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The $48 million project to revive the south side of Durham's downtown promises to be long, socially complex and financially risky.

Southside residents to Durham city officials: Give us a reason to believe 

A nearly empty playground in Southside

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

A nearly empty playground in Southside

Marie Hunter sat on the porch of her white bungalow on Scout Drive on a recent Sunday, savoring the spring breeze. She chatted on her cordless phone but nervously eyed three boys playing in the street. Nobody's ever watching them, she said. And they're young—only the tallest one is old enough to go to school.

Just two blocks away, Hunter's own son was walking home one November night when bullets from a passing car killed him on the lawn of the Happy Rock Holy Unity Church. Police called the shooting a case of mistaken identity. Michael was 27.

Hunter can nearly see that spot from her seat. Nonetheless, she's stayed in this house for the past 16 years, the same one where, in 1997, frantic neighbors banged on the door to say Michael was dead. This is her neighborhood. She's spent the better part of her 60 years here and won't be leaving, she said.

"I've done lived on all sides of town, and I always come back to the Southside," said Hunter, a nurse's assistant at a north Durham hospital. "It just feels like home."

The 100-acre neighborhood between downtown and N.C. Central University is dotted with towering elms and oaks. It sits beside Rolling Hills, a now defunct development that offers some of the best views of Durham's skyline. But both neighborhoods have been neglected for decades by the city and private investors, and no one feels it more than the residents—especially those who lived there in better times.

As eager as city leaders and residents are to improve the quality of life on the south side of downtown, a $48 million project to revive that area—Rolling Hills first, even though no one lives there anymore—promises to be long, socially complex and financially risky. As plans progress, some residents and city leaders are worried about the financial uncertainties of such a large effort, especially after a recession, and where residents have already endured failed city projects. But proponents, which include Mayor Bill Bell and most of his fellow council members, say that although revitalizing this section of the city will be challenging, the community could finally help Durham draw millions of dollars in future private investment and tax revenue. "Despite our setbacks, I remain convinced that revitalization of Rolling Hills/ Southside must happen, and we are making progress," Bell said in February during his annual State of the City speech. "I would also say that from my experience as an elected official, no successful development that the city has undertaken has not been without much discussion and opposition."

Bell mentioned other controversial projects that turned out to be beneficial: the development of the Durham Performing Arts Center, the Streets at Southpoint mall and even the integration of Durham's city and county schools.

Twice in the past 30 years, the city has backed efforts to build affordable housing at Rolling Hills, and both attempts fell short, wasting millions of tax dollars. Now the 20-acre site is a ghost town of vacant lots, some still littered with old construction debris. Fragile water and sewer lines lie beneath the hard-packed dirt. The city has spent $5 million buying back almost 50 houses, relocating the residents and razing their ragged homes.

On the Southside, once-quaint bungalows wear ugly plywood masks. They sit on bedraggled lots, littered with beer and liquor bottles. The neighborhood is a sad scene compared with Hunter's childhood on South Street, she said. Back then, everyone would gather under the big shade tree in her yard and play hopscotch and Hula-Hoop. And if kids misbehaved, somehow their parents knew before they got home. Now the older homeowners have died. The innocence has evaporated. The homes have crumbled and the drug trade has thrived, wedging its roots into every vulnerable crack.

"I think we're just a neighborhood all together that needs a new beginning," Hunter said.

But exactly how that should happen is still being debated. Even Monday, as the Durham City Council finalized a commitment to back St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar in its plans to build hundreds of apartments at Rolling Hills, residents and community leaders said they were dismayed by the city's financing plans.

To bankroll the $48 million project, the city wants to use $17.9 million in local funds. As much as $9.6 million of that could come from a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development., which would allow the city to borrow against its future affordable housing grants. The city would pay the debt back over 20 years. The repayment of the loan would tie up at least a third of federal housing funds. A portion of that money historically has been distributed to local nonprofits to aid the homeless, create transitional housing and offer job-training programs and financial counseling to residents throughout the city.

With the recession, the federal deficit and congressional cuts to HUD funding, the project's fiscal future looks shaky, according to City Councilman Eugene Brown, who Monday night was the only official to vote against plans to finance the Rolling Hills/ Southside project.

"We're really putting all our housing and social services eggs into this one basket," Brown said. "We have been set up to get money from a fund [the Community Development Block Grant] that may not be there in the next three or four years, and certainly not in the amount it is now ... The trend is only one way, and that's less money."

When the city first publicized the financing plans, residents and several city council members said they didn't want to completely divert money away from other needy neighborhoods. But some elected officials were appeased by a recent commitment from City Manager Tom Bonfield to set aside $437,000 over the next five years to help at least two other neighborhoods the city wants to revitalize—Southwest Central Durham and Northeast Central Durham. The funds will help create new affordable housing from some of the 87 properties in those neighborhoods currently owned by nonprofits.

