Rolling Hills gets another chance

Durham seeks developer for area

Staff WriterDecember 19, 2005 

A generation after much of the Durham's black business district was bulldozed as part of urban renewal, the city is launching a search for its third developer at Rolling Hills, a long-stalled and crumbling residential community just south of downtown.

A 34-page request for qualifications will be released today seeking development proposals for the nearly 20-acre site. The city says it is open to either working with a private company to add to the 42 townhouses and 11 single family houses already there, or working with current residents to tear everything down and start from scratch.

One thing is clear from the document, however. City officials are adamant that no more taxpayer money should be invested in the project.

"I never like to say never, but that is certainly the preference," Mayor Bill Bell said Friday. "Things have happened there, and there is a history to learn from. But this is the first time I've been involved in it, and we're going to be taking very deliberate steps not to make the same mistakes again."

In 2003, the city took ownership of about two-thirds of the neighborhood at a foreclosure auction -- including crumbling streets, empty cul-de-sacs, weedy undeveloped lots, a murky swimming pool and a smattering of decaying homes. During the rainstorms last week, one of the empty streets flooded deep enough to cover the wheels of an abandoned shopping cart.

At least $1.3 million in city money was sunk into the project in the 1990s, though no one now working for the municipal government seemed able to say for sure Friday how much more might have been spent over the tortured 30-year history of the development.

Rolling Hills, so named for a topography that offers stunning views of the downtown Durham skyline, was once in the heart of Hayti -- a vibrant, predominantly black commercial district that thrived under Jim Crow. After desegregation, the federal government condemned much of the neighborhood, forcibly removed its property owners, razed its buildings and gave a wide swath to the state to build the Durham Freeway. The area has been struggling to rebound ever since.

In 1984, the city helped a subsidiary of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. buy the site. More than 250 homes were planned, but the company stopped construction after building only 42, citing slow sales.

About 10 years later, the property was taken over by Southeast Durham Development Corp., a nonprofit venture formed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Durham Business and Professional Chain. Plans called for 56 new homes, and the City Council awarded an $860,000 interest-free loan to help the effort. Fewer than a dozen homes were completed, and the loan was never repaid.

Meanwhile, little if any effort was put into maintaining the property. At least two of the houses are now boarded up, and paint peels from other units with visibly rotten siding. Of the 54 residences in Rolling Hills, the majority are renter-occupied. Only 15 homes are owner-occupied, according to the city.

The new city request describes the townhouses built just 20 years ago as being in the poorest condition, "not believed to be economically feasible for salvage." The newer, single-family homes are described as in "standard" condition and could potentially be moved elsewhere if the owners can be persuaded to sell.

Larry Jarvis, the city's associate director of Housing and Community Development, passes Rolling Hills each day driving to and from work.

"I don't know if the quality of the original construction was all that great, but they certainly haven't aged very well," he said of the existing homes. At least two developers have already inquired about the property. The city still hopes someone can built a vibrant community there that is affordable to moderate- and low-income homeowners.

"We need somebody to come in that has a proven track record," Jarvis said. "We're looking for some heavy hitters."

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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