Residents and applicant still deadlocked as Mill Plaza deliberations near


Joshua Shaw

DURHAM, N.H. – After more than a decade of waiting, on March 9 the town of Durham’s planning board will begin deliberations on a project that would redevelop downtown Mill Plaza.   

The proposed redevelopment project claims it will reinvigorate downtown Durham and bring a live-work-play community to the town. Residents meanwhile believe the 258-housing unit will bring increased noise, traffic and disruption to the residential family neighborhood just one block over. Residents also claim the development violates zoning regulations and has failed to ease environmental concerns that the project would create. 

“When I first took on this project, I thought it was going to be done in a year,” said Rick Taintor, the project contract planner, who arrived in Durham Jan. 2018.  

Four years have passed, and little has changed. While concessions and eight site plans have come and gone, neither Durham residents nor applicant Colonial Durham Associates has come to an understanding. The irregularity of the redevelopment is something Sean N. McCauley, the development manager of the project, has never experienced before in his 44-years in real estate.      

“We built a berm a mile long on the Potomac River. We dealt with the Potomac Basin Commission, the royal family of England, and a bunch of neighbors,” McCauley explained. “We were through that project in less than four years, and we were in the ground.”      

One of the factors that has held development up is the outspoken community of residents. Under the citizen’s comments section for the Mill Plaza development, there are 374 total comments ranging from former University of New Hampshire (UNH) students to longtime residents 

The community hasn’t just resorted to words. In May 2021, a citizen petition in opposition to the plans accumulated 1,008 signatures. Before that, a Facebook Page titled “Durham Plaza Watch” emerged in 2021. The same page spread signs across Durham lawns that urged for a community-friendly plaza plan and a stop to private dorms in the plaza later in the year.  

Andrew Kun, a Durham resident, and alumnus-turned-professor at UNH, is the founder of the Facebook Group and lives one street over from Mill Plaza on Faculty Road. After noticing the number of residents in opposition, Kun created the group to serve as a digital gathering place for residents.         

Part of what concerns residents is that this new student housing would further alter the look, feel and function of Durham. There is also a fear that these new tenants would negatively impact foot and vehicle traffic, light, glare, hours of activity and noise. All of which fails conditional use permits that have been established. There is also the fear among residents that all of the 258 proposed beds would belong to UNH students.  

McCauley refuted this claim, saying the beds are available to anyone. Senior citizens, students, and anyone in between can rent so long as they can pass the credit check and the interviews.   

Yet with the redevelopment placed in the heart of campus, residents claim CDA’s market for tenants is strictly students – all of whom would eat, sleep and partake in Durham’s nightlife one street away from families.      

“You put in a building with a bunch of young people you will of course have noise. There isn’t anything wrong with this,” Kun stated. “What I do have a problem with is I don’t have that noise right now, and I don’t want it.”      

Noise, however, isn’t the only possible repercussion of bringing students closer to the residential neighborhood.          

“I think everyone in Durham has a story or two,” said Dr. Nathan Swanson DDS, a nine-year resident of Durham. “Ours is a guy who basically broke in through our front door drunk at about 12:30 one night as we were fortunately up late watching reruns or something.”         

Swanson recalls telling the student to turn around and leave. He didn’t, and Swanson’s mind started to wander.      

“I’m kind of sitting there thinking, ‘Well he’s drunk enough. If I just kicked his legs and sat on his face until the cops came, that’ll probably work.'” 

This isn’t the only encounter Swanson’s had. In Oct. 2020, he remembers seeing some students walk into a nearby home. He thought nothing of it at first. Then more and more students entered. When police finally broke up the gathering, Swanson said he watched 70 people exit the three-bedroom duplex like it was a “clown car.”      

More troubling is encounters like Swanson’s aren’t uncommon. Deputy Police Chief of Durham Police Department David Holmstock said incidents in which an intoxicated student has entered a resident’s home late at night or destroyed property are weekly occurrences.  

Holmstock is quick to add that not all students of Durham seek to disturb the peace. Rather the feedback towards students is “pretty positive” for the most part. Likewise, Swanson said that his experiences can’t speak for every student, and yet.  

“One of the concerns is that you take an area that’s primarily kind of perceived as a buffer between Scorps [a bar located in downtown Durham] and this neighborhood, and you kind of bring that atmosphere a little closer, it raises some concerns,” Swanson said.       

Nathan Nichols, a UNH student that lives near Mill Plaza, is in favor of the redevelopment. Through his four years in Durham, housing has always been an issue for Nichols. So much so he often starts his search a year in advance. He believes adding more beds would alleviate that burden while offering students more options outside of dorms and other on-campus housing. 

“It may be bad if you want to keep Durham looking like a quaint town,” Nichols said. “But Durham residents also need to realize there are trade-offs to living in a college town.” 

While Kun acknowledges these trade-offs exist, the current plans do not satisfy the needs or desires of residents.  

“I think an overwhelming percentage of people that live in Durham – and that includes really everybody, from students to people who’ve lived here a long time – [think] that this is just a bad plan,” Kun said.         

Another part of what makes this a “bad” plan to residents is the project fails wetland zoning ordinances. Among them is that the plaza requires a 75-foot wetland buffer to College Brook which would act as a divider between residential housing and downtown Durham.  

As the citizen petition from May 19, 2021 elaborated, the 75-foot buffer could help reduce flooding and improve the health of College Brook. The brook isn’t the only environmental concern, the development would also level an acre of woods that helps mitigate air pollution and reduce stormwater flow.  

For Kun, these issues make it clear, “We have zoning to protect Durham, so use zoning stringently to protect Durham. Don’t attempt to conform to the wishes of out-of-town interests,” he said. 

The town planning board will have to take all of this into account on March 9 when deliberations begin. Now it rests in their hands after the proverbial prosecution and the Durham defense have pleaded their cases for years.  

More likely, however, the verdict will be the close of this chapter, not the end of the book. Regardless of the outcome, an appeal will presumably be filed and stay lodged in the courts for months or even years, Taintor explained.   

“I guess the one thing that is so impressive in some ways is both the persistence of the applicant and the endurance of the planning board and the continued involvement of the residents. Nobody has been sitting by and letting the process go,” said Taintor. 

Photo courtesy of Joshua Shaw