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Imagining more open space in downtown Durham 

Behind a three-story building with a top floor charred by arson, and tucked off Alley 26 in downtown Durham, is a desolate patch of asphalt.

It is littered with construction debris, cordoned behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire and secured with a combination lock. The air smells faintly of ash. Near a doorway, a yellow flower thrusts itself through a crack in the pavement.

In 2012 when Arthur Rogers bought 118 W. Parrish St.—which, over the years, has housed a soul food restaurant and a storefront church—120, the official address of the vacant lot, came with it, like a bonus pair of Pajama Jeans ordered from QVC. Taken together, at 2,500 square feet, these two vacant slabs are about half the size of the Durham Performing Arts Center stage.

This lot is among the city's many underused and promising places. If Rogers can develop 120 W. Parrish St., into a small business incubator and courtyard, as planned, it could continue a downtown renaissance farther east, in the Alley 26 and Orange Street neighborhood.

"There's an excitement about the alley," says Rogers, who also owns the American Dance Festival building on Broad Street and the former Citizens Bank at Main and Mangum streets.

Rogers plans to apply for a certificate of appropriateness for 120 W. Parrish St. from the Historic Preservation Commission this fall. The windows, now bricked over, would be reopened and a building constructed behind the façade. A courtyard for gatherings and events could be developed at the entrance.

The former Jack Tar motel, aka the Oprah Building, also backs into the alley. Greg Hills, president of Austin Lawrence Partners, is leading the renovation of the 1960s-era motel. His company is also building a 26-story tower at Main and Corcoran streets as part of the City Center Project.

"If that alley got enough traction," Hills says, he would consider removing the concrete blocks from the windows on the back of the motel parking garage and turning some of that space into storefronts.

A vestige of early Durham, Alley 26 has its quirks. Mechanics & Farmers Bank, a small part of which also abuts the alley, owns a sliver of concrete in front of 120 W. Parrish. Two metal markers engraved with "Property Line" are pressed into the concrete, showing the boundary.

click to enlarge A property line off Alley 26 delineates the boundary between the Mechanics & Farmers Bank and Arthur Rogers' lots at 120 W. Parrish St. - LISA SORG
  • Lisa Sorg
  • A property line off Alley 26 delineates the boundary between the Mechanics & Farmers Bank and Arthur Rogers' lots at 120 W. Parrish St.

While Alley 26 is a public right-of-way, says Sara Young, city-county planning supervisor, it's unclear if Durham has ever accepted responsibility for maintaining it.

It's not merely a matter of removing snow or repairing the concrete, says Senior City Attorney Fred Lamar, but there are inspection and liability issues as well.

City Council would have to approve the acceptance of the alley for maintenance The city is targeting several areas, including this one, in its downtown open space plan.

There are 23.3 acres of open space downtown, about 12 of which are publicly owned, such as parks. Another six acres of space are located at public buildings, including the Durham County Courthouse.

Less than five acres are semi-public: American Tobacco Campus, Brightleaf Square and, if developed, Rogers' courtyard off the alley.

The plan would increase the amount of open space to nearly 40 acres, with 23 of that devoted solely to publicly owned land.

There are parcels downtown that are assumed to be public, such as the lawn at Main and Corcoran streets. However, that acreage is privately owned by Durham City Center, LLC, a division of Austin Lawrence Partners. The Geer Building—it housed a bank and Woolworth's—used to be there, but it was demolished in 2003. Construction workers will break ground on the 26-story tower on the lot next year.

"Given that Durham was a business and manufacturing town, public spaces have been where buildings fell down," says Tom Dawson, city-county planner. "And they tend to be where buildings go back up. ... As downtown Durham develops, we'll need more open spaces owned by the public."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The dark end of the street"

  • City Council to discuss plan Thursday

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