The Great Wall of Durham: Triangle Transit to address concerns about downtown light-rail design | News

The Great Wall of Durham: Triangle Transit to address concerns about downtown light-rail design


Compared to the Great Wall of China, which is more than 13,000 miles long, the Great Wall of Durham, at less than a half-mile, would be miniscule. 

But not to downtown businesses, residents, urban planners and designers who have been lobbying for Durham to become a walkable, public transit-oriented, urban city. We're starting that process: The proposed Durham light-rail project will run through downtown, along the current Amtrak and freight line. 

Here's the hitch: Under the 2040 Transportation Plan, the light-rail line through downtown is supposed to be elevated, which concerns business owners  and residents, as well as the urban design community because it could separate the Central Business District from the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Performing Arts Center, the Aloft Hotel and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

And let's face it: Central Durham would not be thriving if ATC, DPAC and DBAP had not sparked the downtown renaissance. How ironic, then, if those institutions were amputated from it.

Blackwell at Pettigrew Street, facing south toward American Tobacco Campus - LISA SORG
  • Lisa Sorg
  • Blackwell at Pettigrew Street, facing south toward American Tobacco Campus

The areas of concern are Magnum and Blackwell streets, which cross the railroad and Ramseur Street. Blackwell is a bad intersection even when there's not a train. And at 9:40 or so, if I find myself in a car or bus at a red light at that intersection, I know the Amtrak will barrel through there within about two minutes, and my heart beats a little faster.


Yet elevating the rail line could destroy the connectivity between the two parts of downtown. I say "could" because there are examples of major cities that have made railroad dividers destinations. Taylor Mingos of Shoeboxed showed me photos of nightclubs, restaurants in Berlin that have done just that. (I'm not posting the photos because they may be copyrighted. I suggest a Google search.) 

The Durham Area Designers are recommending several options, including the addition of another rail station near DPAC, closing Pettigrew between Blackwell and Mangum for the station and amending the transportation plan to prevent the Great Wall from being built.
The entire DAD presentation is worth reading: See related PDF Downtown___Durham___Grade_Separation_Workshop_1.6.15.pdf

However, nothing is that simple. The N.C. Railroad Company owns the corridor, and Triangle Transit would "need their concurrence," for engineering changes, said Brad Schulz, Triangle Transit communications and public affairs officer. And the N.C. Railroad Company does not support development in a viaduct beneath their tracks.

These issues will be aired on Tuesday morning at 9, when Triangle Transit is scheduled to update Durham City Council and Durham County Commissioners about the current light-rail route, particularly the downtown portion. TT officials will present project findings based on feedback from the public, Downtown Durham Inc., American Tobacco, city and county officials and Durham Area Designers, a group of architects and planners. The meeting will be held in the county building, 200 E. Main St.

"We are trying to be very very responsive to what we've heard,"  Schulz said. "There is still a lot of angst about what happened with the Durham Freeway years ago."

For newcomers, the construction of the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) in the 1960s and 1970s, destroyed most of the historically African-American neighborhood of Hayti. Houses were torn down and residents were displaced so we could get to Raleigh more quickly.

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