147: From Freeway to Boulevard - Pt 3: Options

This is the third post in my series about converting the Durham Freeway into a city Boulevard. If you haven't read part 1, you can find it here and you can find part 2 here.

In the first two posts, I have presented a high-level first attempt at converting a section of 147 into a vibrant city boulevard that would transform Durham's downtown. If the math is close to correct, it would be one of the rare public street projects that would actually generate a positive return.

But public works don't HAVE to generate a profit. I think there should be a mechanism for the spending to pay for itself, but a city does not need to generate profits that would attract private investors. It needs to serve its residents.

Starting with a positive return, gives the city options. It doesn't NEED to sell all of the parcels along the boulevard to the highest bidder. It can explore other options that generate less revenue, but serve the public good on a parcel-by-parcel basis. Even if the vast majority of parcels are sold to private entities, there would still be a lot of land created that could address issues in Durham.

Creating some uses to serve the public good would be especially important given the history of the Durham Freeway. The neighborhood of Hayti suffered from the practice of redlining and disinvestment in black neighborhoods, but running a multi-lane highway through it certainly didn't help.

So what could the city choose to do with a portion of the parcels?

What about:

Pocket Parks: some of the parcels could be places where downtown residents and kids could play, sit, relax, and enjoy a little green space in the heart of downtown Durham. These don't have to be huge, but if there were a few of them scattered throughout the boulevard, they would be a really compelling places for Durhamites to congregate.

Public Plazas: these could be combined with pocket parks, but maybe there are tables, pergolas, and places where coffee shops and small restaurants could not only face the boulevard, but have one side face into these plazas to create space for outdoor dining.

Affordable Housing: These could be rental apartments as well as for-sale condos. A mix of private developers using tax credits and Durham Housing Authority owning and operating buildings could be impactful. Durham would clearly want to make this a main corridor for public transit and my design calls for serious bike and pedestrian infrastructure, so the combination of affordable housing and less car-dependent living could be really transformative.

MWBE (Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise): Retail space that is within the reach of some small businesses is already baked into the fact that the lots are small, so there would be small storefronts available. However, Durham could take another approach with commercial space and build in MWBE programs. Again, the city could either require that a MWBE commitment be part of the bid for a certain parcel or Durham Housing Authority (which already has plans for mixed-use developments) could operate ground floor commercial space with specific MWBE criteria.

Civic Uses: What if a new, iconic city hall were built? What if there were a church with beautiful architecture? I don't think there should be any individual project that visually dominates the boulevard, but some classic, beautiful civic uses could help create a sense of place and pride in the city. I leave out post-office because I think the current downtown post office is a fantastic building already.

Art Space: The Durham Arts Council doesn't need to move their larger operation to the boulevard, but it would be great if they had a presence there. What if there were a few small spaces for rotating galleries or art classes (maybe their pottery studio could have a home on the boulevard)?

Parking: Wait. did I actually just suggest that there could be more parking in this walkable center? We do still live in North Carolina where the car dominates and while there may be plenty of on-street parking in my plan, some of these lots COULD get converted into surface parking to serve people who don't live within walking distance. If you have to have more parking, doing so in dispersed small lots throughout the boulevard is a MUCH better plan than have huge parking lots or decks that create several hundred linear feet of low-walkability stretches.

My list above is certainly not exhaustive. And while I love brainstorming these ideas, it is certainly not my place to prescribe a certain mix of these uses along with sales to the private sector. Community engagement is difficult to say the least, but this is one area where input from a wide range of stakeholders and residents would be more than worth the effort.

This is the last post in this three-part series, but I really hope the conversation about a boulevard conversion of the Durham Freeway doesn't stop here. I would love to hear more ideas on the forum. Join the conversation and brainstorm with me!

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