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Getting decked in Old West Durham 

It's not that Terry Sanford Jr. can't build a gravel parking lot in Old West Durham if he wants to. Indeed, the zoning is appropriate, and as long as the plan meets specific design requirements about landscaping and other details, planners say it's likely to be approved later this month.

But to an active group of neighbors who've taken a lead role in how their corner of the Bull City grows, Sanford might as well have picked up a handful of that gravel and flung it across the negotiating table at them.

"It was a real slap in the face," says Kelly Jarrett, vice president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, a group that in recent years has worked closely with developers on projects that affect their everyday landscape. In a reverse of the NIMBYism of which citizens are often accused, Jarrett and her neighbors even supported a high-density apartment project now under construction just off Ninth Street, near a planned commuter rail station. "We went out on a limb, because we believe in mass transit, and to have this be the first thing proposed afterwards . . ." Jarrett trails off in frustration.

The apartments adjacent to the Erwin Square office complex represented an unusual partnership between Sanford, who owned the land, Wood Partners, who developed the project, and the Old West Durham neighbors, who actually lobbied for the 60-unit-per-acre high-density apartments throughout the public process. The group has participated consistently in many development plans within its stomping grounds, including Ninth Street North, a recent commercial/retail project.

The neighbors' active involvement and record of working collaboratively with developers makes even more onerous Sanford's sudden plan to build three acres of parking--450 spaces--between Hillsborough Road and Main Street, says group president John Schelp, aggravated by the notification letter arriving in citizen mailboxes after the deadline for written comments from the public.

"It's frustrating when neighborhoods work with developers and both sides bend a little bit, and then this is the next thing out of the gate," says Schelp, pointing out that there are already 688 parking spaces in the adjacent vicinity. And though the proposed parking lot currently hosts an open field where people fly kites, citizens aren't romantic about gazing at grass forever. Situated smack dab amidst 340 apartments, a rail stop, retail stores and restaurants, they acknowledge the kite-fliers will eventually have to yield.

"When that land is developed, we will support it. But we don't think a parking lot is beneficial," Schelp says. Because Duke University, which leases a lot of parking in Old West Durham, has promised the group it would not contract for more off-campus parking there, and the new apartments will have their own parking deck, the neighbors are baffled about what Sanford's target clientele for his stand-alone lot might be. Sanford couldn't be reached for comment.

The plan is tentatively scheduled to go before the city/county planning department's Development Review Board on Feb. 21, says planner Steve Medlin. The original Jan. 24 date was postponed after staffers learned they goofed by sending notification to neighbors too late. Still, the review board, made up of city and county staff and one representative from the Planning Commission, is essentially a rubber-stamp process for smaller projects that already essentially fit the established zoning and other regulations. The board's jurisdiction is limited to "technical" issues.

"This is not a public hearing," says Medlin. "If a project meets the letter of the standards, the DRB is legally bound to approve it."

The indignation of the Old West Durham neighbors over that process is understandable, says Medlin, who believes the best way to address the problem--and open debate about what defines an appropriate project--is through the rewriting of Durham's planning standards. That revision is currently under way, but the results are at least 18 months away, he says.

In the meantime, Durham's citizens need to keep being vigilant, says Jarrett, who has lived in Old West Durham for a decade.

"The planning process is not made to be user-friendly," she says, recalling the night she and Schelp happened to be attending a public hearing on the apartment complex and stumbled into the asphalt industry's plan to move their factories closer to houses, a proposal that gained a lot of steam under the citizen radar last year, before environmental and social justice activists--led by Schelp--stopped it. "We've learned how to be a little bit proactive and how to have connections, but if we were finding out about this so late, what's happening in neighborhoods that aren't as organized? They're going to get railroaded."

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