The two aging bungalows at 804 and 806 Jackson Street may be in the spotlight, but they don't have much to brag about. They don't bear historic markers. No one famous ever stopped by for dinner. The two 1920s homes, which sit beside the Durham Freeway in the Morehead Hill neighborhood near downtown Durham, have seen only pieces of day-to-day life: children playing in their yards or parishioners streaming into the former Baptist church nearby. Inside, an ordinary couple may have raised a family or spent their last days there together as husband and wife.
But the cozy single-story houses, with their sloping front porches and sagging gutters, are part of what gives the historic neighborhood its charm, residents say. For the past several years, neighbors have kept a vigil over these two 90-year-old homes. The houses could be demolished as early as today to make room for a new playground at Healthy Start Academy, a charter school that now owns the structures.
"They're the entrance to our neighborhood," said Will Elliott, vice president of the Morehead Hill Neighborhood Association. "That would be like knocking out the two front teeth of our neighborhood."
It's unclear whether the school's board will accept last-minute offers by nonprofits and residents to buy and rehabilitate the now boarded-up dwellings, which are unoccupied and not up to code. The school purchased the homes years ago for $300,000, and the properties now have a combined tax value of $158,000.
"We're not interested in selling," said Liz Morey, founder of Healthy Start and chairwoman of its board. "We need the land." With the current playground facing highly trafficked roads, the school needs a safer play space for its 300-plus students, she said.
Despite numerous attempts to stave off the demolition of the homes, the teardown could proceed. Healthy Start applied for a demolition permit just before the Thanksgiving holiday, and it could be granted this afternoon or early Thursday, said Roy Brockwell, assistant director of Durham's city-county inspections department. Though Healthy Start has hired the Durham-based Landshapers Backhoe Service, Morey said the demolition isn't necessarily imminent.
"Just because I have the permit doesn't mean they're being pulled down tomorrow," Morey said. "We haven't committed to anything yet."
The fate of the homes has been in question for almost two years, since neighbors of the school heard Healthy Start's board wanted to expand its playground onto the Jackson Street lots. The news spurred efforts by residents and the city to delay demolition of the properties, which they hope is the last resort.
Last summer, residents in Morehead Hill went all the way to the city's planning department, saying the Healthy Start properties were so poorly maintained that they could be ruled neglected under city ordinance. A city investigation found no such evidence, said Patrick Young, assistant director of Durham's planning department. A few months later, when Healthy Start's board first tried to obtain permission from the city to demolish the houses, members of the city-county Historic Preservation Commission said they wanted to keep the homes standing. But the commission has limited power and couldn't prohibit the school from tearing them down. It could only delay such action for a year, Young said. That delay expired in October.
During that year, the Morehead Hill Neighborhood Association tried to identify other places for a playground and reached out to Morey and Healthy Start to try to compromise, said Jeff Ensminger, a member of the neighborhood association board.
"They didn't respond to our meeting requests," Ensminger said. With the clock ticking on the yearlong delay, the neighborhood association implored the City Council for help. Councilman Eugene Brown, who has 30 years' experience in real estate and a taste for historic properties, has led the charge to find an alternative to demolition.
"I just think it's sad and it's tragic and a slap in the face to the neighborhood, historic preservation, the City Council and the mayor—to all of us who know neighborhoods play such a vital role in the success of Durham," Brown said.
Since the fall, city officials have tried to mediate, inviting neighbors of the school and Morey to appear at council work sessions. As recently as last week, Durham's planning directors met with Morey at the school and identified four other locations on the school's property that could serve as a playground, without having to tear down the homes.
"These areas are already used for other purposes," Morey said Monday, in reference to the planning department's recommendations. "We see [the Jackson Street lots] as the only option."
To build a playground there, the school would have to submit a site plan to the city for approval. But the school's building plans might be snagged by a public alley that runs between the two houses and would have to be closed by a City Council vote in order for the land to be developed. If the homes are demolished and the council denies the closure of the alley, the land could sit empty and the homes could have been bulldozed for nothing, Brown said.
The entire process has pitted the school against the community, Morey said—even more so now than when the school originally moved into the neighborhood, alarming residents with the prospect of increased traffic and noise.
The quarrel over the Jackson Street houses at times has been so fierce that both sides have accused the other of letting the issue devolve to a matter of spite.
And although Healthy Start can legally raze the homes any time after it receives its permit this week, some neighbors are still hopeful for a last-minute resolution.
"Maybe I'm blindly optimistic," Elliott said, "but until I see the bulldozers out front, I'm hoping that something can be done at the 12th hour to save these homes and save our neighborhood."