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Heading north: Plans take shape for Durham arts magnet’s new location

The summer weather is heating up, and so is development of Durham School of the Arts’ new campus in North Durham.

In a June 9 work session, Durham Public Schools board members approved a $491,623 contract with O’Brien Atkins Associates and Perkins & Will design firms for the pre-design and planning of a new DSA campus at 2900 Duke Homestead Road.

The school will continue to serve grades 6-12 but will increase capacity to 2,000 students. It will be located on a 54-acre tract of land purchased from Duke University for $4.1 million in 2010. 

Construction funding for the new school will be voted on as part of the November bond referendum. The current budget for the school is $120 million, but that amount may be revised based  on the current construction market, said Frederick Davis, Durham Public Schools’ executive director of building services.

Meanwhile, school system leaders say they are weighing several different educational uses for the current DSA campus in downtown Durham. 

“I think it’s important for us as we plan for that site going forward to make sure it does have an educational use and that we take the time to deeply involve the community…” Beyer said. “Because it’s a unique public space with a lot of deep history.”

The magnet arts school’s sprawling, college-like campus occupies three blocks of a key area of Durham, between North Duke and Gregson streets. The site was originally home to Durham High School, built in 1906. In 1993, the school closed down, and two years later, Durham School of the Arts took over the left-behind space.

However, an October study by NEMA Management deemed the school in need of renovations or complete reconstruction due to crumbling infrastructure, accessibility issues and traffic problems. 

“We know historically, DSA was not built or designed to be a true performing arts and creative thinking school,” said Davis. “It was just an idea and we had an abandoned building at the time.”

The school system is weighing several potential uses for the old DSA site. 

Davis said the space could potentially be used as administrative offices and extra classroom space for overcrowded local schools like New Tech High School, a public magnet high school with a STEM focus, and Ignite! Online Academy, a new school providing hybrid learning for grades K-12.

Alternatively, the site could serve elementary schools also on the docket for revamping. Alongside DSA, Holt, Morehead, Club Boulevard, Mangum, Bethesda, and Glenn elementary schools were determined to need renovation and are included in the November bond referendum. The school board is considering moving these elementary schools into DSA buildings while renovations are underway so education is not interrupted, Davis said.

The school’s downtown location is both prime real estate and a historic site that community members treasure.

Many parents welcome improved facilities, but some worry about the loss of DSA’s downtown location. Not only is the new campus less accessible to students living in the city and southern Durham, the downtown location is an important part of what the school is, said DSA parent Sammy Banawan. 

“I think putting [DSA] in the middle of Durham really increases awareness of the school itself,” Banawan said. “They’re moving away from what I think makes DSA an interesting and unique campus.” 

Banawan and others are concerned that the move could bring a loss of social and arts opportunities. The transition to a new, more suburban campus will potentially end the long-standing relationship between the school and the bustling downtown, he said. 

Taking these concerns into account, O’Brien Atkins and DPS administrators will engage with administration and community to develop a “vision” for the new school, Davis says. 

The pre-design process will last until at least the end of August, and construction on the new school will likely begin in June or July of 2023, Davis said. Construction will take an estimated 18 to 24 months, with a goal of completion in June 2025 in time for the new school year. 

Pre-design will be followed by detailed design work, including site plans, floor plans and elevations. The school system will then solicit construction bids for the new campus. “No activity on this site is going to happen for at least another year or so,” said Davis.

Once designs are drafted, they will be shown to the community ahead of the November bond referendum. This means community engagement and approval are vital to the design process, Beyer said.

“I think it will take time and input from [students and teachers] specifically to think entirely outside the box about that school,” said Beyer. “Not just what it has been, but what more it can be.”

Above: Photos of Durham School of the Arts by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal