased the old Center Theater (which by 1966, had left its downtown location) and 2.4 acres, which now includes a community garden.

The most recent acquisition has been convoluted. After two deals fell through, Woodward found a statewide funder — confidential until the papers are signed next month — willing to provide a bridge loan to The Scrap Exchange, with more financing from equity investors and a bank.

Two stairs

The project would complement local business owners who are already are encamping along Chapel Hill Road; Rhys Botica, who owns the Surf Club, The Federal and The Criterion, bought an old laundry; interior designer Heather Garrett purchased a nearby brick building. Phoebe Lawless is considering a new venture in the old Davis Baking building. 

And it’s clear that local businesses attract people from beyond the neighborhood: More than 125 visitors from throughout Durham and the Triangle, attended the grand opening of The Historic Tuba Museum last weekend.

However, monied real estate interests are also circling the neighborhood, Woodward said, with developers eyeing five acres owned by The Rescue Mission that lies behind the shopping center. (The Scrap Exchange owns one acre of land that is zoned residential; it hopes to partner with a nonprofit to build affordable housing there.)

“We want to have diversity in the fabric of this place,” she said. “How does it connect to this neighborhood?”

Behind the shopping center, a steep, tree- and vine-covered hill leads from the alley to Jersey Street. Desire lines — dirt paths created by people heading to the shopping center — streak the incline. Trash and tires dot the landscape, but Woodward sees only opportunity. Two loading docks would make it easy for businesses to receive and ship goods. The rear doors of the stores would be as welcoming as the front.

“We’ll develop it so the back is a destination,” Woodward said. 

Then she stuck the dollar bill in her pocket. 


Live blogging Feb. 18 City Council work session

1:03 p.m. Jillian Johnson is discussing the revised resolution about supporting the Duke unionization efforts. Mayor Bill Bell is asking that the discussion happen after a review of the agenda.

1:10: We're in the citizen comment period right now. First, how to resolve a dispute over a speed hump at 610 Carroll Street.

1:30: James Chavis speaking now. "This is a hot item, but it needs to be taken care of by the city. We're talking about racial profiling and lying. I'm the victim of that. On Jan. 17, I was followed by a police officer from East Durham to my home (on Ashe). I got out of my car. He asked if he could talk to me. He had his hand on his gun and asked me if I knew that I didn't have to talk to him.
He said I had been driving on that street two or three times. I told him he did not see me. I had just come from my sister's house, came from the bank, the gas station.
I gave him the right to talk to me. Then three more white police officers came up on my property without my consent. They looked inside my car without my permission.
I'm asking you Mayor Bell, one black man to another. ... I want a discussion about this with you and the city manager. Please look at your calendar so we can have a forum talking about this racial profiling and lying. He said he saw me, but he didn't. He was wrong. And I was right.

Bell: I'd like to know who the officers were so we know who we're talking about. Don't have to know now, but get the names and we'll set this up.

1:40 p.m. Now back to the Duke University unionization resolution. Johnson: As was requested at last work session, I revised it and am bringing it back to council. I'd like to announce that the workers have filed for union election with the NLRB.

Resolution is in support of non-tenure track faculty to bargain collectively and form a union and improve working conditions on campus. Many non-tenure track faculty have little job security and health-care benefits. These faculty want to have a collective voice. The right to unionize should be that of the workers and not be interfered with.

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Durham CAN's public subsidy tour: a beginner's guide to tax incentives, diversity and affordable housing downtown


Photo by Gary Kueber; courtesy


This post has been corrected to reflect that the option on Fayette Place expires in August 2017, not this year.

It is only 1.2 miles from downtown Durham to the old Fayette Place, the former housing project at the gateway to the historic Hayti neighborhood. Last Saturday morning, about 40 people took a three-minute bus ride to see what many view only from the highway.

“It looks like an archaeological dig,” a man said.

“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” added a woman, who was trying to photograph the desolation with her smartphone.

But a camera cannot capture the blightscape of the 19 acres at Fayetteville and Umstead streets, near the Durham Freeway. Encased by a chain-link fence, the property is scarred with dozens of concrete slab foundations and crumbling brick steps that once went to front doors and now lead to nowhere.

