Durham News: Opinion

David Arneson: A smarter urban design for the new police headquarters

Proposed alternative design for new Durham Police Department Headquarters
Proposed alternative design for new Durham Police Department Headquarters Center Studio Architecture

Last week the City Council began officially considering the recommendation from city staff to build a new Durham Police Department Headquarters building on the 600 block of East Main Street.

At Center Studio Architecture, we’ve been thinking a lot about this concept.

While we have no objection to putting a new police headquarters on this block, we are concerned about putting ONLY a new headquarters on this block.

The site plan concept published on Open Durham shows a large building footprint set well back from East Main Street with a surface parking lot between the sidewalk and the building front. The main facade is not parallel to East Main, and there is a large parking garage in the southern portion of the site that takes up two corners of the block and the entire frontage onto Ramseur Street.

We understand that this is very early in the process, yet cannot help but be concerned that this concept has a lot of missed opportunities.

This block is critical to strengthening the connection between downtown and east Durham. And with the imminent development of the old Hendrick Auto dealership parcels, as well as the planned light rail station at Dillard Street, we see this block as central to the redevelopment of a new transit-oriented neighborhood.

The city has a golden opportunity with one large block to demonstrate good urban design practices and to create an example of the goals stated in the Unified Development Ordinance.

Large single-function buildings that take up an entire block, especially ones likely to have a single public entrance, are simply not good urbanism. And setting buildings well back from the street with surface parking lots on major thoroughfares weakens the fabric of the city. Such spaces are unpleasant to walk by and don’t contribute to a thriving urban environment.

We see a tremendous opportunity here. Here are two versions of site plan concepts. We think these ideas can create a highly functional and important civic landmark for the headquarters and also help foster the growth of a thriving neighborhood. This can be good urban design, good architecture, and good public policy that is fiscally responsible.

The police headquarters doesn’t need all of the real estate on this block. Part of it at the northeastern and southwestern edges can be subdivided to create separate parcels which can be sold to private developers. This makes the city’s literal and economic footprint smaller. New mixed-use buildings with a lot of residential units can be created here. And ground floor commercial space can help activate the frontage along East Main Street.

One option is to simply keep Walker Street as it is and let the smaller triangular lot remain on its own for private development.

As Walker Street is of questionable value as a vehicular route and perhaps creates an awkward intersection with East Main and South Elizabeth streets, another option would be to close it. In this scenario, two separate buildings could be built with a party wall between them, the headquarters to the southwest and private development around a courtyard to the northeast. Imagine building two new, separate buildings side by side just the way all the great old buildings that we love downtown were built a hundred years ago!

In either scenario, the police headquarters can be a monumental civic landmark with a main entrance facade right on the corner of East Main and South Elizabeth streets. This corner treatment will face downtown and can take some cues from the new Health and Human Services building one block to the west. And the parking garage can easily be buried in the middle of the block where it doesn’t take away vital corners and long stretches of the block face. Windows on the street!

Also in either scenario, the southern edge of the block, facing Ramseur Street, is parceled off for private development. Residential uses here, perhaps townhouses, would be a great start to rebuilding a vital new neighborhood focused near the new light rail station.

Good urbanism really isn’t that hard. It’s in every great city all over the world. Put buildings on the sidewalk. Have a variety of uses with ground floor retail or commercial with offices and residential above. And always think of the larger context when making a building. How does a good building contribute to a good block? How does a good block contribute to a good neighborhood? And how does a good neighborhood contribute to a great city?

We have such an opportunity here. Let’s make the best of it!

David Arneson is an architect with Center Studio Architecture in downtown Durham.