Brandon Williams has lived in Walltown, one of Durham’s historically Black neighborhoods, for nearly a decade.
On Saturday, he described how aggressive, affluent developers appear at the front doors of working-class homeowners “with envelopes full of cash offering to buy your house.”
“Some of the folks had to tell them, ‘Get the hell off my property,’” Williams said during a late morning press conference on the grounds of the Walltown Park Recreation Center.
The Walltown Community Association (WCA) helped organize the press conference as it grapples with a decade of gentrification in the neighborhood located north of Duke University’s East Campus.
At the gathering, community leaders discussed their two-year-long fight following the 2018 purchase of the 45-acre Northgate Mall by Northwood Ravin, a real estate firm specializing in luxury apartment developments, and particularly the firm’s redevelopment plans for the old mall.
Valita Holmes, who has lived in Walltown since the 1960s, is wary of the global real estate firm.
“I really feel like they’re trying to close us out, and I don’t want to leave my neighborhood,” Holmes, a network administrator with Durham County, told the crowd of about 50 people. “They are moving to Walltown, but they don’t want to be a part of Walltown.”
Under Northwood Ravin’s proposal, the mall redevelopment would take place in two phases.
The first phase would include construction of six four-story buildings, with the ground floors used for retail, and housing on the remaining three floors. The mixed-use buildings would surround a large green space with some access available to Walltown residents at Guess Road and West Club Boulevard. Meanwhile, the second phase of the redevelopment proposes building two 10-story buildings close to Interstate 85 and Gregson Street.
The first phase of the proposal does not need to go before the Durham City Council or the Durham City-County Planning Commission as it’s a residential plan with some commercial development.
Nate Baker, an urban planner who serves on the planning commission, said that Walltown’s struggle is “indicative of a broken planning system.”
“This will show the community what inequitable development looks like. I do not think it squares at all with shared equity goals,” Baker said in a text message to the INDY. “We’re pretty much letting [Northwood Ravin] get away with what they want unless the Walltown organizers can win concessions, which is a big burden on them.”
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel says he supports the WCA’s efforts but that his influence is limited.
“I have met with the developer to urge them to provide the affordable housing and green space that the community is advocating for,” Schewel told the INDY. “I’ll continue to support [WCA].”
In an email to city officials, Jeff Furman, an operations director for Northwood Ravin, said 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,” Furman 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.”
In December, Williams and his neighbors went before the Durham City Council to share three maps, developed over two years, for a new Northgate that would allay concerns that redevelopment of the property without community input “would continue to displace and undermine Black wealth by elevating the already increasing property taxes and rents in our community,” Williams told the council.
He called the maps “a vision based on the hopes, desires, and experiences of Walltown residents, centering the people who have been and will continue to be most impacted by gentrification in the area surrounding Northgate Mall.”
WCA leaders say the developers should provide longtime and low-income Walltown residents with an ownership stake in the mall’s redevelopment, including stock shares and seats on the board to preserve and build wealth in the community.
The neighborhood association also wants Northwood Ravin to set aside 30 percent of the development for affordable units; provide first right of purchase and rental to low-income Walltown residents; create and foster community gathering places, and develop a section of the site as a transportation hub for buses and bicyclists.
During Saturday’s press conference, WCA leaders and neighborhood supporters discussed the three alternatives, focused on housing, green spaces, and accessible transportation hubs, to the Northwood Ravin redevelopment proposal.
Marcia McNally with the Durham Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit helped develop the alternative maps.
McNally said Walltown residents questioned how they would access Northwood Ravin’s proposed green space areas.
“It’s a green space, yeah, but it all looks so private,” she told the INDY. “It’s surrounded by four-story buildings … with rents starting at $1,200 to $1,300 a month. It just looked so exclusive and sat so far back from the road.”
With the redevelopment looming, some longtime Walltown residents, particularly younger ones, are embittered by the changes brought by gentrification.
Alvin Black, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who spoke at Saturday’s press conference, said he first moved to Walltown as a child in the late 1990s because it was affordable for his family.
He grew up surrounded by “aspirational figures” and sturdy role models. Now, he sees families forced out because they can’t pay property taxes.
Black showed the INDY a video of himself standing in front of the modest home of George Wall, a formerly enslaved man and Duke janitor who founded Walltown in the early 1900s. Today, Wall’s home at 1015 Onslow Street is worth more than $260,000, according to the real estate website Zillow. Just across the street, another house was knocked down to build a 6,969-square-foot home that sold for more than $1 million in August.
“So many families have been displaced,” said Black, who added that he may be forced to find a home far out in the county “that’s un-redlined for Black people. This is dispossession massively personified.”
Williams shared a painful story about a man who, like Wall, worked as a janitor at Duke. The man lived in Walltown for 30 years, and paid around $300 a month in rent. His landlord asked him to move out while he renovated the place. When the renovations were completed, the landlord raised the rent and the gentleman had to move out. “In the process of moving, he had a heart attack and died,” Holmes said.
Property values rising
In 1902, George Wall purchased a plot of land in a stretch of woods for $50.
“Soon after, he built a small wood-frame cottage: one story tall, one room wide, and a few rooms deep, with a brick chimney and a little shed-roofed stoop in front,” according to a story in the 2015 spring issue of Duke Magazine. “Soon other Black families settled nearby, forming a close work – ing-class community. In the 1920s, around the time Trinity was renamed Duke University, the industrious little hamlet two blocks north was coined Walltown.”
Wall died in 1930. Today, no Black residents live in that section of Onslow Street.
“It was a self-contained community that speaks to the dynamics of segregation,” Williams said at the press conference. “It was a self-sufficient neighborhood. That legacy continues to shape the neighborhood.”
In 2019, the WCA conducted door-to-door surveys of Walltown residents to ask what they would want to see with the mall property. Affordable housing and retail topped the survey lists.
The nonprofit DataWorks assisted the WCA in looking at property value changes between 2017 and 2019. County tax records indicated the greatest concentration of property value changes in the neighborhoods near the mall took place in Walltown. Residential property values there increased as much as 900 percent, according to the report.
DataWorks concluded that “this makes residents vulnerable to displacement because 53 percent of Walltown workers are in sectors that have had flat or decreasing wages over the last 20 years.”
Williams said the area median income in Walltown is around $37,000; community members won’t be able to afford rents or housing costs in the proposed development.
“That’s not going to do much for us over here,” Williams said. “It will not touch folks in our neighborhood. When we say affordable housing, we want it at that $37,000 level and below.”
Williams said the WCA would like to see 110 units set aside for affordable housing. “In order to have a sense of community,” he said, “people have to live there.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments that were made by Brandon Williams.
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.