In 1900, Durham industrialist Julian Carr expanded the Golden Belt Manufacturing Co. by starting construction on a factory east of downtown.
In tandem, Carr built a small mill village that covered nearly 20 acres east of the plant to house Golden Belt’s workforce. More homes went up in the 1910s.
A century later, those homes are at the center of a conflict pitting homeowners and preservationists against one of the city’s oldest and largest homeless shelters.
On Tuesday the City Council plans to hold a public hearing and possibly vote on designating the historic Golden Belt manufacturing buildings – now condos, offices and art galleries – and the associated mill houses as Durham’s eighth historic district.
At a press conference Wednesday, Durham Rescue Mission officials said they don’t oppose the historic district. They just want the council to exempt 20 of their properties.
“We actually support this district,” said Ernie Mills Jr., the mission’s stewardship officer. “We are asking for a common-sense plan. A plan that will allow us to continue the effort that we have been in for 42 years.”
At the heart of the debate is a four-block section on the eastern side of Alston Avenue that extends from Morning Glory Avenue to Taylor Street.
The section is next to the mission’s Main Street campus. Over the years, the mission, which opened in the area in 1974, has acquired 20 properties in that section. The properties include 15 vacant lots, one with a house built in 1985 and four with mill houses.
Mission officials want to build a community center and affordable housing, possibly town homes, on the vacant lots. Building requirements under a local historic district would hinder that plan.
“They say, ‘Yes, it can be built,’” said the Rev. Ernie Mills, the mission’s chief executive officer and founder. “But it is built with astronomical added cost.”
Mills didn’t offer details of what the mission might build, such as how many affordable units.
He delivered a petition this week to City Hall signed by 2,500 people supporting his position.
Mission leaders and supporters ask why people would want to limit the faith-based organization that has helped thousands through housing and rehabilitation programs, along with annual Thanksgiving Day meals, Christmas toy drives, and back-to-school giveaways.
“They take in the broken, the discarded and treat them with love,” said activist Melvin Whitley, a member of the Durham Planning Commission. “The idea that you would take a program like this and add costs to it is not humane.”
Homeowners in the contested section of the proposed district and the larger Golden Belt neighborhood, however, say no one’s questioning the mission’s services.
“This is specific to them being a developer and acting like a developer in a small historic district,” said DeDreana Freeman, a Planning Commission member who has lived in the neighborhood since 2007.
If this was in a higher-end neighborhood, there wouldn’t be a debate, she said.
“But because it is the Durham Rescue Mission and it’s East Durham, there’s not the clarity in why people would want home ownership rather than more concentration of homelessness in that neighborhood,” Freeman said.
In 2010, Freeman was among the homeowners who petitioned the city to establish the local designation, in part, according to city documents, to counter tear-downs in the neighborhood and the mission’s proposed expansion.
City consultant MdM Historical Consultant recommended that all of the proposed properties be included as they constitute one of the only intact mill villages left in Durham.
The Historic Preservation Commission voted 4-0 to support the larger proposed boundaries, along with the Durham Planning Commission by a 7-4 vote.
About 30 years ago, the about 40-acre Golden Belt area received national historic designation, which enables homeowners to get federal tax credits for qualified improvements.
The local designation would add a zoning layer that could delay demolition of historic homes, limit modification to historic properties and require new construction to meet defined neighborhood characteristics. The proposed boundaries for the local designation largely mirror the national district’s boundaries.
The plan keeps what is left of the mill village together, Freeman said.
In addition, the mission’s proposed exemption would create inequity on the two sides of Alston Avenue. Home values on the west side, which have already risen significantly over the last 10 years, would continue to improve faster than the east side, which border Franklin Village.
“If the properties around you look more like your property, then it is likely for your home value to be higher,” Freeman said.
Aretha Jackson, who has owned a house on Franklin Street near the mission since 2008, said she doesn’t want an apartment building or big community center near her home.
“This is like a family area,” she said. “It has bunch of kids and is family oriented. If they are going to build something, build houses people can live in.”
Juanita Smith, who has lived on Franklin Street since 2008, said she worries the mission would build a large brick structure that doesn’t fit with the rest of the neighborhood.
At one time the rescue mission proposed building a dorm near her home and then a retention pond.
“It’s been a continuous situation going on,” she said.
Smith said she is concerned the community center and other proposed developments wouldn’t reflect the culture and history of that district. She is also concerned about the safety of the mission opening a community center.
“Children going in, families going in, homeless men, who we know sometimes have mental health issues, “ she said. “How are they going to actually monitor that center for the whole neighborhood?”
Gail Mills, co-founder and chief financial officer at the mission, said with each project they have listened to neighbor’s concerns and adjusted their plans.
“We are part of the community,” she said.
The Durham City Council will hold a public hearing and possibly vote on the Golden Belt Historic District designation and boundaries at its 7 p.m. Sept. 6 meeting in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 101 City Hall Plaza.