Monday, January 08, 2007

Fear and loathing in Trinity Park

condo buyers beware ...

Go grab a beer, this is a long one.

I've got more thoughts and opinions about the large, unattractive condo development, aka, "The Chancellory at Trinity Park" (or as one member of my neighborhood listserv called it, the "massive erection,") proposed in my 'hood. I've learned so much about it that I've gotten to the point where I don't even know where to begin.

My first impression upon seeing the rendering was that the design is completely out of character for the neighborhood and, well, just plain ugly. The house-like roofs grafted to the tops of the 5-, 6- and 7- story sections are too generic to register as a reflection of the actual architectural flavor of the surrounding houses, so they call attention to the falseness of the whole building, as if it's shouting out "Hey, I'm new around here!" It's not what a design destined for a tree-lined, historic neighborhood should do. Quite frankly it will loom as an enormous, boorish, uninvited guest--a bit of a party-crasher. It would be far better if the architects had done a little research into the history and architectural styles of the area--similar to what was done with the houses and townhouses in Trinity Heights. Or, they could have easily ripped off a few ideas from a handsome building that once sat across the street from the proposed atrocity--The Beverly Apartments:

Beverly Apartments

After noting the condo project's ugliness, the next thing I thought was that the building is astonishingly tall for the location. Nothing in the surrounding three or four blocks is more than three stories tall, and while I don't think that four or even five stories would be awful for the site, seven is definitely a few too many. Plus, at 48 units on a .8 acre lot across the street from what will soon be a 101-room hotel-plus-retail-and-dining complex (more on that below), the density and resulting traffic will possibly overwhelm that corner of the
neighborhood. It's a high-end luxury development, so I'm envisioning lots of huge luxury SUVs, maybe a bunch of Hummers, all spewing their carbon monoxide ... quite frankly I'm glad I live in the slums of Trinity Park, where I'm more likely to see folks trudging up the street to the bus stop every morning because they don't have a car.

If the building were going to feature groundbreaking energy-saving technology or perhaps offer affordable mid-range housing so that people likely to really appreciate it could live within walking distance of things like Brightleaf Square, downtown, and American Tobacco, I'd be more inclined to think that the possible social good might be worth the trade-off to the neighborhood. But these are going to be high-end, luxury units, and the people who will buy them are probably the least likely to take advantage of being within walking distance of ... well anything. Instead they will whisk in and out of the safe underground parking in their Land Rovers on their way to and from places like the Streets of Southpoint. I have some doubts as to whether this project will do as much as some people think to revitalize this part of Durham. Unless maybe they build a Nordstrom downtown. But it better have valet parking.

There had been a year or so of meetings between the neighborhood association and the developers (none of which I was able to attend), and I had been under the impression that neighborhood folks were happy with the design/size. After seeing the rendering, however I wondered what's in the water supply. I also wondered how such a dense, tall building so completely out of the character was allowed under zoning rules. Well, I quickly discovered that many people in the neighborhood were not happy at all with the project, and that as far as the zoning issue is concerned, the developers used a bit of ... oh, I can't decide which word best expresses it, so I asked for some suggestions (pick your favorite): bamboozlement, beguilement, blarney, boondoggle, cheat, circumvention, cozenage, craftiness, cunning, deceit, deceptiveness, defraudation, dissimulation, duplicity, equivocation, falsehood, flimflam, fraud, fraudulence, guile, hokum, insincerity, legerdemain, lying, mendacity, pretense, prevarication, sophism, trickery, trickiness, trumpery, untruth. ("Cozenage" is one I had never heard before. I'll need to work that one into a sentence whenever possible).

It turns out that the proposed height and density far exceed what zoning laws actually allow for the .8-acre parcel. The developers (Durham's Park City Development, fronting for a Maryland-based corporation called Landex) are applying for a zoning variance, and they claim that "by right" they would be allowed to build up to four stories and 38 units on the lot. A look at the Durham Zoning Atlas (sheet 0822), however, shows that the parcel is zoned under Downtown Design Overlay 3 (DDO3), which allows a maximum height of 45 feet and 16 units per acre, meaning that this lot would be allowed 13 units. (The actual number is 12.8, so one of the units would have to be built without a kitchen. Yeah, I'm making that part up.) So how did the developers come up with the 4-stories-and-48-units figure? That's where the aformentioned "cozenage" comes in.

