The mood of East Main Street turns from merry to melancholy over the course of one block. Ushered in by a procession of hushed lawyer’s offices, the 200 block is freighted with two hulking, vacant shellsthe old judicial center and the former social services building.
From the corner, I can see my oasis, Old Havana Eats, but before I sit down to a plate of maduros, I first must cross four frantic lanes of Roxboro Street.
Nourished, my mood buoyed, I head east, toward the site of the proposed new police station. It is only three blocks. It feels like 30.
The disappointmentno, the disasterthat is East Main Street from downtown to Golden Belt demonstrates that even with the benefit of history and hindsight, city and county leaders make mistakes. This stretch of East Main was envisioned as a gateway to East Durham, a walkable connector between the central city and the historic arts and culture hub. Instead, we got no fewer than six creepy surface parking lots and a behemoth Human Services Complex that is inhumane in scale.
Add in the Soviet architecture of Oldham Towers, a 45-year-old public housing complex for the elderly (because why would poor, old people want to live somewhere attractive?), and, well thank the transit gods for the free Bull City Connector, because this stretch of hell is best traveled by bus.
Now that we know the new $62 million Durham Police Department headquarters will be built on 4.5 acres bordered by Main, Hood, Elizabeth and Ramseur, the city has an opportunity to right several wrongs. (At this point, there is no sense in wasting headspace on questioning the, ahem, wisdom of putting it on Main rather than a vacant 19-acre lot on Fayetteville Street.)
But it is time to raise the pitchforks over the appearance of the DPD HQ and how it weaves into the urban fabric of the neighborhood. At a recent “community visioning” session, the public was rightfully concerned about how to address the architectural, historic and social consequences of putting the Man on Main.
“Don’t make this a fortress,” said one resident.
“Let’s not have a bunker on Main Street,” chimed in another.
“Don’t build a building that turns its back on its people,” added a third.
The book Walkable City by Jeff Speck should be required reading for everyone in planning and government. In it, he writes that lively streetscapes have three primary enemies, “parking lots, drug stores and star architects.” Main Street has two of the three.
The community begged O’Brien/Atkins architecture to reconsider its parking plans, which calls for yet another surface lot and a 445-space garage that backs up to Ramseur. Modern thinking allows street-level retail to wrap around garages, which helps alleviate the visual blight and enlivens the space. But DPD has security requirements that could preclude this good idea.
Whatever the design, it’s essential that DPD HQ avoids the Freelon firm’s architectural blunder that spoiled the Human Services Building. Despite a lovely entrance, the wall facing Main is an entire block long. For those of you who remember the sound of dial tones, this is the visual equivalent.
Several buildings are slated for demolition to make way for the new project. No one will miss the shabby hut of Not Just Wings (which has closed), but the 1923 Carpenter Auto Building, which now houses El Centro Hispano, must be saved. It was listed on Preservation Durham‘s 2013 Places in Peril, and, as Wendy Hillis, the group’s executive director, pointed out, if you want historical connectivity between American Tobacco Campus and Golden Belt, then save Carpenter Auto.
Another building bound for the wrecking ball is Bull City Ciderworks. It is among the brave pioneersincluding Ponysaurus, Supergraphic and Honey Girl Meaderythe small business owners who, seeing an affordable opportunity in this urban frontier, had begun to create a vibrant hub of activity and commerce.
Bull City Ciderworks is the only physical casualty of DPD HQ. (Production is moving to East Durham, but the bar will remain open through the summer.) However, the cultural and economic disruption cannot be underestimated. While government buildings close at 5 and go dark on the weekends, bars, stores and arts centers keep the street alive well after nightfall.
“This area could have been the next Central Park,” said one resident of nearby Cleveland-Holloway. “You have to add back the affordable commercial space that you’re destroying.”
There is little of that left. With rents rising in the central district, small businesses are getting squeezed out. At a downtown charrette last month, City Economic Development Director Kevin Dick seemed fatalistic, even unapologetic about that sad turn of market force: “As property values increase, so will rents, and small businesses could be priced out.“
Where will those businesses go when those areas become overpriced and consumed by more government buildings? Mineral Springs Road? Bahama?
The public can comment on the plan through May 1. Let’s hope, and if you’re one to pray, then do that, too, that the city and architects fully heed citizens’ concerns. We hear a lot coming out of City Hall these days about the importance of urban fabric. Right now, East Main Street feels as comfortable as a suit made of sandpaper.
Have your say
WHAT The public can comment on the site design and building of the new $62 million Durham Police headquarters
WHAT iS AT STAKE There are concerns that the yet another institutional building on East Main will make the street an even more unpleasant walking experience and will heighten the disconnect between East Durham and downtown. Several businesses, including Bull City Ciderworks, Not Just Wings and El Centro Hispano will have to move because their buildings are slated for demolition.
WHEN The comment period ends Friday, May 1
HOW Contact Trish Creta with the city‚ General Services Department: 919-560-4197, ext. 21258 or email@example.com
This article appeared in print with the headline “Main street blues.”