Rescue Mission changes plans, still finds opposition

jwise@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2014 

— The Durham Rescue Mission has revised its expansion plans in response to neighbors and historic preservationists’ criticism.

“We listened to what the neighbors’ concerns were,” said Gail Mills, the Rescue Mission’s CFO and co-founder.

Instead of spreading over several blocks, the 40-year-old mission now plans to build new on the block it already occupies at the northeast corner of Main Street and Alston Avenue, with only a stormwater retention pond going elsewhere.

Those new plans, though, have not met favor, either. And that has the mission founders and supporters puzzled.

“We have always been wanting to help the neighborhood,” said Ernie Mills, the Rescue Mission’s CEO and co-founder.

The neighbors haven’t always seen it that way. The retention pond is now the main objection, said homeowner Antoine Freeman, a founder of the Golden Belt Neighborhood Association.

“They are kind of ugly,” said Duke biologist Will Wilson, who joined nine others in opposing the mission’s application for a special-use permit last spring. That opposition reflects tension between an established Christian institution and homeowners revitalizing the area.

Opened in 1974, the Durham Rescue Mission shelters the homeless and people trying to recover from addictions. Over the years, it has expanded from overnight housing and food service to offer a rehabilitation program along with formal education and job training, and charity outreach for the community at large.

“Our space is just cramped,” Ernie Mills said, and, in 2010, the Rescue Mission applied to have 6.5 acres of its property rezoned to allow a future development. The property covered four blocks north of the Mission’s main campus at Main Street and Alston Avenue, extending into the historic Golden Belt mill village.

The prospect of more mission housing spreading into the neighborhood east of Alston Avenue – in the process taking out several historic houses and closing portions of some neighborhood streets – alarmed some Golden Belt neighbors and some preservationists.

In 2011, the Durham Area Designers group of architects and urban planners, convened a meeting to reach some common ground, but the meeting ended with the sides as far apart as when it began.

The Rescue Mission went ahead with its Center for Hope, a multi-purpose building with 80 beds on its existing campus that opened in 2013. Plans to expand remained on hold and now have been abandoned.

Instead, the Rescue Mission now wants to build three new dormitories on its Alston-Main block, a total of 300 beds for residential clients now living in scattered housing the mission already owns – “the best building it can be on a mission budget,” Ernie Mills said. It would also add parking, a park area to accommodate events such as the annual Christmas party, which draw thousands from all over Durham, and the retention pond two blocks north.

For its part, the planning staff concluded the plans are “substantially compliant” with the city’s rules. But neighbors’ opposition to the proposed retention pond is not a singular instance. A similar conflict exists over the city’s proposed wetland at the former Duke Diet and Fitness site on Trinity Avenue.

To stormwater engineers, it’s a perfect location to capture and filter runoff from Trinity Park and much of downtown Durham and that could be developed as a park; to neighbors, it’s a potential eyesore that the city might neglect, collecting water-borne trash and attracting undesirable elements such as rats and mosquitoes.

Similarly, to the Rescue Mission, a retention pond could be a required environmental addition that provides a park-like oasis along Alston Avenue; to neighbors, it presents a fenced-in eyesore and a hazard for children, according to Wilson; plus, the same environmental problems as the Trinity Avenue wetland, all of which could be avoided with alternative measures – Wilson mentioned cisterns under parking lots, or rain gardens.

To the Board of Adjustment, which heard the mission’s application in late May, the whole plan left questions of appropriate land-use, said city-county Planner Jacob Wiggins, and its members unanimously put a decision off until they meet Aug. 26.

The Mills and their supporters say that, over its 40 years, the Rescue Mission’s presence has helped what was then, and has largely remained, a depressed, run-down, high-crime part of Durham; and anyone moving into the reviving neighborhood now did so knowing that the Rescue Mission was already there.

“Because of the mission,” said supporter Steve Toler, “this is why people feel safe to move in.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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