You see, when they first proposed the project, PCD also owned the parcel across the street, which was once McPherson Hospital (it went through a few changes and was last known as North Carolina Eye and Ear and the North Carolina Specialty Hospital). They had proposed that the hospital be turned into a small "boutique" hotel with something like 73 rooms, a nice restaurant and some retail ("Phase One"), with the condos occupying the hospital's former parking lot across the street ("Phase Two"). PCD sold the neighborhood association on the idea by granting a few concessions (which PCD later tried to renege on, causing some residual ill-will). The developers needed the support of neighbors because the whole thing would involve some zoning variances, and they would have a tough time obtaining them without such support. So they had meetings and such to get the neighbors on board and then once everything seemed good to go, they promptly sold off the "Phase One" hotel parcel to Concord Hospitality Enterprises Co., a large hotel chain. Concord soon made changes to the hotel project (it will now be an extended-stay hotel with 101 rooms instead of a "boutique" with 70-odd rooms) and the site plan, including the addition of a large parking deck that will abut the property line of a neighboring home.

Although PCD/Landex now do not own and have no control over what happens on the "Phase One" hotel site (something they repeatedly emphasize when faced with criticism for what many people feel was a bit of the old bait-and-switch) they are still claiming that "Phase One" is part of their "multi-use" development for the purposes of calculating allowable density of their "Phase Two" condo project. So instead of using just the .8-acre figure of the actual lot, they are adding the acreage from the hotel site (I think it is a little over 1-acre), and then doing the 20 units-per-acre math to claim that "by right" they can put 38 units on the site. This way, they can argue that in their zoning variance they are "only" asking for 10 more units over what is allowed. What was that new word I learned again? Oh yes, cozenage.

All combined, the "creative" density calculations, changes to the hotel project, previous attempts by PCD to wrangle out of promises and the sheer size of the condo project, in addition to some hints that Landex Corp. may have a bit of a checkered past as a slumlord, are making some people in Trinity Park very nervous and inclined to speak against the zoning variance when it comes before the Board of Adjustments on January 23.PCD/Landex has responded with hardball tactics: at a neighborhood association board meeting last week, they repeatedly threatened that if the zoning variance was not passed, the neighborhood would get "the box," i.e. a plain four story building with no parking provided so that it would be guaranteed to go rental. The word "rental" scares the hell out of a lot of people who live one block from Duke's East Campus.

Anyway, the whole thing makes my head spin, and I've just got to stop writing for now. Yes, abruptly, just like that. But there's more to be read, for anyone who isn't sick of the topic: A great history of the site, including lots of photos and a different opinion of the project from mine, can be found at Endangered Durham. There was also an article by Jim Wise in last Saturday's Durham News. Lots more reading about Landex can be found here.


elsacapuntas said...

man, why are developers such flaming pieces of shit?

if there's anything us bordering neighborhood residents can do, like post banners about what noisy white trash we are, let me know.

Lisa B. said...

Well, they still have not received their variance--that hearing is on Jan 23 at 8:30 am. Short of coming to the meeting, I'm not sure what can be done unless it's along the lines of general public outrage.

At any rate, here are the board of adjustment criteria for granting a variance:

"The Board of Adjustment does not have unlimited discretion in deciding whether to grant a variance. Under the State Enabling Act, the Board is required to reach three conclusions before it may issue a variance: (a) that there are practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships in the way of carrying out the strict letter of the Ordinance; (b) that the variance is in harmony with the general purposes and intent of the Ordinance and preserves its spirit; and (c) that in granting the variance, the public safety and welfare have been assured and substantial justice has been done.

I think that on the last two points, those of us who are against the project as currently proposed have a lot of arguments that could derail the variance.

Elizabeth said...

my favorite bumper sticker for a long time was
"Developers Don't Go to Hell, They Make it Here on Earth"