Old West Durham Residents Are Battling Over the Soul of Their Neighborhood | Durham County | Indy Week
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Old West Durham Residents Are Battling Over the Soul of Their Neighborhood 

click to enlarge A large new house dwarfs its neighbor in Old West Durham.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

A large new house dwarfs its neighbor in Old West Durham.

"I guess you found it all right through all of the construction?" asks Dan Welch, a resident of Old West Durham, over the din of jackhammers and dump trucks.

Two new houses are going up next door. Compared to Welch's quaint single-story house from the 1940s, these taller, wider structures would fit better in the suburbs. Welch says he's not against all new construction. He just wants what's coming to match the character of what's already there—charming mill houses that have existed in this area for decades.

click to enlarge Dan Welch - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • Dan Welch

He's not alone. Welch and dozens of his neighbors have spent years lobbying the city for a designation known as a neighborhood protection overlay, or NPO, which adds to the city's existing zoning regulations in a particular neighborhood. If they're successful this week, Old West Durham would become only the second neighborhood in Durham to have an NPO.

This, they say, is their best chance at reducing teardowns and holding on to the elements that make their neighborhood unique.

But the proposed NPO regulates more than just the size of houses—there would be limitations on bulk relative to a house's lot size and a maximum height of twenty-six feet. The NPO would also mandate a canopy tree in every backyard and limit the height of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to twenty feet.

Developers, of course, don't like the NPO, as the restrictions would inhibit their profit margins. But neither do some homeowners, including John Temple, an OWD resident since 1964, who argues that, by trying to reduce new construction, the pro-NPO crowd is harming efforts to keep housing prices in check.

In a letter to the city council in April, Temple wrote, "I think the NPO will only result in fewer folks in each house, and that will also cause rents to rise. Families that have more children should be able to enlarge their houses without being forced to move to another neighborhood that does not have such arbitrary restrictions."

Indeed, on March 13, after several drafts and sixteen public meetings, the city's planning commission narrowly rejected the NPO on a 5–4 vote—a clear blow to NPO supporters. A statement from the meeting explained, "The commission believes the request is not reasonable and in the public interest." On May 7, the application goes to the Durham City Council, which has the final word. Already, residents on both sides of the issue are bombarding city council members' inboxes.

One of the emails in support of the NPO came from Heather Gavilan, an OWD resident of over eighteen years, who complained that "the likelihood that our lot will eventually be robbed of sunlight, air flow, and privacy from both sides by for-profit, non-resident landlord developers is greater than ever before."

This NPO application is part of a larger trend toward neighborhood protection in which well-meaning homeowners limit development projects in an effort to keep their neighborhoods intact. The problem, according to many urban planners, is that neighborhood-protection initiatives sometimes do the opposite of what residents hope for. Economists say that by limiting the supply of housing, the added regulations often make prices skyrocket. That, in turn, leads to neighborhood exclusivity.

Joshua McCarty, an urban analytics researcher, says that the minutiae of regulations on height and bulk can sometimes dissuade developers from contributing to a diverse marketplace with many options for renters and buyers. Prices in Durham are going to rise regardless of an NPO, he says, and cutting supply will only exacerbate the issue.

Instead, McCarty suggests, the neighbors should support incentives to build duplexes, townhouses, and other multiunit properties that would increase housing availability, and thus improve affordability.

But, as NPO supporters point out, affordable housing does not seem to be a primary concern for most developers in Old West Durham. In scenarios where an older, smaller single-family house is being replaced by a newer, larger house, there's little change in supply but a large difference in price.

In the short term, at least, the price hikes could be enough to force renters to move elsewhere.

Old West Durham residents began exploring the creation of the NPO in 2012 and submitted their proposal to the city in 2014. Although the initiative wasn't precipitated by a single event, supporters say they were generally concerned about the area's rapid growth and fears that those trends would accelerate in the future. Because the Durham City-County Planning Department lacked sufficient personnel, officials there only began working on the NPO last year.

Since NPOs are proposed and backed by residents, they're a uniquely democratic process in the world of city planning.

"This is probably the only zoning tool we have that really allows neighborhoods to essentially write their own destiny, to some degree," says Matthew Filter, a senior planner for the department.

Durham is changing, and OWD with it. The neighborhood's vast tree canopy, proximity to Ninth Street, and relatively affordable prices (it's not uncommon to pay under $1,000 a month for an older rental) make it a desirable location. Most of all, neighbors say, OWD is known for its "porch culture." As opposed to the impersonal anonymity afforded to suburb-dwellers, small lots and walkable streets encourage OWD residents to use their porches and lawns to enjoy the weather, chat with friends, and share meals.

But lately, the trees are dying off as they reach maturity, housing prices are exploding, and some small village houses are being torn down and replaced by larger homes that tower over their neighbors. Nineteen homes in the neighborhood—out of 428 parcels of land in OWD—have been demolished in the last decade. The newly constructed homes that replace them are generally larger and thus more expensive. The average size of a house built in the 1990s was 1,769 square feet, compared to an average size of 2,828 square feet in the 2010s.

