The wheeling and dealing over Durham Central Park development | Durham County | Indy Week

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The wheeling and dealing over Durham Central Park development

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Another crane will soon crack the skyline near downtown, this time to build a 100-unit luxury condo project at 539 Foster St., which abuts the northern end of Durham Central Park.

City Council approved the development agreement on Monday, by a 6–1 margin, with Don Moffitt the sole opposition.

Under the agreement, the city sells certain easement rights from Durham Central Park to BH-AG Foster Inc. in return for $160,000 and a $41,000 contribution to Habitat for Humanity.

But the deal's points weren't solidified until the last few days, after a Council work session in which council members interrogated the two parties privy to the deal—the developer's attorney, Patrick Byker, and Morgan Haynes, president of the Durham Central Park board, the nonprofit that privately negotiated most of the terms on the city's behalf.

The issues included the financial part of the deal, legal liability and affordable housing.

In voting no, Moffitt said he remained unconvinced that the city was getting the best financial deal for the easements. (An acre of land near DCP is going for a cool $1.8 million.)

The Council did receive legal clarity on property boundaries showing who is liable for what: For example, who is on the hook if several gentlemen fall down the outside condo stairs, perhaps after a bachelor party? Answer: The condo's homeowners' association.

As for affordable housing, BH-AG Foster Inc., based in Chapel Hill, agreed to make a $41,000 tax-deductible donation to Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable housing, marking the first time in recent history that a for-profit developer allocated any funds for that use.

In zoning cases the city can't compel developers to include affordable housing—or pay in lieu of the units—but it can force their hand in contractual agreements.

"Our responsibility as a council is to lay down some standards and figure out what we want from developers who want public assets downtown and in Durham Central Park," council member Steve Schewel said.

Last week, the INDY reported on the lack of transparency in the negotiations between the developer and the DCP board ("The big secret," June 10). None of the weekly meetings or the minutes was public.

Now, because it conformed to zoning regulations, the project itself did not require Council approval.

Council member Eugene Brown called the development "terrific," adding, "the city did the right thing" in farming out the negotiations to the board. "This is not a public project."

However, the development agreement, which involved city-owned and thus public land, did require Council approval. And parts of the deal, including a terraced berm leading to the condo from the park, will greatly affect the public's experience.

While the board's decision to close the meetings is likely a matter of political tone-deafness rather than malice, excluding the public and, apparently, key city staff from the negotiations created, at the very least, a public-relations problem.

Council member Diane Catotti said she was concerned about how late the city had been brought into the process. "We've had this item for only two weeks," Catotti said.

Schewel agreed, adding Council and staff "should have been involved earlier. The park board is excellent, but they're in a funny position in negotiating on behalf of the city. When we have an organization that we love, like Durham Central Park, and city assets are involved, our needs aren't always consonant. We need to know what the role of the city staff should be."

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