The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas Maddie Proano is holding a sign on Merrick St. during the Durham CAN meeting with elected officials and community members.
The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas Concrete slabs on Fayette Place, a public housing community first built by the Durham Housing Authority in 1967.
The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas Stephanie Proano is running on Merrick St. during the Durham CAN meeting with elected officials and community members.
DURHAM — Merrick Street saw foot traffic Wednesday evening reminiscent of the days people actually lived at Fayette Place, a former public housing complex that’s now an empty lot.
For 34-year-old Tamario Howze it was a chance to remember his childhood when he used to sit under the trees that lined the Fayette Place.
“The good times were playing basketball in the park, playing hide and seek, going to the candy lady’s house … where you could buy candy for a penny,” he said.
He remembered when he and his best friend would sit under the trees at the edge of Merrick Street and talk about the girl they both liked.
“Seeing how we can gain advantage in getting her,” he said as the crowd of over 100 chuckled at the memories of his adolescence.
“But it was also bad memories that I had,” Howze continued. “Those memories being the drugs, the violence, and I remember myself always praying to a God that I didn’t not know at the time to get me out of this situation and circumstance.”
Now the Duke Divinity student is hoping the land that once was Fayette Place can be reborn as something positive for future generations.
Howze said he envisioned the buildings that dotted the area to be torn down because a mentality that existed — what he called “a darkness, a lack of hope.”
Now he wants to see it be resurrected as affordable housing or something that will help the community and the youth around it.
“I speak for the people that are not fortunate, the kids that currently don’t understand or realize their potential,” Howze said. “So I look at this place as a place of renewed promises.”
The 20 acre site now sits dormant, but in the late 1960s and until the early 2000s the land was home to families and individuals who inhabited some 200 units of public housing.
In 2007 Campus Apartments, a Philadelphia-based company, bought the site for $4 million, and within two years had demolished the buildings, leaving only concrete slabs. The plan was to build 168 units of affordable housing for N.C. Central University students.
Even though the construction was part of a deed restriction at the time of the purchase, it never happened. A year from now, the Durham Housing Authority has the option to buy back the area for the original purchase price or its current market value — whichever is greater.
But now with the land empty for years, Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN) is calling for action.
While Campus Apartments hasn’t delivered on its plans to develop the land, a representative said the company is “open to discussing potential development opportunities at Fayette Place …”
However, there are no plans to build on the property at this time.
“When we purchased the property, we had every intention to develop affordable student housing in partnership with N. C. Central University; however, the original plan did not come to fruition,” Campus Apartments said in a statement to The Herald-Sun. “Campus Apartments then made a significant investment to remove the dilapidated structures and secure the property. We share the community’s desire to develop the property and have continued to pursue viable development opportunities. We appreciate the feedback from the local community.”
The Rev. William Lucas, pastor at First Chronicles Community Church on Lincoln Street, has seen the changes happening in the community around his church and Fayette Place over the past 20 years.
Lucas recounted how while W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington didn’t agree on a lot of things — they agreed on one thing.
“That this Hayti community, the dirt you are standing on now, is a model that all of African-Americans in the United States of America should follow,” Lucas said. “Now I want you to see what neglect can do to a community.”
Lucas said Campus Apartments have left “steps that lead to to nowhere.”
“We don’t have a problem with individuals moving into our community, but we want them to be part of our community, not just build buildings, but build people,” Lucas said.
If the Durham Housing Authority chooses to buy back the property there could be some constraints.
City Councilman Steve Schewel, Council liaison to DHA, said the authority has discussed the possibility of buying back Fayette Place, but nothing has been decided on.
Schewel said that under former DHA director Dallas Parks, the board had been working on the possibility of repurchasing the site. Since new DHA CEO Anthony Scott has taken the helm of the agency, Schewel hasn’t discussed it at length with him.
Durham CAN leaders plan to meet with Scott on Friday to discuss the future of Fayette Place.
While the land has yet to be appraised, the cost of the buyback could potentially impact DHA’s ability to get the land.
“(DHA) by itself does not have the money to make the purchase,” Schewel said.
There would likely mean a partnership of some kind would need to be forged in order to buy the land if that move is pursued.
Schewel believes Fayette Place is a viable option for affordable housing in the city.
“It’s a key property,” he said. “It is right in the transit corridor. … It’s a key entryway to N.C. Central and it’s downtown. I do think it’s a very important piece of property and I think it’s a great spot for affordable housing.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) complicates bringing affordable housing to that area though.
There are new rules that limits the concentration of low-income housing, thus making it hard to build affordable housing where such housing already exists.
But if DHA eventually goes through with the buyback, Martin Eakes, co-founder of Self-Help Credit Union, said Self-Help would put its resources behind helping the community.
“The property has become a blight in a community that deserves so much better,” Eakes said. “We stand 100 percent behind the community’s call for the Durham Housing Authority to regain possession of the property.”
Residents around Fayette Place have been encouraged to see the Durham CAN tackle the issue, but are skeptical of anything coming of it.
Michelle Y. Winters and Stephanie Cox have lived on Shirley Caesar Court for more than 20 years. They’ve seen what losing Fayette Place did to the community surrounding it.
“It’s depressing when you open your door and you look out and see this, it’s not refreshing,” Winters said. “It’s been 12 years now and they haven’t done anything except tear it down and let the grass grow.”
Cox said prostitutes and drug addicts often hang on the street and dump trash.
“We’ve seen trucks of people dumping trash,” she said, adding the city tries to come by and keep the area clean, but the police don’t keep tabs on the neighborhood like they did in the past.
“It’s like nobody cares about us,” she said. “I don’t want to live in this environment … They need to come up and do something.”
Winters want to see the area thriving — much as the city has revitalized the Rolling Hills and Southside communities..
She said even building a new W. G. Pearson Elementary School would help the community.
“No one cares about this community like we do,” Winters said. “We keep our circle nice … but no one else seems to care.”
In the days before the Durham CAN meeting crews came in to help clean up the area around Fayette Place and Shirley Caesar Court, but Winters and Cox aren’t convinced that cleanups will continue.
They’re also frustrated with the lack of movement from Campus Apartments.
“So now they’re just going to let it sit here. Why don’t they sell it so somebody else can come in and develop it and bring up our value in our area,” Cox said. “Go and get rid of it if you’re not going to do anything with it. Don’t hold our progress up.”
Follow Lauren Horsch on Twitter at @LaurenHorsch. She blogs about local government and Durham life at bit.ly/HallMonitor.