Note: This story has been corrected regarding the project and its compliance with zoning of the site.
As diplomatically yet directly as it could, the Durham Historic Preservation Commission on Tuesday morning dissected Lomax Properties’ proposal for 140 new apartments to be built on a 3.6-acre meadow in Morehead Hill. [pdf-1]

You could almost hear the HPC tell the developer: “Bless your heart.”

“I would have no idea they even knew we have historic guidelines,” said HPC member James Leis. “There was no indication it was on the radar.”

In its review, the city planning staff listed eight significant items in the proposal that failed to meet historic guidelines. Patrick Woods of Lomax Properties, based in Greesboro, told the HPC it didn’t have the most recent application to consider. But that’s what the commission had to go on, so it asked Lomax to revise its proposal, then tabled a vote on the project application for a Certificate of Appropriateness until the Sept. 2 meeting.

In the hallway after the hearing, the mood darkened. Property owner Randal Brame, who wants to sell the land plus the Greystone Inn and its three acres, threatened to sue the city if the project does not ultimately go through. “What we’re doing isn’t illegal,” Brame told the INDY after the meeting.

The zoning is office/institutional, but because it lies within the historic Morehead Hill Neighborhood, it must come before the HPC and meet historic guidelines such as scale,height and exterior design. [Update and correction: The story originally stated the project complied with zoning; it does not because it is currently too dense. Office/institutional allows 14 units per acre, which, in this case equates to 52 units on the 3.75 acre-tract. The project calls for 140 units. Here are the planning staff comments from July 14, 2014: [pdf-2]

The project, which the INDY reported on yesterday, lays out the construction of three buildings ranging from two-to-five stories, containing a total of 140 apartments at 518 Morehead Ave., close to the intersection with Duke Street. It also includes more than 200 parking spaces and a swimming pool. The site is next to the historic 103-year-old Greystone Inn, which would become a clubhouse and conference center.

Among the issues are the mass, height and scale of the project. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood are single-family homes of one-to-two stories, with a few that are three stories. The exception is the Blue Cross Blue Shield building—now home to Duke University’s Physician Assistant program.

“This project dominates adjacent structures,” said Jennifer Martin, an architectural historian on the HPC. “It doesn’t have the form and scale of neighboring buildings.”

Like many geographical borders, this one is contentious. The meadow grazes the edge—but is clearly within—the historic neighborhood. The proposal justifies the construction of a development of this scale, comparing it with nearby Henderson Towers, a senior housing complex owned by the Durham Housing Authority. However, that 177-unit, nine-story building is not inside the district.

John Lomax of Lomax Properties told the INDY after the meeting that the development would serve as a “buffer” between Morehead Hill and the downtown commercial district.

But for both the HPC and several neighborhood residents, this argument is as faulty as describing someone is a little pregnant.

“This is a dangerously misguided idea,” said Bruce Mitchell, president of the Morehead Hill Neighborhood Association,. “It’s either in or out. And this is in, and the rules apply.”

“If this sets a precedent, it will wipe the historic district away over time,” said neighborhood resident Blaine Butterworth. “Pretty soon you won’t recognize a historic district ever existed.”

Lomax said that the project complies with the Unified Development Ordinance, noting that its rules and the historic guidelines are “at odds.”
“They are [just] guidelines,” Lomax said. “We’re in a commercial area. I don’t think anyone would benefit from single-family homes next to the freeway.”

HPC member and landscape architect Mark Hough criticized the proposal because it calls for the clear-cutting of at least 30 trees and a regrading of the property. Without explicitly calling the plan a cookie cutter development, he said it “maximizes the property but is not designed for a specific site in a specific neighborhood.”

Brame said he had several offers for the land, including one from the Hilton Garden Inn (it’s now on West Main Street, near the Ninth Street District) and that Lomax was the lone suitor willing to incorporate the Greystone into its plan. Brame also disagreed with the criticism about the tree loss. “I clearcut the property [when I bought it],” Brame said. “I saved every tree I could.”

At a neighborhood meeting Sunday night, several Morehead Hill residents said they didn’t oppose development of the land, as long as it would be congruent with the neighborhood’s historic guidelines. And at Tuesday’s meeting, David Ball, who lives immediately north of the Greystone land, reiterated that position. “I know we’re an urban neighborhood, but we have an enormous investment in the criteria,” he said. “I would love to see a proposal we could actually consider. I’m not here to stop a project.”