Page from the Herlad-Sun in Durham N.C.
University Apartments sold to a student housing company.
If you walked by University Apartments recently, you could have heard the clatter of dishware and the lilt of folk music wafting through tall, open windows. A yellow tabby snoozed on a sill, clothes dried on a line in the hot sunshine, and a man rung the bell on a paleta cart that he pushed up the street.
For 71 years, University Apartments, a cluster of 14 aging yet handsome brick buildings at 1502 Duke University Road, has housed thousands of Durhamites attracted by low rents and a sense of history: potters and produce managers, curators and caterers, waiters and bartenders.
So many have passed through that current and former residents have adopted their own slang. They refer to the community as “Univapts” or “Free Heat,” so named because of the siren-red sign emblazoned with those words and a sketch of a moneybag that was posted in front to lure potential tenants. Even the buildings are in code: Resident Jess Schell tattooed “L3C” on her forearm, which translates to Building L, Third Floor, Apartment C.
So, when the rumor, which turned out to be true, circulated last week that University Associates, based in Winston-Salem, had sold Univapts for $3.3 million to Capstone Development, a Birmingham, Ala., company that specializes in student housing, tenants gathered in the courtyard with their dogs and a bowl of watermelon to share their concerns.
“I see we’re poolside,” joked Dylan Mulrooney-Jones. The courtyard will become a swimming pool and outdoor fire pit adjacent to a “lifestyle center,” two apartments that will be converted into a common area. The Voltaire Nature Garden (which refers to the last line of Candide, “We must cultivate our own garden”), and its tomatoes, Swiss chard and snap beans, will turn fallow.
“This place has character,” Mulrooney-Jones said. “It does need renovating, but they could create apartments that would keep people here and keep them happy.”
Inarguably, Univapts needs repairs. The wiring is pre-microwave, pre-iMac. The plumbing is creaky. Several ceilings sag. But the galley kitchens, radiator heat, high ceilings, hardwood floors and wide windows are worth the inconvenience, residents say.
They fear the renovations, which, according to Capstone, will include replacing the windows originally installed in 1938, laying carpet in bedrooms and removing walls in former dining areas, will not only destroy Univapts’ charm, but also outprice current residents.
“I have a sense of foreboding,” said Noah Goyette, who has lived at Univapts for six years. “The plans are to ruin it and make it so people like us won’t want to live here. Right now, it’s geared toward working people.”
Yet, Capstone Vice President of Acquisitions and Development Rick Hansen said he wants to reassure residents they will be pleased with the renovations. “The character and the uniqueness of the property drove us to buy it in the first place,” Hansen said.
Capstone discovered Univapts in a portfolio of 112 properties that were being brokered by national firm Coldwell Banker. “When I started looking through the photos, it raised the hair on my neck,” Hansen said. “We got on a plane the next week. We fell in love with the property.”
Renovations, the cost of which is still unknown until Capstone contractors examine the wiring and plumbing, will include installing energy-efficient windows and appliances such as washers and dryers in each apartment (currently, there is a common laundry room), refinishing hardwood floors and improving lighting around the building.