In a split vote, the Durham City Council ended a multiyear battle when it approved the Golden Belt local historic district, including the properties the Durham Rescue Mission asked to have removed.
The vote pitted Mayor Bill Bell, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, and council member Eddie Davis against council members Don Moffitt, Jillian Johnson, Steve Schewel, and Charlie Reece. It came after more than more than forty-five people spoke during a marathon public hearing preceding the vote. This was the final hurdle Golden Belt residents needed to clear, after winning the approval of both the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission earlier this year.
On Tuesday night, City Hall was brimming with both district supporters and those backing
the Durham Rescue Mission’s request to have its properties east of Alston Avenue removed. There were so many people at the meeting by 6:30 p.m.—thirty minutes before showtime—that an overflow area had to be set up in the lobby and the fire marshal officials were asking people without seats to leave the chambers. All told, there were more than two hundred people there, many bused in by the mission.
The city’s consultants had pinpointed affordable housing as a goal of the Golden Belt historic district. Mayor Bell, however, wasn’t convinced the designation would in fact produce more affordable housing.
“Let me say this, for people who are living there, it’s obviously affordable,” Bell said. “But to think that we’re creating a development that is going to be a method for affordable housing is just not the case. … The other piece about this is I look at what has been accomplished by the mission since I got here … And if you ever want to know about the level of poverty in this community, all you have to do is go to the mission on Easter holidays, Thanksgiving holidays, Christmas holidays, back-to-school holidays, and you see the number of persons in this community, but if not for the mission they would be going without.”
Bell and Cole-McFadden noted that Golden Belt is currently a divided community—not just by the boundary dispute, but physically as well. “You talk about the community being divided, the community is divided. It’s divided now by Highway 55, and it’s going to be further divided physically when [Alston Avenue] expands.” (That road widening project, which the neighborhood also fought, is underway.)
Davis, a retired teacher known on the council for his love of history, weighed the residents’ desire to save the historic nature of their neighborhood and the mission’s ability to provide its services and do what it wants with its individual properties. “I think both those things can coexist,” Davis said.
Cole-McFadden added that, as a Christian, she would not be able to sleep at night if she felt decisions were made “because of who lived on the other side of a highway.”
In her comments, Jillian Johnson said the council was trying to balance the effects the additional level of bureaucracy required in a local historic district would have on new construction. “I’m sure later that increased cost would impact the Rescue Mission, because I do support that work,” she said. “… I also think that we need to value the history of the Golden Belt community and the needs of the folks who live in that community to maintain their neighborhoods in the way they would like to see the neighborhoods maintained.”
Reece said if he thought the creation of the historic district would “change one iota of what the Rescue Mission does today,” he’d vote against it. “But it does not, it simply does not. You have come here tonight and told us some wonderful plans that you have that you might do in the future with the property that you won that is within the currently proposed boundaries for the historic district,” he said, speaking to the mission’s supporters. “What you have not said [is] that the creation of the historic district, with the current boundaries, would alter one iota of the work that you are doing [today].”
By the time Schewel spoke, it was clear that the vote would come down to whether or not Moffitt supported the district. And, in the end, Moffitt decided that the district designation wouldn’t significantly hinder the mission’s services.
“Tonight's not about who care for the homeless or recovery programs or the many other ways the Rescue Mission helps those less fortunate,” he said. “It's not about residents in the district, whether they were born in Durham or they belong in East Durham. Tonight is about the community, the neighborhood. and the impacts on that. ... I've thought a lot of about this issue ... and I find that it is going to add significant [financial] burden only if the Rescue Mission plans to do a poor-quality development. But I've seen what they do, and I know that's thats not the plan. So I don't think being in the district would create an undue burden on them."