A city idea for calming traffic on West Club Boulevard got snagged by some trees last week.
Sixteen of them, to be precise: the number the city needs taken down to build “neckdowns” at five intersections on the wide, straight stretch between Broad Street and Hillandale Avenue.
But, in the opinion of some members of Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission, removing some of the venerable willow oak canopy along West Club Boulevard is incompatible with the neighborhood’s historic character.
Because Club Boulevard runs through the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Local Historic District, tampering with the public infrastructure requires a “Certificate of Appropriateness” from the preservation commission – even for the city.
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Senior Assistant City Attorney Fred Lamar and Jeff Lecky, an engineer with the city public works department, made the neckdowns’ case before the commission last Tuesday. They didn’t come away with a flat turndown, but will have to come back next month with the city arborist to try some more.
Trees were not the sticking point Lamar and Lecky expected. Early on, Lamar said preserving the historic granite curbstones was the “critical point” in considering whether the plan was historically appropriate.
In the interest of preservation, he said, the stones would be disturbed as little as possible and most of those that had to be taken up would be re-used along the street. Buying new granite stones to rim the proposed neckdowns would be cost-prohibitive, according to the city’s application for a certificate.
Curbstones, though, elicited little comment from commissioners or the several citizens who appeared to have their says on the plan. Proponents mostly talked about traffic – “Crazy people, driving 50, 60 miles an hour,” said Club Boulevard resident Karen Stark – and opponents talked in general, including trees – “Quite simply, the historic fabric is being destroyed,” said resident Sasha Berghausen.
The city is proposing to narrow Club Boulevard’s traffic lanes from 40 to 20 feet at the Alabama, Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia avenue intersections with neckdowns created by landscaped “islands,” bulging 10 feet out into Club Boulevard from each corner and separated from the existing curb line by a two-foot wide drainage channel.
Traffic calming, Lamar said, is one of the policy objectives in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale preservation plan. The narrowed corridor for vehicles encourages drivers to slow down, while sidewalks extended across the islands improves pedestrians’ view of oncoming traffic.
The city plan includes planting new trees to replace the removed willow oaks with other species – such as Georgia oak, trident maple and Chinese pistachio – better suited for and less problematic in an urban environment.
Species planned to replace the oaks removed on Club Boulevard, Lecky said, grow more compact root systems than willow oaks, whose roots have buckled sidewalks and cracked asphalt throughout the neighborhoods they shade. They also grow shorter than willow oaks, meaning less need for the drastic pruning by Duke Energy to keep them from interfering with power lines.
Preservation Commissioner Heather Slane said she had an overall concern about the islands in a historic district, but trees were a particular issue. Losing several trees at each of the five intersections, she said, would make a considerable difference in the “feel” of the street.
“The tree canopy is such an important part of that landscape,” she said. Shorter trees would just not be the same.
Before long the canopy will be dying of natural causes, as the 80-something year old willow oak street trees are near the end of their lifespans. That point was mentioned during the commission hearing, but the loss of willow oaks for neckdowns remained a stumbling block for commissioners.
No one ventured a motion one way or the other on the Certificate of Appropriateness. After some long silences in the room, Lamar asked if it would help to postpone a vote until he and Lecky could provide more information on the replacement species.
“If that is valuable information to you,” he said, he could come back with an arborist from the city’s general services department. A continuance was moved and passed, the discussion to resume Oct. 7.
The neckdowns were a recommendation from a traffic-calming study of the street completed in 2002. Another recommendation, the planted median and streetcorner “bumpouts” at Oval Drive Park, were installed in 2007.
“There are,” Lamar said, “only a few ways traffic-calming measures can be implemented in an existing infrastructure.”