Duke University's plans to permanently close two public streets to accommodate a $50 million development project faced an icy reception among neighborhood groups and Durham officials at Monday night's City Council meeting. Duke officials want to convert Maxwell Avenue and Sumter Street near East Campus into private parking lots restricted to students and faculty. And a site plan mock-up, which was presented for the first time on Monday, called for several "security gates" that would block public access to the streets and building.
"We believe this is a reaching out to that community," said Duke Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins.
Dawkins argued that the project would bring 650 faculty and students "closer to Brightleaf," the near west side shopping district, and would encourage them to "mingle freely during the day." However, from midnight until 6 a.m., a gate would block anyone from walking or biking through the area. And except for Duke students and faculty, and neighbors who apply for and receive key cards, no one could drive through the area at any time.
Duke "is perceived by citizens as a fortress, and we're trying to get rid of that fortress mentality in the U.S.," said Councilwoman Cora-Cole McFadden.
"Duke is as well," Dawkins said, to snickers in the gallery.
Dawkins claimed that the streets were "mostly used by members of Duke" and were "largely dirt and gravel roads" that would relieve the City of Durham from maintenance and utility work. However, several community members attested that they used the streets often—particularly in emergencies, and when trains block all other routes in the area.
"We live in a city, and that city needs to be meshed with Duke," said Duke graduate student Richard Twigg, who opposes the street closing.
North Carolina law requires that closing a street, or alley, should be "not contrary to the public interest."
Asked by council members if Duke would open the gates to cars during the day, Dawkins said it would "compromise the safety of the parking lots."
"I can't buy that," Councilman Eugene Brown said. "This is not the way Duke has done business."
Area resident Mary F. Roberts Holt drew a rousing ovation when she approached the podium to tell Mayor Bill Bell to "think about" what Duke was proposing. I was born and raised right where that power plant is, and now youre telling me that youre going to put up gates so I cant drive down there?
Bell said that restricting Duke to erect gates only at parking lots—and not streets—seemed to be the only solution.
City Council voted to delay a vote two meeting cycles. Previously, it had set Monday as a deadline for deciding on the street closing. Council members considered a conditional approval, based on the hours of gate operation, but City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin said that Duke had not yet submitted a site plan, nor had it performed a traffic study—standard practice for street closings—despite the city's request.
"You can't commit to the hours of opening [the street], with a street closing," Medlin said, noting that the city would set a precedent surrendering its legal authority over all streets.
"Get it in writing," advised Old West Durham Neighborhood Association President John Schelp, who said he felt misled by Duke. "This is about building connections between Duke and Durham, not putting up more walls and gates."
Also on Monday, Council unanimously voted to keep its current municipal election system, effectively voting down a proposal that would have eliminated the runoff vote in favor of a non-partisan plurality election. Durham County Board of Elections Director Mike Ashe proposed the change, saying that it would save Durham $170,000 per election cycle.
And, lip-balm wearers rejoice! Burt's Bees, the supplier of natural personal products, will keep "Durham, NC" printed on its beeswax lip gloss and Mama Bee belly butter containers. That's because the City of Durham has agreed to pay the company roughly $140,000 in exchange for relocating to the American Tobacco Campus and creating at least 51 new jobs over the next three years.
Downtown Durham Inc. President Bill Kalkhof, who told City Council that he's been "working on this deal for several months now," said that Durham was in competition with Wake County for a new Burt's Bees headquarters, and that having the company downtown will aide "recruitment efforts" for other businesses in the future.