Sheehan

Lacrosse house ... what if ?

Staff WriterJuly 30, 2007 

John Burness, vice president of public affairs and government relations for Duke University, had just begun our tour of the university's community outreach efforts when we turned on Buchanan Boulevard.

He slowed as we passed a ramshackle white cottage with black shutters hanging from the hinges.

"There's a house I've seen before," he said.

Me, too.

We both sighed.

The house, of course, was the scene of the infamous Duke lacrosse team party. The one that ended in false accusations of rape against three lacrosse players, dismissal of the coach and, ultimately, the resignation of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.

The one that nearly turned Durham, and Duke, upside down.

Coincidentally, Burness had originally offered to take me on this tour 18 months ago, when I participated in a one-month fellowship at Duke in late February and early March 2006.

At the time, Burness had mentioned that the university had just purchased several new houses that would be renovated and resold as owner-occupied dwellings.

In fact, the Buchanan Boulevard house is just one of 160 houses that have been purchased by Duke since 1994 for rehabilitation and then sold to first-time homeowners under Durham's affordable housing guidelines.

More than a third of the houses already built or renovated have been sold to qualified Duke employees. But the larger effort is aimed at helping troubled neighborhoods to make the changes they desire.

Burness said the effort dates to the days of Nan Keohane's presidency, when Duke decided to improve its relationship with the community surrounding the campus.

Since then the school has spent nearly $16 million toward neighborhood preservation.

That includes providing assistance, through grants and financing, for the construction of community centers and medical clinics in Lyon Park and Walltown, both previously dilapidated and crime-ridden. Slowly, they are being transformed from the inside out.

There are lingering resentments toward Duke in down-and-out Durham neighborhoods, but Burness said the relationships built over the last decade helped get the city and the university through the most difficult months of the lacrosse case.

One thing still kills him, though.

Burness said that he had advocated for the purchase of the Buchanan Boulevard house and several others four years earlier.

The complaints about student parties at off-campus housing were growing, and Trinity Park was one of the neighborhoods Duke was trying to assist. Now the future of the infamous lacrosse house remains uncertain.

Imagine, Burness said, if the university had made that purchase years earlier. The house might have been renovated and in the hands of a first-time homebuyer.

The Duke lacrosse case might never have happened.

"It would have been a different year," he said.

Indeed.

We both sighed again.

Ruth Sheehan can be reached at 829-4828 or ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com.

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