If you walked by University Apartments recently, you could have heard the clatter of dishware and the lilt of folk music wafting through tall, open windows. A yellow tabby snoozed on a sill, clothes dried on a line in the hot sunshine, and a man rung the bell on a paleta cart that he pushed up the street.
For 71 years, University Apartments, a cluster of 14 aging yet handsome brick buildings at 1502 Duke University Road, has housed thousands of Durhamites attracted by low rents and a sense of history: potters and produce managers, curators and caterers, waiters and bartenders.
So many have passed through that current and former residents have adopted their own slang. They refer to the community as "Univapts" or "Free Heat," so named because of the siren-red sign emblazoned with those words and a sketch of a moneybag that was posted in front to lure potential tenants. Even the buildings are in code: Resident Jess Schell tattooed "L3C" on her forearm, which translates to Building L, Third Floor, Apartment C.
So, when the rumor, which turned out to be true, circulated last week that University Associates, based in Winston-Salem, had sold Univapts for $3.3 million to Capstone Development, a Birmingham, Ala., company that specializes in student housing, tenants gathered in the courtyard with their dogs and a bowl of watermelon to share their concerns.
"I see we're poolside," joked Dylan Mulrooney-Jones. The courtyard will become a swimming pool and outdoor fire pit adjacent to a "lifestyle center," two apartments that will be converted into a common area. The Voltaire Nature Garden (which refers to the last line of Candide, "We must cultivate our own garden"), and its tomatoes, Swiss chard and snap beans, will turn fallow.
"This place has character," Mulrooney-Jones said. "It does need renovating, but they could create apartments that would keep people here and keep them happy."
Inarguably, Univapts needs repairs. The wiring is pre-microwave, pre-iMac. The plumbing is creaky. Several ceilings sag. But the galley kitchens, radiator heat, high ceilings, hardwood floors and wide windows are worth the inconvenience, residents say.
They fear the renovations, which, according to Capstone, will include replacing the windows originally installed in 1938, laying carpet in bedrooms and removing walls in former dining areas, will not only destroy Univapts' charm, but also outprice current residents.
"I have a sense of foreboding," said Noah Goyette, who has lived at Univapts for six years. "The plans are to ruin it and make it so people like us won't want to live here. Right now, it's geared toward working people."
Yet, Capstone Vice President of Acquisitions and Development Rick Hansen said he wants to reassure residents they will be pleased with the renovations. "The character and the uniqueness of the property drove us to buy it in the first place," Hansen said.
Capstone discovered Univapts in a portfolio of 112 properties that were being brokered by national firm Coldwell Banker. "When I started looking through the photos, it raised the hair on my neck," Hansen said. "We got on a plane the next week. We fell in love with the property."
Renovations, the cost of which is still unknown until Capstone contractors examine the wiring and plumbing, will include installing energy-efficient windows and appliances such as washers and dryers in each apartment (currently, there is a common laundry room), refinishing hardwood floors and improving lighting around the building.
While Hansen emphasized "existing tenants are welcome," Capstone is pointedly targeting Duke University students for the new Univapts. He said Capstone would meet with Duke University officials to discuss the "quality and type of student they are trying to attract to the school." Based on that feedback, Capstone could tailor amenities to those potential residents—older undergraduates or graduate students.
Those amenities have a price, and rents will increase based in part on the cost of renovation, Hansen said, adding, "We're not envisioning pushing the upper limits" of rental prices in Durham, "nothing near $1,000."
Univapts residents pay $565-$650 a month; the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Durham is $765.
It is also uncertain how a student-oriented apartment complex would weave into the fabric of the neighborhood. Univapts abuts Burch Avenue, whose neighborhood association is trying to designate the area as historic.
Mark Eckert, a member of the Burch Avenue Neighborhood Association, said his group is "leery of a large concentration of Duke students," adding, "we hope it doesn't run into an off-campus party scene."
Eckert also empathizes with longtime Univapts residents. "I'd hate to see anybody get displaced for students who have many housing options. These people [current Univapts residents] don't have as many."
Across the street, men loiter at the bus stop and sip from containers in brown bags. To the south, it's not unusual to hear gunfire at night. Yet aside from a stolen bike, an intentionally set dumpster fire or a car break-in, there has been little serious crime of late at Univapts. Last year, there were reports of 48 assaults, 72 burglaries, 14 robberies, one rape and one murder within a half-mile radius, according to Durham Police Department figures. That represents 13 percent of the assaults, 10 percent of the burglaries and 7 percent of the robberies in DPD District 3 for 2008. There were 15 rapes and three murders in the district last year.
Hansen was undeterred by the crime statistics. "They weren't overwhelming," he said.
The diversity and affordability of an urban neighborhood, not swimming pools and lifestyle centers, attract residents to Univapts. "If they [Capstone] think they're going to get the demographic of West Village or Station 9, they're not," said one longtime resident who asked not to be identified. "They seem to have the idea this is a big Southern college town, that this will be a party scene. It's not."
The neighborhood, and specifically, Univapts, has long been home to working-class residents mixed with foreign graduate students. Browse past city directories and you'll learn that Yoshida Akitoshi lived in E3C, Mousazza Jarmokani stayed in C3B, and Rafael Aquirre spent time in J1A. Some residents arrived and stayed for years: Marcella Quickell, a caterer, lived in H2C and later, H1A from 1962 to 1988. Robert Tissue lived in Jess Schell's apartment—L3C—but we don't know if he tattooed the number on his arm.
Last weekend, Elliott Berger and Gina Rose walked by, she clutching flowers and he hoisting a bag of dog food over his shoulder. Many years ago, Berger's parents lived in Building B before they were married. Now Berger and Rose live in Building G and are engaged.
"It's a community," said Addy Cozart, who lives in the apartment occupied by Gertrude Eisenberg from 1961-1970. "They don't realize this is my home."