Plaza proposed for Social Services lot in downtown Durham

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2013 

Durham County leaders want to demolish the now-vacant Social Services Building at Main and Roxboro streets downtown and turn the 15,000-square foot lot into a landscaped “civic plaza.”

“We want it to be nice mixture of hard surface and green space, so it does provide some green area and visual relief along Main Street,” said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow.

“This is very exciting,” said Commissioner Wendy Jacobs. “We have heard from the community that we need more green space downtown.”

Not everyone is so excited.

“If money were to be spent I’d much rather see it spent on low-income neighborhoods that have few trees,” said Duke University biologist Will Wilson, a champion of urban green space and chairman of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission.

“It seems like a strange place for a green space or plaza,” said Gary Kueber, creator of the “Open Durham” historical website. “I just don’t know who’s going to hang out there and why.”

The rationale

The 1966 Social Services Building stands next to the 1916 Courthouse, and its Modernist lines clash next to the ornate Neoclassical architecture next door. Opening up space to set off the historic courthouse has been in the county’s plans for more than a decade, said Reckhow, a commissioner since 1988.

“The rationale being, we feel that the courthouse is such an important historic building, and it is a very attractive building, opening up the view so that people can see the building better as they come into town on Roxboro is important,” Reckhow said.

Freelon Group architect Kevin Turner, the project manager, presented some general concepts for a plaza – terraced 14 feet down from Main Street to the Downtown Loop, all one level, with and without public art.

Turner, though, repeatedly said those were not plans. He and County Engineer Glen Whisler said that whatever form the civic plaza might take would be determined after interests and the Durham public get to make comments and suggestions at a series of meetings this fall.

“We’ll come back after the first of the year with something that reflects the input we have received,” Whisler said.


Demolishing Social Services and building a plaza or park is budgeted at about $1.3 million in the county’s Capital Improvement Plan ( p. 50). Plaza aside, the plan has raised some more practical issues.

“It would be a waste of taxpayer money to deconstruct a building here and spend additional money to build a pocket park,” said Durham resident Chris Bobko.

“This site overlooks very busy streets, railroad tracks, and the county jail. It is not appropriate for a park,” Bobko said. “Why not put the property up for sale?”

Several reader comments on “Open Durham” ( echo Bobko’s points.

Reckhow and Whisler said that, with the Judicial Building across Main Street vacant since the new courthouse opened in February, the county doesn’t need the space in Social Services. Moving Social Services to new quarters has been the county’s plan since the late 1990s, Whisler said, and in that time no one has asked about buying it.

“Just a lot of things work against it” for a prospective buyer, County Manager Mike Ruffin said.

“There’s no parking associated with that building, absolutely none,” Ruffin said.

Also, there is extensive asbestos, and the almost-50-year-old building does not meet present-day building codes and handicapped-access regulations, he said.

Whisler said the Social Services building was designed as an adjunct to the historic courthouse, rather than a stand-alone structure, and its utility systems are “somewhat co-mingled” with those of the Old Courthouse. Severing connections and installing new equipment would be difficult and expensive.

Nor does the building, despite its age, have historic or architectural significance.

“It’s certainly not a unique enough building to try to save,” said George Smart of Durham, a fan of Modern architecture and founder of the North Carolina Modernist Houses preservation group.

‘Courthouse square’

Opening space on the historic courthouse’s east side would create a “courthouse square” setting, which many cities have but Durham lacks, Whisler said. Traditionally, courthouses are in prominent locations, set back from the street and surrounded by public open space.

“Your most important civic building in town is set apart,” said landscape architect Dan Jewell, who is working on the plaza project and thinks a view from the east would fulfill what the original architects had in mind – even though, in 1916, the corner lot was occupied by a YMCA and a hotel.

“They spent just as much time designing a nice building elevation on the east side as on the front and the (west) side. Somebody was thinking ahead, that some day this is going to be an important facade,” Jewell said.

A plaza there could become an “important public space” like CCB Plaza, but at a gateway point to downtown, he said.

Kueber is skeptical.

“I don’t think that space is primed for success,” he said. It lacks the sort of vibrancy that restaurants and other businesses have brought to the long-dormant open space at Five Points, Kueber said, and without that there will be nothing to draw people to a plaza next to five-lane Roxboro Street.

“I don’t understand why someone would hang out in that space,” he said. “I don’t see where that’s going to be a very pleasant experience.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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