Residents of Durham’s Walltown neighborhood reiterated their demand for an equitable redevelopment of Northgate Mall during a community meeting last Saturday, facing off with attorneys for the mall’s new owner who touted the project as a “facelift” and blamed Duke University for the proposal’s lack of residential space.   

The Walltown Community Association (WCA) has advocated for a community-centered redevelopment of the Durham property—a 50-acre parcel that is larger than the downtown loop—since it was acquired by global real estate firm Northwood Ravin in 2018, engaging more than 600 nearby residents to create a vision that includes affordable housing, affordable retail, and accessible green space. 

Northwood Ravin’s latest site plan, which features a life sciences research campus bordered by retail space and a one-acre public park, is missing some major components that are crucial for surrounding residents, WCA says. (Though the site map’s first iteration didn’t include affordable housing, it did include residential space, and the WCA had hoped that the city council would negotiate with Northwood Ravin to provide some affordable housing in exchange for added density.)

At Saturday’s meeting, attorneys Nil Ghosh and Keenan Conder pitched the redevelopment as a “modest” but “exciting” project.

“It’s gonna make everything look more attractive, look prettier, be a community asset especially with the green space, and ideally will bring in some more restaurants and cafes and things that people who live in this area would love to go to,” Conder said, adding that retailers will also provide job opportunities for “you all from the neighborhood.”

WCA member Brandon Williams pushed back on Condor’s assertion that the current proposal would benefit existing Walltown residents. While any kind of proposal, research campus or otherwise, would likely displace some residents, the current site plan, with its dearth of affordable housing, doesn’t offer any opportunities for displaced residents to remain in the area.

“You’re going to recruit a bunch of people to come work here, and those people are going to want to live close to where they work,” Williams said. 

And given that the income brackets of surrounding neighborhoods will dictate the affordability—or lack thereof—of incoming retailers, the project’s retail space wouldn’t be accessible to the handful of working-class Walltown residents who don’t get pushed out.  

“We understand there’s not much you all can do about the pressure that’s going to be on the neighborhood,” Williams said. “But what we can try to do is replace that housing, to give an opportunity for folks in lower-income brackets to remain and be proximate. So then, [a retailer] could see that, ‘Oh, there are folks who are in this income range, right here on the property, who are gonna want to come shop here.’ That [retailer] will then want to offer those kinds of prices.”

Ghosh told Williams that his concerns are valid— “this is a very multi-faceted, complex issue,” he said—but that fitting any residential space into the redevelopment would be nearly impossible due to Duke University’s ownership of the Macy’s wing of the mall, a parcel that includes 900 surface-level parking spaces. (Duke bought the former department store in 2017 with plans to transform it into office space and medical clinics.)

“It is very difficult to add a residential component when you can’t park anywhere,” Ghosh said. “In order to make it work, you’d have to restructure the deal with Duke.”

When one resident asked how many parking spaces the rest of the site contains, Ghosh said he didn’t know.

To construct a life sciences research campus on the site, Northwood Ravin must file a rezoning request to change the property’s “commercial center” classification to “commercial general.” Because the request will go to the city council for approval, the WCA has been urging council members to withhold their votes until the firm proposes a vision that furthers community interests.

Williams asked Ghosh if the WCA should start petitioning Duke as well: if the university is willing to surrender some of its parking spaces, would that make a residential component more feasible for Northwood Ravin?

“At a surface level, I think that’s essentially it,” Ghosh said. “But I can’t tell you all the nuances.”

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