While downtown Durham flourishes, blocks away lies ailing, blighted Rolling Hills | Durham County | Indy Week
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While downtown Durham flourishes, blocks away lies ailing, blighted Rolling Hills 

An epic embarrassment

Click for larger image • The city owns or is buying 46 of 51 homes in Rolling Hills; it has boarded up the vacancies.

Photos by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • The city owns or is buying 46 of 51 homes in Rolling Hills; it has boarded up the vacancies.

The name evokes images of a bright and verdant homestead, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But utter the words "Rolling Hills" to some residents in downtown Durham and the name is more likely to elicit a bitter complaint about squandered money and a forgotten community.

The small, working-class neighborhood of townhouses and patio homes sits atop a hill just south of downtown, bordered by Lakewood Avenue and South Roxboro Street. A tall fence woven with ivy and weeds separates it from adjacent neighborhoods. Most of the homes are boarded up, and the roughly 10 residents who still live there exist, essentially, out of sight.

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Years ago, plans for this land, which now offers views of downtown's proudest attractions, including the American Tobacco Campus, new performing arts center and baseball stadium—were auspicious but poorly executed. In the past 20 years, the city awarded public funds to two developers who made failed attempts to build out Rolling Hills. Now the city, which foreclosed on those loans and repossessed the property, is left with the mess: neglected homes, unfinished construction, a national recession and a big price tag associated with starting over.

"We've already come this far, we can't stop now," said City Council member Eugene Brown. The current state of Rolling Hills is an embarrassment, he said. "It's a monument to government failure."

Despite the bevy of setbacks, city leaders are hopeful they will be successful on the third try. On Monday, the City Council voted to move forward again with the project, putting $745,000 behind McCormack Baron Salazar to develop a master plan for the area. The St. Louis-based firm, which specializes in renewing depressed urban neighborhoods, hopes to have a plan ready by the end of January that could transform Rolling Hills into the desirable and equitable neighborhood that it was intended to be all along.

"I try to look at the past as a lesson learned," said City Council member Farad Ali. "This is a chance to bring the community back together. To bring back the vibrancy it once had."

The renewal plan will also encompass another 100 acres around Rolling Hills, including the Southside neighborhood—a crime-ridden wasteland of vacant homes that at every hill's crest, offers stunning views of downtown.

But, Ali concedes, a plan is just that: guidelines that need to be vetted by the city and the citizens to make sure they are feasible and sustainable and don't repeat mistakes from the past.

The city has worked with McCormack Baron Salazar on the project for four years. In 2005, the city initially identified the firm to redevelop Rolling Hills and signed an agreement last year that would allow $650,000 for planning—half to be paid by the firm and half by the city.

But last year, McCormack Baron Salazar was unable to procure its own matching funds from investors, a failure it attributes to the shaky economy. Nonetheless, the city committed Monday to proceed with the project, putting up the $325,000 McCormack Baron Salazar was unable to raise, plus an additional $95,000 to include depressed areas around Rolling Hills in the revitalization. City officials will use $65,000 from a Fannie Mae planning grant that was due to expire and $680,000 of available housing bond program income—repayments from loans the city has made to first-time homebuyers, said Larry Jarvis, assistant director of Durham's Community Development Department.

If the plan is approved, the initial phase would include 250 rental units and 40 homes throughout the area to be offered at affordable and market rates, establishing a mixed-income residential community with some retail space. This phase would require about $15 million in local money and raise the value of the area to a point at which, stakeholders hope, private investors would be attracted to the area, Jarvis said.

Though they say they aren't counting on it, city officials also are hopeful that an application for $31 million in federal stimulus money could help fund the Rolling Hills/ Southside redevelopment.

Moving forward with the renewal could also accelerate the redevelopment of Heritage Square, a shopping center directly across Lakewood Avenue. It could also expedite the redevelopment of Fayette Place, a defunct public housing complex down Fayetteville Street, slated to be N.C. Central University student housing and retail shops.

At this week's council meeting, a handful of citizens raised issues with the city pouring more money into Rolling Hills. Some also complained about a lack of public input, including developers Larry and Denise Hester, who led the second failed attempt at building out Rolling Hills and also own two shopping centers on Fayetteville Street. Mayor Bill Bell quelled their argument by mentioning the 40-plus-member community steering committee that has guided the process since 2007. McCormack Baron Salazar also plans to hold public meetings next month to receive wider public input on the needs and design of the community.

