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Volume 4, Number 2
Fall 2006

We Shouldn't Have to Move Out to Move Up*


Denise Hester

Fayetteville Street Planning Group,
Durham, North Carolina

     As the title of this article suggests, neighborhood residents and businesses across the nation are affirming their right to live and conduct business in their local neighborhoods without undue pressure from big-money developers, governments and other special interest groups to move out. Whether the players are neighborhoods opposed to big-box developments like Walmart, to commercial creep into residential areas or to high-end gentrification initiatives, the story is the same -- big money interests enjoy substantial advantages over everyday working people. But there’s also another story at work here -- how local planning processes place neighborhoods at a disadvantage in preserving residential communities and neighborhood commercial districts and how certain populations can be "planned out" of specific areas through the use of facially neutral planning and zoning regulations. And finally, this article will discuss one neighborhood’s efforts to combat development pressure in Durham, North Carolina along the historic Fayetteville Street corridor, one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in North Carolina. 

    While it may be politically correct in hindsight to acknowledge past policy mistakes as "misguided," communities and the governments that serve them should never lose sight of the harmful policies that continue to impact local neighborhoods unevenly at the federal, state and local levels – particularly policies that have lasting impacts for generations. Specifically, facially-neutral land use and planning policies that appear benign as text ordinances have been punitive in practice and have had severe negative and long-lasting impacts on low-wealth communities. Such policies, in the past and now, have resulted in disastrous consequences for low-wealth communities in Durham and have included:

  • Wealth transfer of land and business assets when African Americans had to "move out" to accommodate NC Highway 147 
  • Change in racial demographics
  • Urban renewal, redevelopment and demolition of low wealth communities
  •  Change in voting patterns
  • Redistribution of public resources away from areas of greatest need to downtown
  •  Selective code enforcement of housing codes in low wealth neighborhoods
  •  Selective enforcement of laws for one area but not another 
  •  Gentrification of low-wealth communities
  •  Redlining 
   And it is this planning process, largely invisible and little understood by most residents, that enforces these policies and provides the context for all development decisions in the city of Durham.

    Durham has changed and noticeably so. Like many areas of the nation and state, Durham has undergone a significant shift in its economy over the past thirty years. The shift from agriculture to manufacturing to technology has been accompanied by much upheaval along the way. And in a quest to ensure its own survival, while competing with other cities in the Triangle and battling global competition, some feel that Durham has been too quick to sacrifice its heritage, its historic structures and its neighborhoods to make way for large-scale development – whether these neighborhoods are in-town or in the suburbs. 

   One neighborhood group, the Fayetteville Street Planning Group, submitted its own neighborhood master plan (the Fayetteville Street Neighborhood Master Plan) to city officials in August of 2005 to preserve its historic legacy and guide its growth in the context of increasing development pressure for land in the core of the city. Fayetteville Street and its companion neighborhoods were some of the first to be settled by African Americans in Durham after the Civil War. Residential developments, which spread from Hayti along Fayetteville Street to southeast Durham, sprang up as the Hayti commercial district grew and prospered in the early twentieth century. This synergy between the business and residential districts created a distinct and unique African American community known the world over. Its dual business and cultural legacy are a testament to the men and women who labored to develop this community over one hundred years ago. It is a history worth preserving. Yet the Fayetteville Street Plan, a creation of hundreds of community stakeholders, remains largely ignored by city officials.

   The Fayetteville Street corridor's desire for historic preservation along with Durham’s predisposition to tear down and displace whole communities led this neighborhood to challenge certain aspects of Durham’s new 2030 Comprehensive Land Use Plan and its associated Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). Stakeholders along Durham’s Fayetteville Street corridor voiced the most vehement opposition to compact land use, which many felt was another urban renewal attempt to redevelop and gentrify low-wealth neighborhoods surrounding downtown Durham. The objections to compact land use were largely technical but also focused on aspects of the planning process that placed neighborhood stakeholders at a disadvantage. The following objections to compact land involved underlying definitions that supported high-density development, displacement of households and businesses and massive street reconfigurations leading to land loss. 

Comprehensive Plan Defines Redevelopment as Demolition

    Redevelopment, targeted redevelopment and compact neighborhoods are closely linked in the Durham Comprehensive Plan through definition, policies and government incentives for the area south of NC Hwy 147. The Durham Comprehensive Plan’s definition of "redevelop" in its glossary in Chapter 18 (Appendices) means demolition of existing structures, meaning "To demolish existing buildings; or to increase the overall floor area existing in a property; or both; irrespective of whether a change occurs in land use." (The link to the documents cited are listed in the References section below).

   The Durham Comprehensive Plan also encourages "targeted redevelopment" in compact neighborhoods in Policy 6.1.1e (Targeted Redevelopment) which states "The City Office of Economic Development and the Chamber of Commerce (or other Durham County designated agent) shall promote and create financial and other incentives for the redevelopment of the Downtown and Compact Neighborhood Tiers…"

Redevelopment Will Result in the Displacement of Households

     Under the definition in the Durham Comprehensive Plan, redevelopment of compact neighborhoods is planned through demolition of existing structures. This policy, along with Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) policies, acknowledges the displacement of existing residents in achieving the required density around transit stations. The high potential for displacement of African American residents around the Alston Avenue Rail Station is clearly an outcome of compact neighborhood land use, which was implemented to assist transit development in this area. 

Increased Density Inconsistent with Underlying Land Use

    Existing neighborhoods south of NC Hwy 147 are residential in nature with predominant medium density uses. Overlaying a compact neighborhood tier over the existing land use has created an inconsistency between the current residential nature of this area and the increased density and intensity requirements for compact neighborhoods in the Durham Comprehensive Plan. Further, the change to a compact neighborhood tier has overlooked the existence of the current residents who now live in this stable residential area. The compact neighborhood overlay is not sensitive to the underlying land use of this area and the residents who now live there.

