by Matt Saldaña
Plans by Duke University to close off two public streets in order 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," and would encourage them to "mingle freely during the day." However, from midnight until 6 a.m., a gate would prevent anyone from walking, or biking, through the area. And except for members of Duke, and neighbors who have applied for key cards, car traffic through the area would be closed 24 hours a day.
Duke "is perceived by citizens as a fortress, and we're trying to get ride 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 was opposed to the street closing.
North Carolina General Statute 160A-299 requires that closing a street, or alley, is "not contrary to the public interest."
When asked by council members if Duke would be willing to open the gates to vehicular traffic during the day, Dawkins said that would "compromise the safety of the parking lots."
"I can't buy that," said 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 stood up and walked to the podium to tell Mayor Bill Bell to "think about" what Duke was proposing. "You're the mayor," she said.
"I was born and raised right where that power plant is," she said. "And now you're telling me that you're going to put up gates so I can't drive down there?"
City Council voted to delay a vote two cycles, and Bell said that restricting gates to parking lots--and not streets--seemed to be the only solution. Previously, City Council had set Monday as a deadline for making a decision on the street closing. Council members considered a conditional approval, based on the hours of gate operation, but Planning Director Steve Medlin said that could lead to slippery ground once the City closes the streets. He added that Duke had not yet submitted a site plan, and had not 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 give up all legal authority over the 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," he said.
Also on Monday, City 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.
He added that former Assistant City Manager Alan DeLisle, who was seriously injured in a stairwell collapse in Louisville, sends his best, and also approves the deal.