That commitment made Councilwoman Diane Catotti's more comfortable, she said, thought she still calls the Rolling Hills/ Southside project a "leap of faith."

"We're hopeful and expect that good things will come from it," Catotti said. "If it's the transformative project we think it will be, and a catalyst for additional investment and improvement in that area, it will be a true success story."

Catotti and other city leaders sound more hopeful than some Southside residents, many of whom have been misinformed about the city's goals. Hunter says that when she talks to residents over the age of 65 or 70, they tell her she's a fool—that the city's plans to revitalize Southside are really just a continuation of urban renewal that will steal people's homes from under them.

A group of men who were sitting just a few doors down from Hunter's house even conjectured that Self-Help—a nonprofit group—was just interested in making money on properties near the new Durham Bulls baseball park, DPAC and the American Tobacco Campus.

Self-Help has purchased 94 properties in Southside over the past five years, but many of them are still boarded up, awaiting funds for improvement. Evan Covington Chavez, real estate director for Self-Help, said the organization expects to begin construction on some of the homes this fall.

"I don't blame them for their distrust," Covington Chavez said. "It's been five years. I don't blame them for questioning what we're doing."

In the Southside, the city has committed to working with Self-Help to build or renovate 40 properties to sell them to families with low to moderate incomes. The city will be able to contribute about $65,000 in subsidies per home, a total contribution of more than $2.5 million, Covington Chavez said.

But building the housing is just the start.

"Houses are the aesthetic," she added. "It's the easiest, most tangible thing to see." The real test is "making sure what's behind those doors is also healthy and stable"—a homeowner who is confident and secure in his or her neighborhood, and residents who have access to support like job training, recreation and programs for senior citizens.

So far, the city has pledged only $50,000 for next year for these types of programs specifically in Southside. A subgroup of the project's steering committee recommended more than $400,000 for social services in just the first year, said committee member Lorisa Seibel.

"My question is, where's the rest?" City Councilman Mike Woodard said last week.

Even Hunter, possibly the resident in Southside who knows the most about the project, is skeptical. She's been attending meetings on the project for years and has been frustrated with all the changing ideas and time lines.

"When I see the first foundation being poured, then I'll believe it," said Hunter, who is also president of Southside's small but active neighborhood association.

The city doesn't exactly have a stellar track record. Councilman Brown once dubbed the failed projects at Rolling Hills "a monument to government failure." The site also has a history, perched above Lakewood Avenue in what used to be Hayti. In the mid-20th century, Hayti was a proud community of working families and self-made entrepreneurs, but it was dismantled when urban renewal and the Durham Freeway cut through its heart.

In the 1980s, city leaders funded new development for Rolling Hills, resulting in a dozen patio homes, 30 townhomes and a once-sparkling pool. But the project was never completed. So in the 1990s, the city charged another local developer with building another 56 single-family homes on the site. Eleven homes were framed, but only nine were completed. The failure left two partially built homes poised above Lakewood Avenue like half-eaten carrion, bones exposed, for 15 years.

Southside is a neighborhood that serves mostly renters. According to a 2009 survey, fewer than 13 percent of the neighborhood's homes and apartments were owner-occupied, said Larry Jarvis, assistant director of the city's community development department.

Home ownership will help low-income families build futures and would give the neighborhood stability. But the community's future will only be as strong as the services, such as financial counseling or job training, to help keep residents in those houses, said George Roberson, 53, who lives on Fargo Street with his daughter and grandchildren.

Roberson said he wants substance abuse services in his neighborhood, transitional housing, and training programs that will "get those individuals on the corner," he hesitates, "Uh—troubled individuals—give them a decent wage other than hustling."

Those like Hunter, who want to stay for the rest of their lives, hold onto hope that the community can shake the drug dealers, restore its image and re-emerge as an inviting area for the working class.

To build support, city staffers are pouring information into the community through meetings, committees and even a neighborhood newsletter launched last week.

On Saturday, the city also took hot dogs, a DJ and church dancers to Southside's roughest corner, the intersection of South and Enterprise streets. City Council members Woodard and Farad Ali tried to energize the crowd about changes to come.

"This area is where we really want to leave a stamp and do something positive for the community," Ali said. A few minutes later, Bonfield, clad in jeans and a baseball cap, took the microphone. He introduced members of the city's community development department, which is coordinating the redevelopment plans.

Memorize our faces, he said. "Hold us accountable."

"They're trying to get the people to believe in them again," Hunter said. "I remember faces. I'm gonna keep them to their word."

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