Durham News

Erwin Road plans provide forum on housing and transit

A light-rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill is still a hypothetical thing, and a decade or more away from running its first train, but some developers are already getting ready.

Case in point: Erwin Terrace Limited Partnership, which owns the mixed-use buildings right across Erwin Road from one of the proposed rail stations and has a lot more in mind, with light rail a contributing factor.

Erwin Terrace Limited Partnership has also encountered another factor that will affect any other developers with projects close to transit station sites: Durham’s demand for “affordable” housing.

Both factors came up during a rezoning hearing at the Durham Planning Commission last week, likely a foretaste of things to come.

The rezoning and land-use plan changes would allow Erwin Terrace’s owners to add up to 322 residences, 268,000 square feet of offices and 193,000 square feet of commercial space to the two mixed-use buildings already on their site at Erwin Road and LaSalle Street – adding to the density of residents and workers with easy access to stations that is important for the light-rail line to draw riders.

“To do what’s right for Durham you have to plan for the potential rail,” said Erwin Terrace partner Robinson Everett Jr. Still, he said, “being across from the research corridor and the hospital, there are certain things that fit regardless of the rail.”

Commissioners had heard the plans for enlarging Erwin Terrace in August, but put off a vote for two months, concerned that the developers made no commitment to include affordable units among the new apartments they planned.

City and county governments want at least 15 percent of all housing units within a half mile of each transit station to be “affordable to families with income less than 60 percent of area median income.”

(Currently, 60 percent of AMI is $35,550; affordable rent is $787 per month, according to the city-county planning department.)

With that in mind, city-county planners made Erwin Terrace and the surrounding “LaSalle Street Transit Area” a pilot for development near the 10 Durham stations along the light-rail route.

Their analysis made affordable housing at Erwin Terrace, in effect, a moot point – since they found that the proportion of affordable rental housing in the LaSalle station area is currently almost 80 percent.

“That’s over five times the stated goal,” said Erwin Terrace partner Robinson Everett Jr., whose father, Robinson Everett Sr., founded a statewide advocacy group for low-income housing in the 1960s.

“He advocated tirelessly in Durham and across the state for affordable housing when few talked about it,” Everett said.

“We are not some out-of-town, get-rich-quick developers who do not care about this issue,” he said.

Everett said he agreed with the city’s and county’s goal, but said forcing developers to build affordable housing is “neither fair nor effective” and the governments need to provide “a toolbox of incentives.”

That’s being worked on, he said, but in the immediate case of Erwin Terrace expansion, affordable housing does not fit.

“Any construction on this site ... would be extremely expensive and a huge financial risk,” Everett continued. “Adding on a new affordable housing mandate ... is unreasonable.”

The city and county have no authority to require affordable housing, developers’ attorney Patrick Byker pointed out. Affordable housing advocates, though, were hoping for a voluntary commitment.

“I realize ... there is no mandate for you to include it but we know it is being done in other communities, very successfully,” said Selena Mack, director of the Durham Community Land Trustees.

“It’s a great opportunity for Durham and for the developer to be able to provide housing for all the people who are going to be living and working in that area,” said Lorisa Seibel, speaking for a citizens’ coalition promoting affordable housing near transit stops, “and to commit to keeping that housing ... affordable long term.”

Mixing affordable housing and mass transit are going to be a long-term concern, several commissioners said.

“While it’s great there’s the 79.5 percent affordable housing currently near this transit zone ... we know over time there will be enormous pressure, good pressure, on rents,” Commissioner Brian Buzby said.

“So if we want to achieve the 15 percent over time ... it’s going to be something we’re going to need to really grapple with,” Buzby said.