Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Durham infill development a good sprawl substitute

By Bob Wilson

With the election of a City Council and mayor firmly behind infill development, Durham CAN’s proposal to turn a barren publicly owned lot at the corner of Jackson and Willard streets into an affordable-housing complex looks like a no-brainer.

That’s good news for downtown Durham, which needs full-time residents to help sustain the renaissance of a once-forlorn area. It’s no longer lights out after work in downtown.

Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) is a community coalition that has amassed political clout since its founding in 1997 as an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation. That’s the grassroots organizing effort based on the late Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”

Many people shy away from Alinsky’s leftist change-the-world ideas, and for good reason – he regarded capitalism as a scourge and unredeemable oppressor of the poor. To its credit, however, CAN has shown a bent for compromise with The Man, and the Jackson-Willard lot is an example.

At the outset, CAN wanted the 2.15-acre lot for 80 to 100 affordable housing units. That is, housing units subsidized by the public purse. Mayor Bill Bell and a majority of the council wanted a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments, and CAN came around to that compromise.

How much the city will put into the project remains iffy, but by one estimate it could be $3 million or so. The affordable apartments will go to people making 60 percent or less of Durham’s median income, currently $52,000 a year.

The political theory behind the Jackson-Willard project is less important than what it represents for Durham. The city and county are warming up to infill development as a means of reducing the suburban sprawl that’s gobbling green space throughout southern Durham.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how downtown revitalization can be sustained without permanent residents. But until recently, state, city and county codes threw up one barrier after another to infill even though it was an obvious answer to Durham’s needs.

Fortunately, the Uniform Development Ordinance has taken some of the hassle out of the permitting and building process. But there are also state issues to be overcome in matters as simple as drivers’ sight lines at intersections.

One of the city’s pioneering examples of infill, 506 Mangum, is a text-book case of navigating local and state regulations that delay or even stifle redevelopment. Note, for instance, that the 21-unit complex with four retail spaces has a strangely truncated front nose.

That makes good sense for driver and pedestrian safety. But where did the design change come from? Not from the city or the county, but the state department of transportation. Luckily, the mandated change affected only the ground floor at 506 Mangum. The second and third floors remain rectangular.

Planning experts sometimes cite developer Scott Harmon’s vision for infill at 506 Mangum as a model for others. Nonetheless, like Waterloo, Harmon’s was a close-run victory won at the cost of much frustration with antiquated city and county codes.

As Harmon told the Urban Land Institute five years ago, the city had “never reviewed a project like this before.” It’s never easy for pioneers, of course, and what Harmon went through to accommodate something as simple as garbage pickup is but one example of many.

The solid waste department said 506 Mangum required two Dumpsters. However, state DOT wouldn’t allow a garbage truck to pull into the space and back out to the street. No, the truck would have to drive through the site.

Another compromise with the city resolved the issue, but at the cost of losing 25 feet of the building.

How anybody has the patience to endure even the revised permitting and development process is beyond me. Yet, Harmon and his partners did it and went on to other infill projects such as Church+Main.

Clearly, 506 Mangum was a learning experience for everybody, and Durham is the better for it. That doesn’t mean CAN’s dream of affordable infill apartments at Jackson and Willard won’t run into red tape – that’s one of the things government does well – but this wheel won’t be invented twice.

Trust me, that’s progress in Our Town.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.