Our Work Matters…In Ways You May Have Not Considered

Published by info@preservationdurham.org on

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Last night I had the opportunity to address the County Commissioners regarding their 2015-16 budget.  The commissioners’ chambers were full, with impressive turnout in support of increased funding for Durham Public Schools and in opposition to increased funding requests from the Durham County Prison Administration.

In light of the above, my plea for Preservation Durham’s importance seemed almost inappropriate.  Who was I to ask for funding for our advocacy programs when DPS can’t pay a living wage to its support staff?  When the prison administration is confining inmates to their cells for 22 hours per day?
And then I had to remind myself that, at its core, much of our advocacy work addresses some of the same systematic issues and injustices, but from a different angle.
Looking at our advocacy agenda over the past 6 months, there are two items on which we have engaged that have larger social and political implications beyond “preserving old buildings”, and it’s worth pointing out the connections with larger community needs.

    1. The proposed siting and design of the new Police Headquarters complex on East Main Street.  Those of you who regularly read our emails have heard about this repeatedly, but it is worth pointing the social and environmental consequences of this site and design.
      The design of the new police headquarters will be the architectural embodiment of the Durham Police Department’s relationship with the citizens of Durham.  We can have a police station that is a bunker of separation on E. Main Street, huge in proportion to the buildings surrounding it, or we can have a building that welcomes public interaction and brings activity and investment to the areas surrounding it.
      The design of the new police headquarters will either separate or connect East Durham to downtown, physically and economically.  This is an important point decision-makers need to grapple with to ensure economic equity in the face of rapid reinvestment.
    2. The proposed teardown of a house in the Watts Hillandale section of W. Club Boulevard.  While private property rights are important, private actions do not exist in a vacuum.  The fact that a $380,000 property can be purchased as a tear down is indicative of both the powerful allure of our historic downtown neighborhoods and rising real estate prices throughout Durham.  This allure and economic pressure have been felt in other center city neighborhoods, like Cleveland Holloway, for quite a while and are beginning to be felt in the West End, East End, and Old East Durham where the search for desirable housing will push out many long term residents.There is no silver bullet to address this problem, but local historic districts are one of the tools that can help.  Without them, property owners can demolish houses without public input.  With them in place, demolition plans need to be heard by the Historic Preservation Commission, who notifies the public about the request, offering a chance for concerned citizens to discuss the implications of the loss of small-scale affordable housing and work to find other solutions.

How significant are older and historic neighborhoods in providing affordable housing? Consider this:

  • 32% of households below the poverty line live in older and historic homes
  • 31% percent of homeowners whose household income is less than $20,000 per year live in older and historic homes
  • 34% of renters whose household income is less than $20,000 per year live in older and historic homes
  • source:  US Department of Housing and Urban Development

In my world, preservation isn’t about house museums or pristine renovations, it’s about responsible reuse of our built environment, economic opportunity, and economic and social diversity.  At its best, Historic Preservation is important work that drives social, economic and environmental sustainability.  


Let’s not forget this as we press forward.

Wendy Hillis, AIA
Executive Director