I know where Hell is. One mile and one-way, the Downtown Loop in Durham is where bad urban planners spend eternity. Unsure of where to turn and unable to safely do so, they are condemned to forever circle the Central Business District, forbidden from partaking in the pleasures of the living: browsing the bookstore and boutiques, eating pasture-raised burgers and artisan cupcakes, drinking lattes and craft beer.
City leaders, developers, downtown businesses and residents have long discussed how to turn the Loop into a two-way street. Earlier this week, those interests gathered again in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church, which lies just inside the Loop's eastern edge. There, for two days, they discussed and dreamed of a walkable, vibrant downtown Durham without a lasso around it.
A 2008–2009 study conducted by city contractor Kimley-Horn concluded the transformation was feasible, and drew up two alternatives. Six years later, the Loop is still one-way. Some areas of the Central Business District are booming, particularly along Main and Chapel Hill streets, which became two-way around the time of the study. But plenty of empty storefronts and dead zones remind us of grimmer days.
"We can't be in love with ourselves," said Tucker Bartlett, executive director of Self-Help Ventures Fund. "We have nodes" near downtown—Brightleaf, Central Park, American Tobacco Campus, Golden Belt—"but it's miserable to walk to them. Every time you cross the Loop it's not a pleasant experience."
The Loop, a vestige of 1970s urban planning, has become synonymous with suburbanization and a culture that prioritizes cars over pedestrians—all outdated ideas that clash with the expectations Durham has set for visitors and new residents.
But City Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen, always to be counted on for a reality check, noted, "It takes more than changing the one-way signs."
• Hurdle No. 1: The Loop is technically a state-owned road (so if you hate the potholes, call the N.C. DOT, not the city), which means the decision is not solely Durham's. However, the state is reportedly amenable to the transformation. It would require "squaring off" and reconnecting some of the Loop to create a grid near Morgan and Great Jones streets and East Chapel Hill and Roxboro streets.
• Hurdle No. 2: It would cost about $30 million to transform the Loop, including streetscaping, but $12 million without it. There was an extended discussion of how the switch might be financed—all fodder for a future article—but the gist was it would take not just public dollars but private ones generated by development.
• Hurdle No. 3: It's not a given that the project will get buy-in from Durhamites and City Council. In fact, the Loop ranked fair-to-middlin' on Council's recent priority list, below a regional athletic field and an aquatic center.
• Hurdle No. 4: While not explicitly a Loop problem, most people still drive downtown—and will until light rail launches in 10 years. City studies indicate there is sufficient parking today, albeit inefficiently used. However, the influx of hotel guests, workers and residents could create a shortage, particularly if spaces are eliminated along Ramseur and Morgan streets on the Loop.
“Remember what made Durham great: the funk, the grit, the diversity, the weird, the unexpected. The diversity of space and affordability.”
Based on census figures, the people are coming, a net of 55,000 new residents to the city over the next 15 years. Developer Rob Dickson Jr., president of Paradigm & Company based in Albuquerque, estimates there will be 5,000 new homes in downtown, "and they'll fill up."(Dickson is also with Cleveland & Church Partners, based in Durham.)
Geoff Durham, president of Downtown Durham, Inc., said that over the past year the number of people working downtown has increased 10 percent, from 15,000 to 16,500.
Finally, this is not a hurdle but a threat: Without a concerted campaign to diversify downtown's housing and businesses, gentrification is not just likely but inevitable.
There was a lot of soothing talk about retaining Durham's authenticity. "Remember what made Durham great: The funk, the grit, the diversity, the weird, the unexpected," Bartlett said. "The diversity of space and affordability."
And then, Kevin Dick, director of the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, tempered the tent revival: "We're hearing a lot in my office about regaining affordability for small businesses to keep them from being priced out of downtown. I would say that's a market-based phenomenon. That's not a consolation, but it's true. As property values increase, so will rents, and small businesses could be priced out."
Where will the small businesses go? "We have some adjoining neighborhoods with underdeveloped and underused commercial districts," Dick said. "The businesses can move to these areas and still have customer bases."
This brings us back to the Loop. To connect these neighborhoods, such as Cleveland-Holloway, to downtown, we have to eliminate the Loop.
"Downtown is your community's living room," said Bob Chapman of Cleveland & Church Partners, who co-convened the meeting. "It should positively impact the lives of all your citizens. The financial success should be shared by everyone."
On Monday afternoon I walked the Loop as if it were two-way. Once I overcame the sensation of breaking the laws of physics, it became clear that the Loop is a badlands of parking lots, garages and government buildings (85 percent of property along it is city- or county-owned. Along the Roxboro Speedway, the main library will undergo major renovations over the next five years to fold it into the fabric of downtown. Up by City Hall, I found myself stranded on a traffic reef, speeding cars just a hair's breadth away.
I waited to cross the street. It felt like an eternity.
At press time, the group was unveiling a final presentation about development opportunities downtown. Check the INDY editor's blog for updates.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let's have it both ways"
A Better Place is a column about Durham development.