Near Ninth Street, even Jesus needs to park | Durham County | Indy Week
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Near Ninth Street, even Jesus needs to park 

A church parking lot could replace this 90-year-old mill house at 714 Iredell St.

Photo by Lisa Sorg

A church parking lot could replace this 90-year-old mill house at 714 Iredell St.

The fast-growing congregation of Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church has always trusted God to provide for its parking needs. And God has apparently answered its prayers, albeit not cheaply.

The historic church in Durham's crowded Ninth Street neighborhood plans to spend more than $1.6 million to buy and develop two-thirds of an acre on Iredell Street. The three parcels, which include two 90-year-old mill houses that must be either moved or demolished, will become a 39-space parking lot.

Do the math, and that comes to $41,000 per space, more than the price of many of the cars that will park there.

To buy the properties at 714, 715 and 716 Iredell St., the church is mining its $1 million in anonymous donations earmarked for land acquisition. The parcels are owned by Ken McCullers, also a member of Blacknall Presbyterian. If the congregation votes in favor of the plan this Sunday, the deal could close as soon as Aug. 15.

The church's parking needs are real. Its congregation, once in the mid-200s, has grown to more than 500, with many of them attending not only Sunday services but also weekday activities and meetings.

But the price of the land, the dearth of neighborhood parking and the fate of the houses, built in the 1920s for workers at nearby Erwin Mills, underscores the development pressures in this neighborhood.

"This block is golden," says Tim Pennigar, who is on the church's land-acquisition committee. "Over the next five years the landscape here is going to change dramatically."

It already has. Several luxury apartment complexes—Crescent on Main, Crescent on Ninth and Berkshire Ninth Street—have been built or are under construction. With new commercial and residential development, the west side of Ninth Street has become a glossy counterpoint to the east side's gritty authenticity and long-time Durham businesses.

The new projects have created a parking shortage in the neighborhood, one acutely felt by both businesses and Blacknall Presbyterian. Although the Sunday crowds can park in spaces the church leases from Duke University and in some freebies courtesy of Melton's Garage, they also consume the lion's share of on-street slots. But the shortage is worst during the week, when the Duke lot is unavailable to the public.

With Whole Foods nearby, on-street parking is scarce along Iredell and Perry. And that parking is limited to two hours, which is not enough time for some members to finish their weekday meetings, workshops or Bible studies, says Jack Simonds, who serves on the land-acquisition committee.

The city's new parking strategy in the Ninth Street area has not alleviated Blacknall's problems, Simonds says. Along Ninth, the city shortened the number of free hours from three to two, and installed a pay lot where free parking had been previously. Although that lot, which is free on Sundays, is just a block away, elderly Blacknall congregants don't or can't walk that far.

The city's Ninth Street pay lot is underused, to the extent that many Ninth Street merchants plan to approach Durham officials with a proposal to lease the lot from the city, guaranteeing it more revenue than the lot currently generates. In return for that lease, merchants would revert the parking to free for the first two hours.

Blacknall could also contribute parking. The 39-space lot is only a temporary solution, Simonds says. If the church acquires additional land, it could build a parking garage for use by the entire neighborhood, including Ninth Street.

Built in 1923, Blacknall served as the primary house of worship for neighboring mill workers, who also flocked there on weekends to buy homemade Brunswick stew. The church, the first mainline congregation to intergrate, has expanded three times, most recently in 2008.

The two mill houses on Iredell were constructed around the same time as the church. Although they've been used for storage for many years, these homes, at 1,000-square-feet each, could see new life as affordable housing, but they would need to be moved.

"Retaining affordable housing in downtown neighborhoods is very important," says Wendy Hillis, executive director of Preservation Durham, who met with two church officials this week. (The INDY attended that meeting.) "The mill houses are an important component of that. [The houses] and the surface parking will be a hard pill to take."

Iredell Street lies within a half-mile of a proposed light rail station, an area where the city has set a goal of creating or preserving at least 15 percent of the housing as affordable.

Hillis acknowledged that, considering the desirability of the property, those mill houses are not long for this world. A commercial developer would probably raze the houses. But the church, Simonds says, would like to find someone interested in moving the homes to another lot. If they have to be demolished, the church would donate any salvageable materials to Habitat for Humanity, which could use them to build new homes.

"We're going to be a player in the neighborhood," Simonds says. "And we want to be good for the neighborhood."

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