Police HQ: Our Alternative Plan

Published by info@preservationdurham.org on

The End Is Here!
City Council Expected to Make Final Decision on New Police HQ Scheme TONIGHT



The Carpenter Chevrolet Building at 600 E. Main Street (Left – 1923, Right – 2015)

We have been closely monitoring the proposed site layouts for the Durham Police HQ project, and have continually taken a strong position that the City needs to re-examine designs that incorporate the historic Carpenter Chevrolet Building at the corner of Main and Elizabeth Streets. We believe that keeping this building retains a needed level of scale and material texture along Main Street and would be a obvious way to promote street-level, pedestrian activation along this corridor.

We’ve studied the five layouts currently under consideration and have collaborated with Durham Area Designers on a sixth, a hybrid of two plans that we believe would be far better for the long term vitality and connectivity of East Durham.

hybrid plan

Details of The Hybrid Plan
Thy hybrid plan takes the north half of Scheme 1 (rotating the HQ building 90 degrees), and merges it with the south half of Scheme 5. This Concept meets all of the physical program elements determined by the City’s Design Team, including building area, surface and structured parking, service yards and open space.
We met with City staff and the design team last week to present this scheme and strongly recommend that this concept be the basis of the design moving forward.
Benefits of The Plan
Allows the parking deck to be wrapped by private development, which significantly increases the amount of activated space on the street.
Retains private development along Main Street, preventing a dead-zone of a street-facing Police HQ with a single entrance.
Eliminates (what we see as) inappropriately large setbacks along Main and Ramseur Streets.
Moves the Police HQ to a mid-block location, flanked by open space and a surface parking lot – meeting the program’s security concerns
Allows for future police department expansion on the site of the surface parking lot
Allows the city to sell off 55,840 SF of prime land for private development. Sale of these parcels could offset a budget that is already $18 million above original projections.

While we are pleased that two of the five plans prepared by the City and their consultants preserve the three-story Carpenter Motor Building, we want to address the four main criticisms we’ve heard leveled at those options.

Carpenter Motor Company buildings are not historic, and are not worth preserving

Throughout our recent needs assessment process, we heard a clear consensus that the community is concerned about the pace of change and Durham losing its authenticity and sense of place. These buildings are part of the cultural and architectural fabric that differentiates our town from other cities.

The Carpenter Motor Company was among the first automobile dealerships in North Carolina and the first Chevrolet dealership anywhere. Built in 1923, a record-breaking year for the automotive industry, the facility was expanded in 1928 and again during the boom following the second World War. For nearly a century, Carpenter Chevrolet represented the local hand of the industry that more than any other has shaped the American landscape. These buildings tell the stories of nearly five generations of Durhamites who worked here, bought their first cars here, or got their first glimpse of a Corvette on the showroom floor.

The solid brick and steel structures, metal windows, and old growth wood of these buildings embody the labor and skill of those who built them. Sturdy structures positioned close to the sidewalk with large street level windows designed to maximize views are a template for architects and designers seeking to replicate the walkability of the early 20th century streetscape. Character-filled buildings just like these have been renovated all Durham, and inarguably continue to attract entrepreneurs from around the country.

The fact that these buildings are not currently not listed in one of our historic designation lists is an oversight, not a reason to raze them. The Duke Campus is not on the National Register, or listed in a state or local historic district. There are hundreds of worthy structures in Durham, not listed due to ignorance, the cost of obtaining recognition, or indifference. The Carpenter Motor Company buildings are the last remaining 20th century commercial structures on several blocks of East Main Street. These buildings embody the scrappy entrepreneurism, creative reinvention, and stubborn optimism that made Durham both a 20th century industrial powerhouse and enabled its reinvention as a high-tech hub of the 21st century.

Renovating the 1923 building adds $4m to a project that is already over budget
The cost estimate produced by the design team identifies an additional $3.9 million to incorporate the Carpenter building into Police Station Use. It is clear that updating the building for both security and emergency services requirements is expensive. In contrast, a private developer would be able to use both the rehab. building code (for further leeway on code improvements) as well as Federal Preservation Tax Credits (should the property be listed on the National Register of Historic Places) to recoup 20% of rehab costs.

Sharing the block with private retail development poses too great a security risk
Reasonable security is obviously important, but in an open society no public building can ever be completely safe. The headquarters will be the physical embodiment of the Durham Police Department and its relationship with the community. If impenetrable security, large “defensible zone” setbacks from public streets and private development are the primary design criteria, then East Main Street is clearly the wrong site for these buildings.

A well-designed new building will enliven and reconnect Main Street as well or better than a renovated building.
Activation of the street is primarily a function of land use, not of the quality of the built environment. One only needs to look at the 500 block of East Main Street to see how ineffective a single-use municipal building with a secure perimeter is at enlivening Main Street, particularly after 5:00. The most effective way to activate East Main Street is by increasing the variety and density of land uses along the entire corridor, with a mix of ground floor retail, commercial office space, and upper story residential housing units. Until and unless that happens, East Durham will continue to be cut off from the prosperity that has revived our downtown.


1.  Email your Council Members (this morning!) expressing your preference for a scheme that retains the Carpenter Chevy Building
2.  Attend The City Council meeting tonight at 7pm at City Hall

We believe staff is likely to recommend proceeding with option 5, which clears the entire site and expect Council to rubber stamp this recommendation with little or no pushback. If you care about the future of Carpenter and the dynamic revitalization of this site we need you to take action!