Increased Density Will Benefit TTA – Not Neighborhoods 

    The residential neighborhoods south of NC Hwy 147 will become denser, more downtown-like and less residential in the compact neighborhood tier under the Durham Comprehensive Plan. The increase in density for compact neighborhoods is required by Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) to achieve its ridership goals and government funding. 

Increased Density Will Encourage Developers to Buy Whole Neighborhoods

    Developers will purchase whole neighborhoods for the increased density bonuses because they will be able to build more units on the same acreage, thereby substantially increasing their profits. In addition to the increased densities outlined above in Table 2-1 of the Durham Comprehensive Plan, the government provides additional development bonuses for creating even more density in compact neighborhoods.

Compact Neighborhoods Will Look More Like Downtown 

    Compact neighborhoods encourage the creation of public places, plazas and open space (meaning parks) which are usually associated with downtown business areas and employment centers. These characteristics are not appropriate for the single-family neighborhoods in this area.

Single Family Homes And Family Cars Are Discouraged In Compact Neighborhoods

    A change to a land use designation and/or a rezoning can effectively take a resident’s property by impeding that owner’s right to quiet use and enjoyment. Just as an employer can create a “hostile environment” to force an employee to leave without firing him/her, so can governments create a hostile environment for single family homeowners in an area designated for compact neighborhoods. The single family use becomes the exception -- the undesirable use -- and over time the compact neighborhood becomes the government’s preferred land use as expressed through its comprehensive plan policies and enforced by its UDO ordinances.  Developer incentives ensuring higher profits would provide the fuel to ensure that compact neighborhoods spread. 

Compact Neighborhoods Will Encourage Parking Decks

   Compact neighborhoods encourage the construction of structured parking (meaning parking decks) and the application of "maximum" (meaning high density) parking provisions. The Comprehensive Plan also states that the government will encourage parking decks in compact neighborhoods. Could a parking deck wind up next to a single family house?

Compact Neighborhoods Allow Large Buildings Close to 
Single Family Homes

    If a multi-unit building is built on a vacant lot in a compact neighborhood next to a single family home, this provision means that the building can be built right up to property line of the vacant lot.  There would be no landscaping buffer required between a single family home and a large multi-unit building. The intent here is to place structures very close together in the compact neighborhood tier to create density and intensity – which are incompatible with the current medium density residential nature of this area. Compact neighborhoods will not require the use of buffers (meaning landscaping with trees and grassy areas) in the compact neighborhood tier. 

Compact Neighborhoods Encourage Buildings Located Closer to the Street

    Existing homes have setbacks that place them further back from the street -- also known as front yards. Compact neighborhoods would encourage new construction to be located closer to the street. 

Land Values Will Increase and 
Property Taxes Will Rise 

    Land values are projected to increase due to the higher density land use in the compact neighborhood tier. Tax values will increase and rising tax bills may outpace the ability of existing property owners, most of whom are considered moderate income, to pay them. 

Compact Neighborhoods Will 
Increase Neighborhood Traffic

    TTA's environmental impact statement admits that station development will create increased traffic impacts in neighborhoods in the compact zone. This will make neighborhoods more dangerous for pedestrians and drivers. The Alston Avenue rail station is the only station in Durham that will experience increased neighborhood traffic. This is not unexpected with the Alston Avenue/NCCU station’s being the only rail station in Durham that is located in a residential area and in an African American community.

Compact Neighborhoods Will 
Increase Parking Spillover into Neighborhoods

    Compact neighborhoods will create parking impacts in those neighborhoods where parking demand exceeds the supply and again the Alston Avenue station has been identified as an affected station by TTA's Environmental Impact Statement.

Compact Neighborhoods 
Discourage Construction of Single Family Homes

    If a single family home burns down and must be rebuilt, such rebuilding may be discouraged in a compact neighborhood through the minimum density requirement. If a resident owns a lot (or land) in a compact neighborhood, the construction of a single family home is also discouraged by minimum density standards. While it is true that the proposed UDO would allow single family use in a compact neighborhood under certain conditions, the resident must now gain additional approvals through to rebuild what was originally there because the government is encouraging the development of compact neighborhoods. 

    In addition to the long list of negative impacts, the planning process itself is largely inaccessible to the average working citizen in Durham. Its cryptic planning language is foreign to most residents. Meetings where decisions are actually made and planning work programs are discussed are held in the mornings when most residents are at work. And finally, developers enjoy greater access to planning staff and city resources as applicants than citizens do as opponents. 

     Exclusive reliance on government planning initiatives without adequate community input has led to great tragedy in our community. Caution is needed so the past is not repeated. Investing in neighborhood infrastructure, housing, public safety and people is the way to improve our economy, our city and our neighborhoods. But our government continues to embrace many developments that are at odds with residents’ own vision for their neighborhoods-- despite the potential harm to homes and local businesses. It appears that the needs of the few outweigh the needs of entire communities. Residents, land and business owners along the Fayetteville Street corridor should be able to realize their dreams where they are now. We shouldn’t have to move out to move up – again. 

   In conclusion, we know that all these negative impacts have occurred or are underway in Durham, making Durham an excellent example of policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. 


    This paper is a modified version of a presentation made at the 2006 North Carolina Sociological Association annual meeting.


The Durham Comprehensive Plan, referenced above, can be found at:
 Link Here

The Durham Uniform Development Ordinance, referenced above, can be found at:
 Link Here

 Return to the Urban Reprint Series 

©2006 by the North Carolina Sociological Association