Joe Bushfan says that when he opened a hot dog restaurant on Angier Avenue in 2010, the neighborhood had all but been forgotten. With too few customers, he closed down five years later.
“The community couldn’t even support it,” says Bushfan, who started his restaurant with the help of a $200,000 matching grant from the city and has since converted the space into a commercial kitchen.
Now, he says, there is more life in the Angier-Driver corridor. The city in 2013 spent $4.8 million on improvements to the streets, sidewalks, and utilities around the very corner where Joe’s Diner (now the name of the kitchen) sits. But Bushfan still feels like the neighborhood has been overlooked. It’s hard to find a trashcan, a bus shelter, or a police officer, he says, and too easy to find potholes and unpaved streets.
So last week, as Bushfan attended a public meeting last week to gauge interest in rezoning parts of Old East Durham to encourage investment, he and others in the crowd had a simple question: Why now?
“This city didn’t give a damn about this area,” says Bushfan. “Not one iota.”
Photo by Justin Cook
A summer storm rolls in over Angier Avenue and Driver Street in East Durham.
Sara Young, assistant director of Durham’s City-County Planning Department, says plans for a thorough review of zoning in Old East Durham had been “percolating for a while” and staff now has the time to devote to the task. The department recently began a zoning and land-use study “intended to identify and remove regulatory impediments that may be barriers to reinvestment” in the Angier-Driver area.
In addition to Thursday’s workshop, a survey is posted on the department’s website to gather resident input.
It’s a big undertaking that involves looking at the zoning designation of about two hundred parcels of land—not to mention explaining zoning codes to residents and convincing them why, with the threat of rising property values and displacement looming, they should care that a residential block is actually designated for office use.
The area the planning department is studying is roughly bounded by Pettigrew, Plum, Ashe, and Bruce streets. Throughout the study area, zoning designations don’t exactly match how properties are being used. Although so-called nonconforming uses are present citywide, Young says, the frequency here—along with the number of vacant lots and storefronts—is part of what prompted staff members to take a closer look.
This mismatch of zoning and actual use presents two primary issues. First, owners of nonconforming properties will have a hard time making changes that require city approval—for example, expanding a house on a lot zoned for office use. Second, it creates an opportunity for uses that seem inharmonious with the surrounding area but are perfectly allowed by the zoning, like commercial businesses on a largely residential street.
Staff broke down the study boundary into four areas. Area A includes the central business district anchored at the intersection of Angier and Driver. Buildings here are largely zoned “commercial neighborhood,” which sounds right for a small stretch of shops and churches surrounded by homes. But this designation comes with regulations, including that a certain number of parking spots provided by each business. In a compact area where buildings take up most of the small lots on which they sit, it’s near impossible to meet these requirements.
It is exactly this conundrum that led the city to create a “commercial infill” zoning district that allows for similar uses with fewer regulatory hurdles. According to Young, this designation is only in place on West Chapel Hill Street but was developed with Angier-Driver in mind, too.
Area B, which makes up the western portion of the study area, is mostly zoned for office use. But according to project manager Hannah Jacobson, there are zero offices here.
Area C, toward Briggs Avenue, is mostly zoned commercial neighborhood, like the nearby business district, but only 8 percent of properties have a retail or service use. It’s mostly residential, with 24 percent of its lots vacant.
Area D, south of Angier, is mostly zoned industrial. This makes sense around the railroad tracks along Pettigrew Street and the former site of the 1884 Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, the remains of which house Brenntag, a chemical distribution company. But 26 percent of lots are residential and 42 percent are vacant.
If residents get on board, the city will move forward with the study and could initiate a wholesale rezoning of the study area. Like any rezoning vote, the measure would first have to pass public hearings before Durham’s planning commission and city council.
But many who attended Thursday’s meeting, like Jerome Chavis, weren’t really interested in talking about zoning.
“I don’t really mind if it stays right like it is,” says Chavis, an Old East Durham resident who owns an auto shop on Kate Street. “I don’t want to get pushed out.”
This fear was echoed by others in the crowd and has come through in online surveys, Jacobson noted at the meeting. Other respondents have said zoning updates are a logical, if not necessary, next step following the 2013 streetscape project, she said.
Given that this area is surrounded by development—from construction of the East End Connector that will join N.C. 147 and U.S. 70 to the Habitat for Humanity houses cropping up around Northeast Central Durham—it makes sense that some residents are less concerned about zoning and more interested in why, in their words, the city suddenly cares that this neighborhood succeeds.
“I think you already have a vision, or somebody else does,” Dave Rush, a scrapyard owner, said of the city. Rush, who says he was forced via eminent domain from his former home in New York, fears this rezoning plan is just “paving the way” for Old East Durham homes and businesses to be replaced by new apartments close to the Durham-Orange light rail line.
Young says she expected to hear these types of concerns at Thursday’s meeting, and she understands why residents may feel inundated by change. The city went through a similar process before undertaking work on the East End Connector and was met with similar comments.
“We honestly have no agenda,” Jacobson told the crowd.
After reviewing surveys taken up on Thursday, Jacobson said the majority of attendees said they felt comfortable moving forward with the study. The department will continue to gather public input, likely until fall.