From the highway, the land looks like it has been flattened by a bomb. From the street, it is a constant and embarrassing reminder of the neglect in this predominantly African-American neighborhood.

“If this were in any other neighborhood, there’s no way it would have been allowed to lay like this,” said the Rev. William Lucas, pastor of nearby First Chronicles Community Church. The group had disembarked the bus at Grant and Merrick streets, an eerily isolated block embedded between the abandoned property and the freeway. “This area can go from one to 100 in a second,” Lucas said of the crime in the neighborhood. “It’s real serious here.”

The occasion for the bus ride to this and other prime real estate in and near downtown was the Durham CAN public subsidy tour. About 200 people gathered to learn about the evolution of downtown development, its opportunities for affordable housing, and the market forces and the public subsidies and tax incentives that shape its future.

That future, everyone agreed, should include a downtown made vibrant by racial and economic diversity.

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We bulldozed the trees for a Walmart Supercenter. It's closing. Let's tear it down for soccer fields.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.58.17 PMThe former Walmart on Roxboro Road. Archival photo from

Once upon a time, 1010  Martin Luther King Parkway was a dense pine forest. Then, in 2010, the bulldozers and steam shovels and Bobcats arrived, uprooting the trees and scraping the 13 acres of land clean for a mega-parking lot and a 109,000-square-foot Walmart.

Well, a little more than four years after the Walmart Supercenter opened, it is on the list of 269 closures, 17 of them in North Carolina and half of them in the U.S. And when Walmarts close, they tend to lie vacant because they are so large it's hard to find a business that will take them over.

In fact, if you search for "former Walmart for sale," you'll find dozens of vacant super carcasses bringing down a neighborhood. Any time a big box store or other gargantuan building, such as a car dealership, closes and remains empty—its vast asphalt parking lot another reminder of the desolation — it brings down the entire neighborhood. Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard is lined with such blankness. The Shoppes at Lakewood, Heritage Square, areas near Miami Boulevard.

 So what now, MLK Parkway? The land has been appraised at $2.6 million, the building another $5 million, according to county tax records. Sometimes a new retailer will come in. In 2009, Walmart closed its 119,213-square-foot store at 3500 N. Roxboro Road, only to open a new store five miles away on Glenn Road. The Roxboro Road location lay fallow until Rainbow Shops, a discount clothier, eventually opened there.

I'd like to see more creative solutions. Some old Walmarts become churches or schools. In Austin, Minnesota, a renovated Kmart became a Spam museum. McAllen, Texas, turned one of its abandoned Walmarts into a public library. Locally, in Chapel Hill, a closed Borders bookstore became a UNC Health Center. Affordable housing would be nice, except there are few windows in these stores.

Maybe we don't need a building at all. Let's dream a little. How about if we tear down the Walmart and install soccer fields? Urban gardens? Green space that is for unstructured play? Let's break free of the indoors, of commerce, of privatized spaces. The pine forest is gone, but let's give nature a chance. 

Downtown water line replacement project passes 80% completion mark, but disruption to continue into next summer

City of Durham staff updated downtown residents and business stakeholders last night on the ongoing replacement of water mains in the city center and nearby downtown areas.

It's been a necessary but controversial project, one that's brought a new wave to business owners inside the loop -- many of whom opened shop after memories of the downtown streetscape rebuild had faded. As Virginia Bridges noted in The Durham News a few weeks ago, several businesses complained to City Council about the level of noise from jackhammers and equipment, blocked streets, impact on peak hours, and the occasional instance of roads closed without work going on.

City water management staffer Bryant Green updated downtown's Partners Against Crime - District 5 (PAC5) group last night on a project he noted was now 80% complete, but which would continue to impact downtown off and on until summer 2016.

Greene sympathized with the concerns businesses and residents had raised, and shared both some of the rationale for project decisions along with steps the City was taking to minimize impact where possible. Still, in replacing infrastructure that was more than a century old, surprises abound and some disruption is inevitable, according to Greene.

"Unfortunately, with a lot of these [closure] decisions we can't pick... something that adversely impacts only a small number of people," Greene said.

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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.

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