The Durham City Council says affordable housing is its top priority for what to do with a prime four-acre lot currently occupied by the Durham Police Department headquarters. But it will wait to see what ideas developers can come up with for putting that into effect.
Housing advocates had rallied outside of the council's Thursday work session asking that a portion of the site be reserved for affordable housing. The council ultimately decided not to subdivide the land, but those in the crowd were pleased the council agreed it also wanted to see at least eighty affordable units on the site, regardless of the configuration.
The City Council has been weighing for several months what to do with the existing Durham Police Department headquarters once the agency moves into its new building, leaving the Chapel Hill Street location vacant. The discussion has centered on whether the council could make a bigger dent in the city's need for affordable housing by asking a developer to build housing on the DPD property, or sell the prime piece of land and use the proceeds to support affordable housing elsewhere.
Because of its location downtown — near the Durham Station transit hub and a planned stop along the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Line — and its steep value, the four-acre site is being eyed for affordable housing and office space, both of which are in short supply downtown. The city has a goal of at least 15 percent of housing units within a half-mile of transit being affordable to people earning 60 percent of the area median income — about $44,000 for a family of four.
A consulting team presented three hypothetical concepts for how the site could be developed that incorporate housing, retail and office space. Two of those scenarios preserved the existing 1958 Durham police building, which was designed by mid-century modernist architect Milton Small and that preservation groups have asked
the council to keep. Under those scenarios, the property would be estimated to sell for $2.5 million to $14.1 million, depending on the development plan.
The council during its Thursday work session decided to issue a Request for Proposals, asking developers to pitch their ideas for how to develop the site (The city went through a similar process for a planned mixed-use development next to Durham Station).
The council asked staff to come back with an RFP crafted around the following priorities, recognizing that they may be competing:
- Develop at least eighty units of housing affordable to people earning 60 percent of the area median income, ideally with some units for Durham Housing Authority voucher-holders.
- Maximize the sale price of the property.
- Create a mixed-use development.
- Preserve the existing building.
- Create a distinctive "landmark" design that includes green space.
Terry Allebaugh, Community Impact Coordinator for the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, was one of those who rallied outside City Hall. They held up mirrors to reflect "the diversity of Durham" and show that anyone could be in need of affordable housing, and inadvertently captured the site of the $88 million One City Center under construction in front of them.
Allebaugh, who also addressed the council, said the property represents probably "the last, best opportunity" for the city to create affordable housing downtown, and that the council doesn't have to choose between building housing on the DPD site and elsewhere.
"We're not for either or," said Allebaugh. "We're for both."
The consulting team presented a concept to council along these lines that reserves one acre of the site for one hundred and forty residential units, including eighty that are affordable to people earning 60 percent of the area median income. The remaining three acres, under the concept presented, would include retail and office space. The existing building would be demolished.
According to city staff
, subdividing the site, reserving one acre for affordable housing and disposing the rest for market development "is likely to reduce the anticipated sales price from $14.1 million to $9.9 million." For comparison, a mixed-use one scenario presented by the consulting team with forty-two units of affordable housing was estimated to yield a sale price of $9.3 million.
Ultimately, the council agreed it would like to see what developers could cook up on their own within the priorities, citing past experience with the Durham Station-adjacent project at the intersection of Jackson and Pettigrew streets.
"When we pulled back and gave more leeway to the developer, we ended up with something much better," said Mayor Steve Schewel.
Several speakers at the rally drew from their own experiences trying to find housing in Durham in their remarks.
Wilbert Pipkin talked about struggling to find a place after eight years in prison. Affordable housing is needed downtown not just because of its proximity to transit, he said, but also its proximity to resources like the Criminal Justice Resource Center.
Ruebe Holmes said it took her two months to find a place she could afford after the rent for her Duke Manor apartment was raised from $660 to $815, despite having what she describes as a "medium" income working in Duke's history department.
Holmes, also a Duke graduate, said she now lives about four miles from her job. While she was able to walk to work from her old apartment and had three options for public transit, she now has one public transit option and can't afford a car because of housing costs and student loan debt.
"We want to take part in what Durham has to offer," she told the crowd gathered outside City Hall. "The question today is will Durham have a place for those of us who can't afford $1,500 rent?"