The pro-NPO group argues that welcoming construction and renovation while limiting the size of new houses will make each unit more affordable than what's currently being built. Supporters compare a traditional mill house from 1956 that rents for $1,085 a month to a house constructed last year priced at $2,750 per month.

Perhaps no one has aroused the NPO supporters' ire more than developer Jeff Monsein, who owns fifty-three properties in the neighborhood. Monsein, along with business partner Chris McKeel and fellow property owner Martin McFarling, says he's been astonished at the vitriol to which he's been subjected.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna

The neighborhood's listserv is dotted with posts that condemn Monsein's development "excesses." One post last year hinted that one of his houses could have been burned down in order to build a larger duplex, albeit with no evidence to support that claim. The developer also says his anti-NPO signs are frequently stolen from properties he owns.

In the 1980s, when Monsein first bought property in Old West Durham, houses were selling for between $20,000 and $40,000. Now, some of those houses are going for more than half a million dollars. Demolishing the original residences to build bigger houses has proved to be a lucrative model for many landlords, including Monsein. He believes he just got lucky. There was no way to predict the upsurge in home values.

"It's not like we're scheming somehow," he says. "This just happened."

But detractors say that the things that Monsein does have control over, like ensuring that his newer houses match the neighborhood, have been disregarded for the sake of profit. Some of the developer's properties snugly fit into their designated lots and rise above surrounding structures. That's led critics to refer to them as "Mon-strosities."

Monsein admits that many of his newer homes are larger and pricier than the originals. For instance, one currently available property rents for over $3,000 a month, and its accessory dwelling unit costs about half of that. Still, he believes the development is reinvigorating a neighborhood that would otherwise be falling into disrepair. Monsein points to neighboring properties that have been neglected and wonders why residents haven't targeted them through their proposed overlay. He notes the metal carports some residents have constructed in their backyards, which could also be considered uncharacteristic of the neighborhood.

But Ellen Dagenhart, a real estate agent who owns and rents out a house at 900 Virgie Street, says that over her nearly forty-year career, she's rarely seen a property that's "too far gone" for repairs. In many cases, she insists, tax credits for historic preservation can help cut the costs of renovation. And even if the renovations take more money and time to develop, Dagenhart believes that the red tape is worth it to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

"The thing that hurts about this is that they're going through the city to try to impose regulations on us, when it seems like the neighborly thing to have started with would have just been to come and say, 'What are your goals as an investor, and can we work out some reasonable changes?'" says McKeel, Monsein's business partner.

The NPO's supporters say they have tried to reach out, but the developers rebuffed them. And Welch flatly dismisses the idea that the NPO will hurt the landlords' business prospects.

"The developers are trying to paint themselves as victims of all these people that are trying to steal away their livelihood," he says. "Another way to frame it is these [investors] are doing really well. The rents have about doubled in the past ten years. They really shouldn't be considered victims in this."

Instead, Welch suggests, the real victims are renters, who make up 57 percent of the neighborhood, according to the planning commission. Welch says they often get priced out of the neighborhood when new houses are constructed.

A major point of contention for both sides is the lack of an official vote on the NPO from the residents who will be affected. In Durham, it's not required, so there's no way of knowing for sure if a majority of the neighborhood really supports the initiative. But all indications suggest that's the case. Those who have shown up to community meetings tend to support the NPO; at a November meeting, even the least-popular aspects of the proposal were backed by 70 percent of respondents.

In addition, a private survey taken by the anti-NPO camp showed that OWD residents support the NPO by a nearly 2–1 margin. Both renters and—albeit to a lesser degree—property owners back the additional regulations.

The only other NPO in Durham was established in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood in 2008. It shares many features with the one proposed in OWD: both limit house sizes and address issues related to tree cover. Other North Carolina cities have a long history of implementing citizen-led zoning initiatives. In Raleigh, there are nineteen resident-driven overlay districts, and in Chapel Hill there are about ten. Neighbors in those districts had some of the same concerns as the citizens in OWD.

"Largely, the more recent [overlays] we've seen have been aimed at reducing teardowns and subdivisions, subdivision of a single lot to build two or three houses where there was one," says Bynum Taylor, a senior planner for the city of Raleigh. "We're definitely seeing, with the ongoing growth pressures post-recession, a greater interest in historic and neighborhood conservation overlay districts."

Even the most ardent supporters admit that the NPO won't stop the wave of gentrification cascading through Durham. But one thing that both sides can agree on is that this debate is not really about architecture or zoning.

Rather, it's about finding a way to curb growth while promoting inclusion and affordability.

The problem is figuring out what that balance looks like. It remains unclear whether the NPO gets to the heart of the matter or is simply the last gasp of an effort to resist inevitable change.

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