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At former car lot in downtown Durham, smaller apartments aim to offer a new housing option

A duo of local developers is ready to build an apartment building on a former car lot on Rigsbee Avenue in downtown Durham.
A duo of local developers is ready to build an apartment building on a former car lot on Rigsbee Avenue in downtown Durham. Courtesy of Center Studio Architecture

A developer and an architect with ties to several projects in downtown Durham plan to build a new apartment building — featuring mostly small, studio units — on a former car lot near Durham Central Park.

Paul Smith, who has worked with Greenfire Development and One City Center backer Austin Lawrence Partners, and architect Scott Harmon want to build a 171-unit apartment building on a 1-acre parcel of land they bought for $2.5 million last year. The property, a former used-car lot at 614 Rigsbee Ave., is across the street from the Liberty Warehouse apartments.

Harmon, in an interview with The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, said the goal of the project is to provide a smaller, but relatively cheaper, form of housing than what is currently being built in downtown.

While he was adamant the goal of the project is about “zeroing directly on those people that have been left out of the downtown revitalization,” Harmon said he wasn’t ready to go into specifics about the sizes of each unit or pricing yet.

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Developer Paul Smith recently acquired an old used-car lot at 614 Rigsbee Ave. for $2.5 million, according to county records Zachery Eanes The Herald-Sun

“It is a housing type that is a lot more prevalent in other markets, but hasn’t really caught on in the Triangle or really the Southeast,” Harmon, who co-owns Durham-based Center Studio Architecture with David Arneson, said in a phone interview.

“We just think this is a really timely project for Durham. There is a lot of talk about access to housing of different types, and this a way for us to reach that niche.”

The duo planned to submit a site plan to the city of Durham on Friday for the seven-story building. The plans had not been posted on the city of Durham’s website as of Friday afternoon, however.

Harmon said five stories of the building would be for housing, while the bottom two floors would be reserved for 7,000 square feet of retail and about one parking space per apartment unit.

The resurgence of downtown Durham in recent years, with dozens of apartment and office buildings being built, has led to many conversations about gentrification and the potential displacement of many longtime residents of the city.

With a surging population and a spike in rents over the past five years, affordable housing has become one of the leading political issues in the city. The city is currently debating the topic of allowing more density in its neighborhoods, with Mayor Steve Schewel often repeating the mantra of “either we build more houses or the price of housing is going to go through the roof.”

The area around Durham Central Park has been one of the beneficiaries of the city’s revitalization, seeing tremendous growth in recent years. The Central Park area has become one of the city’s more popular nightlife scenes. Nearby bars include Fullsteam Brewery, Durty Bull Brewing, Motorco and Surf Club.

But despite the growth in downtown, the number of housing units hasn’t kept up with population growth, with an estimated 20 people moving to the city a day.

From 2010 to 2015, there were 10,774 new households in Durham, but only 9,629 new housing units, according to “Expanding Housing Choices,” a new project of the Durham City-County Planning Department, The Herald-Sun has previously reported. That’s a gap of 1,145 places for the new residents to live.

Harmon has been one of the more active voices in recent discussions about allowing more dense housing, such as duplexes, in the neighborhoods around downtown. Harmon even wrote “an open letter to my fellow white progressives in Durham” that was circulated on neighborhood listservs leading up to a meeting earlier this month about allowing more density in downtown neighborhoods.

In Harmon’s letter, he said the current proposal of allowing more duplexes and granny flats had been “gutted by leaders in the white progressive neighborhoods that wield the most power in land use debates.”

On Friday, Harmon said that he believes the city still has a way to go before it meets the demand for housing in the downtown core.

“We have done a lot of research for this project and the structural economics of Durham are ideal,” Harmon said. “If you look at Mayor Schewel’s challenge to think about density and growth ... part of what is driving the (housing) crisis here is we are not adding enough housing units. People want to live downtown and there is no data to support that we are getting anywhere close to the bottom of that market.”

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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