'This is a generational decision': Durham city council debates fate of old police HQ building

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ByCindy Bae via WTVD logo
Wednesday, November 16, 2022
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"Some people see history, a lot of value. Other people see a reminder of a very painful chapter as it was a police headquarters."

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The fate of a significant building in Durham lies in the City Council's hands as it discusses redevelopment options and meets again in December.

The City Council received a presentation on Thursday from staff about possible options for the old Durham Police headquarters building and the decisions that need to be made for the four-acre site at 505 W Chapel Hill St.

"Those include determining whether previously stated development priorities for the site should be revised or maintained," project manager Stacey Poston said.

There were two different proposals from development teams and neither of them came to fruition, according to Poston at the Nov. 10 work session.

"From a process standpoint, we're here today to present these informational updates and to start the conversation around what development priorities we have," Poston said. "And depending sort of on how far we get ... and where Council feels like we are, we're prepared to come back and to continue those conversations to help get us to a point where we can get some direction on what those priorities might be."

Council members would ultimately vote in March or April on the recommended approach to disposition, according to the proposed process.

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The mid-century structure that was built in the late 1950s and opened in January 1959 was built by Milton Small, an architect at NC State.

"He was regionally well known and had some national significance too," preservationist Bob Ashley said. "He was a prolific designer ... and this was one of his finest, certainly one of his finest surviving buildings."

Whether the building remains will be one of the most consequential decisions that the City Council will make, according to Mayor Pro-Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton.

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"Some people see history, a lot of value," Middleton said. "Other people see a reminder of a very painful chapter as it was a police headquarters. The question is, can we rewrite that chapter, keep the building, and rewrite the chapter, or does it need to go?"

Ashley called the debate an "iconic fight on an iconic corner as a gateway to Durham," with Duke Memorial United Methodist Church on one side and the Mutual Tower on the other.

"The three of those make a really important statement," Ashley said. "The possibilities are large (for the building). It could be residential."

Among the staff's recommendations was requiring at least 80 affordable housing units, according to Poston.

"I think there is something to be said about repurposing old buildings," Middleton said. "So this is going to be a very, really robust discussion but ideally, you know, the more people that can win, the more people that can get what they want."

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Ashley agreed that affordable housing is the most important priority on that site.

"It's four acres, it can easily do a tremendous conflict, make a contribution to our affordable housing stock, and still preserve an important and iconic part of our history," Ashley said. "It would be a loss, we think, for that building to disappear from that corner and to disappear from Durham's landscape, for historic and architectural reasons both."

The cost to preserve the existing building would be at least $17.4 million, according to Poston.

Poston said the Council will continue to discuss its options in December.