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Who will buy high-rise condos?


Another part of the density equation is getting the right number of units at the right price for the developer to make money. If the City of Durham limited the number of residential units allowed too severely, the Ashton Place project might not get built at all. Says L.E. Tuckett, the local architect, "the cost per parking stall drives how many units are needed. The parking structure [two levels, underground, for 770 cars] is approaching $20 million in cost. The developer is not looking to do a Donald Trump, but the project has to carry itself. In order to keep the selling price in the target range he needs to go to 456 units or thereabouts."

That selling price ranges from $135,000 to $195,000 for units between 876 and 2,140 square feet. According to both Tuckett and developer Bob Wilson, this is "mid-market" housing, for people making between $25,000 and $75,000 a year. They say their target market is teachers, firefighters, police officers, city workers.

Jennifer Collins doesn't believe that. Collins is exactly the kind of person the developers say they hope to attract. She is one of the "creative class," an artist who works for the Durham Arts Council. She likes the urban life--several years ago, she bought a condo in The Lofts on Main Street. Her income falls at the bottom end of the range specified by Tuckett and Wilson, and she says she has all she can do, even with the assistance of a first-time home-buyer's program, to pay the mortgage and the condo association fees on her 975 square foot unit, which is valued at $85,000. That's 100 square feet more and $50,000 less than Ashton Place's lowest priced unit. "For them to say that those are to be affordable for people making $25,000--that's crazy!" says Collins. "They need to adjust. Just do the math. It doesn't make sense."

When pressed about who would buy the condos and townhouses in this $70-$90 million project, Tuckett says "it won't be people who want a lawn." And Wilson says that "there are people who want to be urbanized and will live in high-rise buildings." But who are they? "We are really looking at newcomers rather than people who are already here," admits Tuckett. Jennifer Collins thinks she knows who they might be: "All those Duke students whose parents want them to have a safe place to live. No one else would be able to afford this."

Tuckett says that market research leads them to believe that they can sell all the units. "The units will be absorbed," he says, "either by occupying owners or investment owners."

As anyone working on in-town neighborhood redevelopment can tell you, a high proportion of owner-occupied housing is crucial to neighborhood stability. Ashton Place is being touted as a boon to downtown because it would swell the property-owning residential population. But if it is instead swelled with renters lacking long-term investment in the area--would it be such a boon?

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