An executive with the real estate firm Northwood Ravin told Durham Mayor Steve Schewel in an email this week to “stop taking a confrontational attitude” toward the company as it moves forward with redevelopment plans of Northgate Mall. 

The email came after Schewel asked the firm to heed the concerns raised by residents of Walltown, a historic Black community located near the mall. Residents there fear that the firm’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment plans will force them out of a neighborhood where their families have lived for generations. 

Community leaders have asked Northwood, which purchased the property in 2018, to consider new development plans that include setting aside space for affordable housing, which Durham officials have endorsed. 

Jeff Furman, Northwood’s vice president of development, has said previously he’s sympathetic to the concerns of Walltown residents. But in an email Tuesday to Schewel, Furman said he believes the city should be responsible for addressing those concerns while ensuring affordable housing in Durham, not his company.

“You continue to say it is up to us and our civic duty to resolve public issues,” Furman said. “But I will say again that the City merely asking private landowners to solve public issues such as affordable housing with no public involvement will not produce the results the residents of Durham want.”

Schewel last month told the INDY that the city’s hands are tied in regards to gaining concessions from Northwood Ravin on behalf of Walltown.

“Their current plans do not need to come to the city council [for approval],” the mayor said at the time. “Their plan for phase one is residential with some commercial, and my understanding is that they already have the zoning they need for that.”

For some observers, including the mayor, the Northwood plan seems to be accompanied by a disregard for the historic Walltown neighborhood that sits about three blocks north of Duke’s East Campus.

In an email last month to Durham officials, Furman said the responsibility to work with residents “to find solutions to relieve gentrification” lies with city leaders.

“Asking private landowners to solve the City’s issues is a misdirected mission,” he wrote. “While we appreciate the ideas coming from Walltown … we instead encourage the neighborhoods to work directly with the City and its elected officials to change public policy to relieve gentrification and locate more affordable housing and affordable retail on nearby underutilized public land.”

On Monday, Schewel clapped back at Furman with his own email, saying that he was “genuinely taken aback by the tone and substance” of Furman’s remarks. 

“I hope you misspoke,” the mayor wrote.

Schewel reminded Furman that they had talked previously about ways the proposed development could work with the Walltown community, and Schewel praised the “very constructive ideas” Walltown leaders have shared with Northwood.

“You are right that the public sector must take a leading role in solving problems like affordable housing,” Schewel wrote. “That is why Durham residents, with 76 percent voting in favor, approved the largest affordable housing bond in the history of North Carolina.”

The mayor also pointed to the hundreds of affordable homes that are in the design stage or under construction throughout the city as well as the city’s subsidizing of affordable housing in partnership with both nonprofit and for-profit developers.

The mayor referenced a for-profit development on Farrington Road. 

“This developer, with much, much less land than you own at Northgate … has donated land in its development for affordable housing,” Schewel wrote. “You can certainly do this at Northgate … We also need you to do your part. That is what the Durham community expects.”

In a follow-up email, Furman told Schewel that asking private landowners to solve public issues like affordable housing with no public involvement “will not produce the results the residents of Durham want.”

Furman praised the affordable housing bond but then wrote that the city submitted just four affordable project applications this year to the state Housing Finance Agency for affordable tax credits, rehabilitation credits, and tax-exempt bonds.

“This is the lowest number of applications among the largest cities and counties in North Carolina,” Furman wrote. 

But Schewel on Thursday told the INDY that applications for low-income tax credits are not submitted by cities.

“They are submitted by private developers, including non-profits and for-profit developers like Northwood Ravin,” the mayor said. “I cited the for-profit developers on Farrington Road who donated land and infrastructure for affordable housing [and] is applying for a low-income housing tax credit and is being supported as well by City housing funds … Northwood could do the same thing—including applying for the tax credit and donating the land. That path is wide open to them.

“They are the ones failing to apply for a tax credit, or to do anything else to support affordable housing on their property,” Schewel concluded. “If they would do so, the City could certainly be a partner, as they know.”

Schewel wasn’t the only public official to weigh in.

Tom Miller, a retired counsel for the North Carolina Real Estate Commission and member of the Durham City-County Planning Commission, told Furman in an email that Durham is undergirded by the belief that “everyone should share in the benefits of the community, and that everyone shares in the responsibility of confronting and overcoming our community’s problems.”

“No one is exempt from the obligations of community stewardship,” Miller wrote. “This applies to private landowners no less than anyone else. In fact, I would venture to say that when someone who owns so large a parcel near our city center as Northgate with all the opportunities from that ownership, the responsibility of community stewardship is all the greater.”

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