Durham's Old (or Little) Five Points gets modernistic makeover

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2014 

— Old Five Points – aka Little Five Points – has a different look these days.

Coming toward downtown, in the triangle between Cleveland and Mangum streets you’re met with a new plaza and a big sign proclaiming “Old Five Points.” And look to your right, where Corporation Street runs in, two modernistic stories are rising from an old brick storefront.

Ed Stewart hopes these are signs of things to come.

“The whole idea is to be a catalyst, to try and see if we can get something done,” said Stewart, founding president of the nonprofit UDI Durham.

The plaza is the city’s work. The building is the work of UDI Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that has involved itself for more than 15 years in reviving “what seemed to be a very depressed community,” said Stewart, 84. “This is really a gateway into downtown Durham.”

“It’s certainly an area that has a ton of potential as a little commercial area,” said Preservation Durham Director Wendy Hillis.

Until recently, motorists’ first view of the city center was a row of grimy, window-barred storefronts from 1920s, when the intersection was a thriving neighborhood business district.

UDI’s project, at 727 N. Mangum, makes a stark contrast. The old one-story brick facade remains, but glass has taken the place of plywood, and new doorways open onto ground-floor commercial space and a staircase leading to the office floor and apartment upstairs.

The project had a budget of about $600,000, with most of the money coming from federal grants and $100,000 from the city “once they are satisfied,” he said.

Front balconies overlook Old Five Points and the city’s new plaza.

“That was an improvement for that corner,” Stewart said. “I thought they were going to do something more, but it’s still quite an improvement.”

Plans were to do more. Old Five Points was one of five “neighborhood commercial districts” slated for “streetscaping” projects to improve their looks and curb appeal. One of those, at Angier Avenue and Driver Street in East Durham, is under way.

“After all those were designed, there was only funding enough to do one,” said Ed Venable of the city Public Works Department. Still City Hall did have about $80,000 available to at least build the plaza.

So far, a concrete surface has been laid, with a medallion resembling an antique bus token and a pedestal with a plaque describing the intersection’s history. Landscaping is still to come, Venable said, once “the fear of frost” is over.

UDI’s design, for three stories in a one-story block and metal panels above decorative brick, met opposition from historic preservationists, and it took months for UDI to work out a compromise, Stewart said.

Hillis, with Preservation Durham, said she hopes any future rehabs at the intersection will make use of historic-preservation tax credits that restrict how much an exterior can be changed.

Still, she said, “To the extent that any new construction can kind of get people’s attention, bring more investment into that little strip, that’s great.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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