2011-01-19 Fuller Memorial Presbyterian - Durham Rescue Mission

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For the last several years, the Rescue Mission has been making big plans to expand - with what Ernie Mills recently dubbed a "God-size project" - purchasing a large number of parcels/houses in the Golden Belt / Morning Glory mill village to the north of the church and seeking donations for expansion.

It became clearer that the Rescue Mission planned to move ahead with their plans late in 2010, when they applied to rezone the residential parcels they own. Plans submitted to the City / County Planning department with the rezoning demonstrated several worrisome elements to neighbors. The scale had grown considerably from the single multipurpose building discussed in previous years; it now stretched over portions of five city blocks, involved the demolition of 9 houses in historic district, and contemplated the closing of two streets, creating a fenced/gated facility stretching over three blocks.

I attended a meeting between concerned neighbors and the leadership of the Durham Rescue Mission, in which the neighbors made clear their opposition to the street closings, the demolition of 9 houses in the Golden Belt historic district, and the compound-like land use planning intended by the Rescue Mission. All expressed support for the Rescue Mission expanding their footprint and/or services. The Rescue Mission said they would consider these concerns carefully; they then promptly hired attorneys K&L Gates to represent their interests in the rezoning...

One of the more frustrating aspects of land use planning (and governance in general) is that - for all the data, plans, guidelines, etc. out there - decisions generally come down to an emotional appeal. It's easy in these situations to conflate the mission and the implementation; groups that broadly work to serve the community - albeit for a salary - generally work to create such conflations when they need political action. I.e., this isn't about a rezoning, it's about saving lives. Do we really care more about saving historic housing than feeding the hungry? Would we deny site plan approval and put homeless people out on the street? I've had the old "he cares about houses, not people" trotted out on me before.

We can see the effectiveness of this kind of tactic in the street closure the city voted for on behalf of Greystone Baptist back in November 2010. Despite the fact that the closure (and demolition of mill housing in West Durham) violated the small area plan that the city/county planning department had put together with the neighborhood, the city voted for the closure because Greystone proffered that the closure would allow them to expand day care options in West Durham. So the question becomes - will you really vote against the children of Durham?

Of course these tactics are not intellectually honest, but most businesses - private, university, 501c3, etc. - politicking for their projects aren't interested in win-wins - just wins. If the groups are non-profits, the city is allowing people to wallow in sin/homelessness/ill health/obesity/etc. If they are for-profits, the city is throwing away jobs, tax revenues, directly funded civic improvements, and corporate prestige.

But all of that aside, this is terrible land planning - the worst of it represented by closing streets that connect the neighborhood - antithetical to the principles laid out in the HOPE VI revitalization plan for the neighborhood over 10 years ago, which sought to break down the "superblock" of Few Gardens to provide increased connectivity and integration in the neighborhood; closing two public right-of-ways and creating a fenced 'campus' over three blocks re-establishes what the community sought to reverse...


I'll give benefit of the doubt that part of the plan is simply an inability on the part of the Rescue Mission's directors to acknowledge that the investment in the neighborhood by the Durham Housing Authority, the city (Eastway Village), Habitat, Scientific Properties, and any number of individuals has dramatically changed this neighborhood for the better. When asked by an immediate neighbor why the Rescue Mission felt the need to fence their campus rather than integrating it with the neighborhood, Ernie Mills said, without irony, "there are a lot of bad influences out there." Just five years ago, he would have been right; but through the collective effort of many people in the community - including the Rescue Mission - the neighborhood has drastically changed for the better.

Note: The Greystone Baptist rezoning was also handled by K&L Gates.