Joanne Brown's family tree can practically be laid out flat on the pavement of Grant Street, its branches stretching into driveways and to the doors of homes currently or formerly occupied by cousins, parents, and grandparents. On this block, you'll hear again and again that this is a family neighborhood, or at least it was one before a gaping hole took root at the corner of Grant and Umstead.
Fayette Place—or, as the locals call it, the Fayetteville Street projects—has been a vacant twenty acres for eight years, save for the concrete foundations that used to sit under its apartment buildings. In the meantime, neighbors have been "left dangling," Brown says.
At the urging of Durham Congregations, Associations & Neighborhoods, or Durham CAN, the Durham Housing Authority has begun legal action to buy back the property from a Philadelphia-based student housing developer that bought the property in 2007. That sale stipulated that Campus Apartments include housing for low-income students at N.C. Central, but the company has done nothing with the property since tearing down the remaining buildings in 2009.
"We've got somebody with a voice. Our voice didn't go too far, just outside that door and to the steps," says Brown's cousin, Brenda Bradsher, pointing to the doorway of the Grant Street home where she has lived for seventy-one years.
The DHA built the Fayetteville Street public housing complex in 1967, after the construction of the Durham Freeway severed Grant Street between its 500 and 600 blocks. According to residents, those displaced by N.C. 147 were promised new homes would be built. That didn't happen. And by the time they could move into the Fayetteville Street projects, most had gone elsewhere.
The housing authority had planned to convert the development into for-profit, Section 8 housing under the name of Fayette Place, but those plans were never realized. A 2004 audit revealed that the DHA had defaulted on its loans and owed more than $800,000 on the property.
So in 2007, DHA sold the property to Campus Apartments for $4 million, mandating that the company develop at least 168 units of affordable housing by August 6, 2017. If it didn't, the DHA would have a right to buy back the site until that date.
According to DHA CEO Anthony Scott, the contract stipulates that Campus Apartments must sell the property back to DHA for the purchase price or the appraised value, whichever is higher. Scott says appraisals have all come in lower than the original $4 million price tag. During a Durham CAN meeting last week, city council members pledged the city's financial support. Scott says the DHA plans to submit an offer in the next two weeks.
"What we want is for it to be back in public hands so we can do what the community needs," says council member and mayoral candidate Steve Schewel.
The DHA began the process of re-acquiring the land in November by declaring Campus Apartments in default of its contract. The agency couldn't step in sooner than that, Scott says, because it had to give Campus Apartments time to meet its commitment.
"Campus Apartments has always been open to discussing potential development opportunities at Fayette Place, but unfortunately, there are no plans to build on the property at this time," a spokesperson for the company said in a statement to the INDY last week. "When we purchased the property, we had every intention to develop affordable student housing in partnership with N.C. Central University; however, the original plan did not come to fruition. Campus Apartments then made a significant investment to remove the dilapidated structures and secure the property. We understand the community's desire to develop the property and appreciate local community feedback."
Campus Apartments has more than $1.5 billion in assets near campuses in eighteen states—including in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and in Durham on East Cornwallis Road. (The spokesperson would not elaborate on why the deal with N.C. Central fell through.)
"I think they were mostly trying to make a profit from the lack of capacity over the years of the Durham Housing Authority to take care of this issue and have the proper funding to buy this property back," says Ivan Parra, lead organizer for Durham CAN.
Schewel, who has served as the city's liaison to the DHA for about five years, thinks two things contributed to the stagnation: the 2008 recession and the fact that Campus Apartments just isn't in the affordable-housing business.
A spokesperson for N.C. Central says the school "did not have a role" in plans to convert Fayette Place to student housing. Asked why the school in 2010 said it would not participate in the arrangement, the spokesperson says that decision had been made by a previous administration. The deal fell apart shortly after the school stopped leasing units at Campus Apartments' property on Cornwallis Road because it had been spending far more than it got back in rent.
Now the property sits eerily still in the shadow of 147. Neighborhood-watch and parking signs lean from their old, authoritative stances. Concrete steps jut out of the overgrown grass, going nowhere.
For Irma Riddick, it's an improvement over the semivacant Fayetteville Street projects—there are fewer gunshots, she says. But it's still an eyesore compared to the neighborhood of her youth, where residents used to sweep the street and sleep on their porches in the summer.
Fayette Place is emblematic of other issues residents identified in a "neighborhood audit": crime, litter in parks and near streams, and neglected, vacant lots owned by the city and banks.
"It's in a predominantly African-American community, economically depressed in many ways, and I just think nobody really cared. If it was across Durham Freeway or anywhere else, I don't think it would have sat for as long as it did," says Bishop Clarence Laney, pastor of the nearby Monument of Faith Church. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the city to do right by this community."
Laney said congregants have called, written, and sent a petition to Campus Apartments, but they've received no response. The company was invited to send representatives to the meeting last week but did not.
People in the neighborhood say they were generally uninformed about plans for the site until Laney and Durham CAN stepped in.
"We didn't have the manpower, we didn't have the people in politics, we didn't have people in power to speak out for us," says Grant Street resident Vivian Deloris Gunn.
Residents who spoke to the INDY would like to see a mixed-use development with affordable housing, maybe a coffee shop and a grocery store. But they also worry their property values will go up.
"I'm hoping this time that we'll have an input in it," Bradsher says. "We haven't had an input in anything that went up that way."
Scott says it's too early to give specific plans for the site. It would be among the agency's largest in terms of size and will be on the planned Durham-Orange light rail line.
"You can certainly get a lot of housing units on a twenty-acre site," Scott says, "but when you look at a site like this and its location and potential for the community, you want to look at other uses besides housing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Hole in the Ground ."