Durham News

May 9, 2014

Preservation meets urbanism at apartment plan

Historic preservation and downtown development are squaring off over proposed apartments at Dillard and Holloway streets.

Architects designing an apartment building for the corner of Holloway and Dillard streets brought a question to the Historic Preservation Commission last week.

Commissioner David Neill offered the first response:

“It raises a lot of questions.”

The basic question is, whether a 63-unit apartment building can fit agreeably onto a 1.5-acre lot that is at the edge of downtown, but also sits at the edge of a residential historic district.

Architects Tom Merrigan and David Arneson and Dillard Holloway Ventures LLC need to know. So, on advice from the City-County Planning Department, they asked the preservation commission at its monthly meeting.

“We are not seeking the commission’s approval,” Merrigan said. “We’re interested in your input. Our goal at the end of this is to find a way to develop this project in some form.”


This project, as currently conceived, is a four-story, modernist-style structure with “micro-lofts” – apartments of about 400 square feet – at the southeast corner of Holloway and Dillard streets near the main public library.

The lot, though, is within the Holloway Street Local Historic District (roughly contiguous with the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood), an area largely composed of early 20-century bungalows and some larger houses of similar vintage.

But the lot carries non-residential zoning and lies in an anomalous peninsula of the historic district, reaching south from Hollway Street to include the two houses remaining on Dillard Street. To the east there are two modern apartment buildings; to the west, there is a television studio across Dillard from the apartment site. 

“It certainly feels like it wants to be in downtown,” developer Scott Harmon said in an interview later in the week. Harmon is one of the property owners and a partner in Center Studio Architecture.

Historic district homeowner Maureen Kurtz has a different point of view:

“We don’t live downtown, Cleveland-Holloway is not downtown,” she said to the Preservation Commission. “I live in suburbia that’s downtown and that’s part of the protected status I seek.”

‘Slippery slope’?

Harmon said idea of the Dillard Holloway venture with its “micro-lofts” is “mainly addressing affordability downtown,” where there are few options for relatively low-income residents; putting 63 units on a 1.5-acre lot adds density, another principle favored by city authorities and in urban planners generally.

Making smooth transitions from density to traditional city land-use has already been a sticky point, at the border between the Ninth Street mixed-use area and the Old West Durham historic neighborhood, and is likely to rise again over the next few years in established neighborhoods near mass-transit stations.

Harmon and his partners are “ready to do something,” he said; but deciding just what and making accommodation with preservationists, residents, citizen commissions and city departments and the City Council will clearly take time.

Next step, he said, is meeting with some neighborhood residents later this month. Then, back to the Preservation Commission for further conversation.

The case “opens a slippery slope,” Preservation Commissioner Andrew Sprouse told Merrigan and Arneson after they presented their idea.

“This may be a very unique case in town but it does open up (a possibility) to where, instead of enhancing the neighborhood you will begin to degrade the neighborhood,” he said.

“I think there are ways to accomplish what you are trying to do ... as well as enhancing the historic properties and historic fabric,” Sprouse said.

How, was left to the designers.

“If you all are willing to see us,” Arneson said, “we’re glad to come back.”

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