"It's important that we go through a proper planning process," Bell responded. "I, for one, think it's very prudent for a project of this magnitude, with the history that it has."

There was a time when Rolling Hills was the place to be, recalls Ray Eurquhart, a member of the Rolling Hills/ Southside steering committee who lives in Southside, just below Rolling Hills.

"We used to look up here and see Mercedes," he said. "This was a gated community."

Back then, owners actually occupied their houses, and regular dues to the homeowners association meant the swimming pool sparkled and the tennis court and parking lots stayed smooth. Now, nuggets of concrete float in an algae-green pool. The knotty wooden siding on the blue-gray townhouses built here in the mid-1980s peels off in chunks. Front stoops crumble and roof shingles curl.

Two years ago, the city began buying out homeowners to prepare the area for renewal. The city now owns or is under contract to purchase 46 of 51 homes there, boarding up the vacants to deter break-ins. When the purchases are complete, the city will have spent about $6 million to acquire the houses and relocate the residents to other parts of the city.

"It's not comfortable at all," said Elton Faulk, whose house on Poinciana Drive is one of just three homes not covered in plywood boards. "It looks like an invitation to homeless and gang activity." The streetlights are broken, he said, and people have tried to break into the empty units.

Faulk and his wife, Theresa Dunn, are two of the last residents. They still haven't accepted a city buyout, Faulk said, because they don't know where they'll go. What saddens the 51-year-old, he said, is that he was close to paying off his home, which was worth more when he bought it.

"It feels like running in place," he said, miming the action. He and his wife have built no equity and will move out and sign another mortgage they could be paying off until they die.

Across South Roxboro Street, Eurquhart is impatient for work to begin on the Southside. The Rolling Hills/ Southside plan will cover an area that stretches west to Fargo Street and the American Tobacco Trail and east to Fayetteville Street, encompassing more than 300 homes, Eurquhart estimates.

"This is one of the most violent, drug-impacted areas of the city, for its size," said Eurquhart, who has lived in Southside most of his life. U.S. Census figures for 2000 show as few as 13 percent of neighborhood residents were homeowners, and the number has only decreased since, according to city estimates.

Though it seems like a ghost town, plenty of passersby stopped one recent morning at the Stop-N-Go Food Mart on East Enterprise Street. Eurquhart narrated as a young man walked from the front of the store to a tree down the sidewalk. The man retrieved something from the tree, and Eurquhart conjectured that the young man was selling crack.

The crime persists, even though there are three churches within just one block of where Eurquhart stood that morning, in the heart of the neighborhood. In the past decade, two of the half dozen men shot dead in this neighborhood were slain close to the lawn of one of those places of worship, Happy Rock Unity Holy Church.

Dozens of organizations have tried to boost the neighborhood. The community's neighborhood association is active and recently opened an outreach center across from the Stop-N-Go store. Volunteer groups have helped rehabilitate some of the homes and spruce up one of the parks. There are even community gardens. Perhaps most promising is the work of Self-Help Credit Union, which has purchased 82 properties in the neighborhood and hopes to build many into affordable homes for purchase, preferably as part of the larger revitalizaton of the community.

With so much potential looming in the near future, Eurquhart, 61, is ready to see some movement. "I'm just tired," he said. "I know change happens slowly, but ain't a damn thing happening here."

Rolling Hills: a simplified timeline

1980s—Development consultant Marshall Isler works with N.C. Mutual Insurance Company to build a dozen patio homes and 30 townhouses at Rolling Hills; The project is started, but not completed.

1990s—A second developer, Southeast Durham Development Corporation takes an $860,000 loan from the city to build another 56 single-family homes at Rolling Hills; 11 homes are built, nine of them completed.

2003—City forecloses on properties, taking ownership of 33 vacant parcels and two partially built single-family homes.

2005—City issues request for qualifications and identifies McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis firm, to revitalize Rolling Hills.

2007—Rolling Hills/Southside Steering Committee formed, includes more than 40 community members and city representatives; City council authorizes city to spend up to $6 million buying out homeowners in Rolling Hills and relocating them to prepare the site for renewal.

2008—McCormack Baron Salazar and City of Durham agree to split $650,000 in planning costs.

2008—National recession; McCormack Baron Salazar is unable to raise its $325,000 for planning.

2009—City agrees to pay for the entire $745,000 cost of planning the revitalization of 125 acres in Rolling Hills and Southside; City owns or is under contract to purchase 46 of the 51 homes in Rolling Hills.

Source: City of Durham

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