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Old Durham meets New Durham 

Ike Murray owns Durham Brazing & Welding Works on Roney Street near Durham Central Park. Katie DeConto, left, and Megan Jones are co-founders of the Mercury Studio co-working space on Geer Street, also in the Central Park District.

Photos by Alex Boerner

Ike Murray owns Durham Brazing & Welding Works on Roney Street near Durham Central Park. Katie DeConto, left, and Megan Jones are co-founders of the Mercury Studio co-working space on Geer Street, also in the Central Park District.

Swimming through the summer humidity, past a heat island of an asphalt lot and toward Durham Central Park, you'll hit a tide of crisp air that smells like motor oil and cold steel.

Here at Durham Brazing & Welding Works, Ike Murray still comes to work four days a week to putter around his office, which is stacked with old manuals, tools, a fax machine, a typewriter and wall clocks, all of them stuck on a different time, none of them current. A 1927 RCA radio sits on a table. Through its one speaker, the set picks up one station, AM of course, and it broadcasts only in Spanish.

"Who's older, you or the radio?" I ask.

"I was born in 1926, so I am," he replies.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Murray and his helpers fashion and sell a few pieces of metal from the family business started by his father, Isiah. Over the past 70-some years, the younger Murray has seen this neighborhood thrive in the era of tobacco auction houses. He's watched it falter in the cash crops' downturn. And now he is witnessing its revival.

Wedged between the future Innovation District to the west and the park directly north, Murray's property is prime. When New Durham is built—sleek condos and apartments at 539 Foster, Parkside at Morris Ridge, the Innovation District, Liberty Warehouse and more planned to the east, near Motorco—this hulk of a steel building could be the neighborhood's final vestige of Old Durham.

"I'm in the catbird's seat," Murray says.

From his perch, Murray can see the transformation of Durham Central Park, the catalyst for the neighborhood's revival. For the second time in six weeks, a developer has asked City Council to sell slivers of the park for a condo project: 734 square feet here, 2,134 square feet there. Easements that square a corner of Roney Street, air rights to the condos' upper balconies.

For Durhamites who bemoan the arrival of condos, it's important to remember that in the 1920s, people lived here, albeit in single-family homes. Then in the 1930s, warehouses wiped out the homes. And eventually the neighborhood died.

More than 60 years later, the 2007 Downtown Master Plan, which is being updated this year, called for residences to be built in the Durham Central Park District as a way to enliven the area. For newcomers who see the vibrant neighborhood's array of nightclubs, restaurants and distilleries, it may seem unthinkable, but not long ago, this neighborhood was a derelict, forgotten corner of downtown.

However, what the master plan does not lay out is the nature of the residential and commercial development, and who would live and work there.

Therein lies the anxiety about Old Durham and New Durham, and how the two collide in the Central Park District.

For example, like 539 Foster, which abuts the park's north side, Parkside at Morris Ridge, to the west, boasts prices for its 35 condos ranging from the "high 200s to north of a half-million," Dan Jewell, a landscape architect involved in the project told City Council last week.

The audience gasped.

With this kind of money in play, it's expected that Murray would be fielding offers for his property. Inside his desk he has placed a letter asking about part of his land. On top of his desk, he has tossed a scratch-off lottery ticket. He won $10.

These days, you might have to win the lottery to afford a home or business in Durham Central Park neighborhood. While the master plan is clear that the "growth and evolution of Central Park ... can assist in driving forward development opportunities," it does not require the park to surrender so much as a blade of grass.

Nonetheless, the park board recommended selling the land and granting easements to the 539 Foster development, which the city approved. And the board "did not object" to similar conditions for Parkside at Morris Ridge. The city has yet to vote on that proposed sale.

Erin Kauffman, who became executive director of Durham Central Park in June, says the developers are helping, not hurting the park. "One of the things that Durham Central Park is hoping to do with our new neighbors is to make improvements that benefit the entire community," she says. For example, instead of a brick wall facing the park at 539 Foster, the developer will build a terrace, replacing trees and seating and building walkways.

"More people are living downtown without green space and a backyard," Kaufmann says. "We have to make the best of things, to focus on the things we can do, and maintain connections with the community."

But the Parkside project is not a done deal. Mayor Bill Bell put the hammer down at the City Council meeting: "It looks to be a great project. I'm comfortable with what's being proposed. What I'm not comfortable with is the lack of affordable units."

Bell's bold idea—that the city buy some of the Parkside condos and resell them to low- and moderate-income people (or a nonprofit land trust) at affordable prices— has precedent. The city is in the condo business, having subsidized affordable projects in the Eastway and Southside neighborhoods.

"At DPAC we have a condo of bathrooms in the presidential suite," Bell said, adding that the city's Penny for Housing Fund generates about $2.4 million annually for affordable housing. "We can go in there and buy those condos. We can find the people. This is the place to start. Why can't we buy them?"

Councilman Steve Schewel replied that the money might be better used to build affordable housing on city land elsewhere downtown. However, as Councilman Don Moffitt noted, there is an argument to be made for mixing incomes in one building rather than segregating the city by economic class.

Economic segregation—and thus racial segregation—is a legitimate concern for both current and future businesses and residents of downtown and the Central Park District.

Central Park may be "one of the few areas left for major office space," states the Downtown Master Plan. Yet like those spaces in the city center, where Blue Coffee and, most recently, Hairizon had to move, rents are likely to rise. And while small businesses fear being driven out, Longfellow, the Boston-based developer of the Innovation District, asked the city for $5.25 million in incentives for the first phase of the project.

Dave Wofford owns Horse & Buggy Press, which is in the same block of Foster Street as Piedmont and DaisyCakes. "In addition to the need for affordable housing, which doesn't seem to be getting addressed in more than a superficial way," he wrote to the INDY in June, "what is also being lost is the opportunity to create something approaching affordable commercial space for the many small and micro-scale independent businesses that used to be a hallmark of Durham."

Among those small independent businesses are The Makery, an artists' retail store, and Mercury Studio, a co-working space. Katie DeConto and Megan Jones own the businesses, which operate out of a rehabbed garage near Motorco. That space is owned by Alex Washburn, a Duke University graduate and former chief urban designer of New York City. He plans to eventually tear it down and rebuild it as residential and commercial space.

But DeConto and Jones offer a counternarrative to the handwringing over the condo invasion. They don't fear the neighborhood's transformation or the demise of their building. In fact, they embrace it, and plan to reopen Makery and Mercury Studios in the new space, where an influx of new condo residents could help their business.

"These changes are happening, and we want to be here," Jones says. "It will infuse a whole new life here. More people isn't going to effect us in a negative way. We just have to make the moves so we can afford higher rent."

Like Wofford, their lease does not expire for two years, and it's expected the building will stand at least until then. In the meantime Washburn helped them up-fit the former dealership garage. "He looked at the long view with us," DeConto says. "He's interested in us being successful."

"We're not ignoring what's happening," she adds. "What's helpful is assessing what's going on and what your role is. How do we position ourselves to make the best of what's happening?"

Back at the welding shop, Murray mulls over his place in the rapidly changing district.

The Innovation District, with its emphasis on 21st century life sciences and technology, will be built near his shop, where Murray, ironically, crafts steel parts on World War II-era machines.

Murray is considering selling the 150 square feet across Roney Street, but, he says of the shop, "I'm not interested in selling this place. I might build a mausoleum back there."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Old Durham meets new Durham"

  • Worlds collide in the Central Park District

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