It took almost 31/2 hours of convincing, but the city won the Historic Preservation Commission’s approval last week for a plan to slow down the speeders on West Club Boulevard.
And even that took a quirk of commission procedure.
Whether and when the plan is ever built remains up to the City Council, but the commission’s 4-3 vote to approve a “Certificate of Appropriateness” cleared one major obstacle.
Trees were the biggest issue: specifically, the 14 willow oaks the city needs to remove to install neckdowns at five intersections from Maryland Avenue east to Georgia Avenue.
West Club Boulevard, like many other streets in Durham’s older neighborhoods, has a canopy of willow oak trees planted in the late 1920s and early 1930s (see sidebar). The canopy is part of Watts Hospital-Hillandale’s historic character, and the prospect of losing some raised some concern.
The traffic-calming plan includes replacing the 14 willow oaks with 28 new trees, but of other species which, according to city arborist Alex Johnson, are better suited to the urban environment with its exhaust fumes, compacted clay soil and periodic pruning near power lines.
Trees were enough of a concern that last week’s hearing was a continuation of the commission’s September meeting, The extra time allowed senior assistant city attorney Fred Lamar and city arborist Alex Johnson to prepare more information on the proposed replacement trees: Georgia oak, trident maple, and chinese pistache.
Lamar and Johnson also pointed out that the willow oaks are nearing the end of their natural lifespans and will eventually have to be replaced anyway. But commissioners were not convinced that the replacements would create the same sort of canopy that now exists.
“The argument to maintain the historic nature of the neighborhood is highly subjective, and it’s not compatible with best practices for street tree maintenance,” Johnson said.
“I‘m impressed by the arboreal science and the thought process you’ve put into it,” said Commissioner David Neill. Even if “the best science today” suggests the Georgia oaks and other replacements are an improvement, the preservation guidelines the commission must follow in evaluating a proposal seemed to call for “majestic willow oaks,” he said.
Protecting granite curbstones and whether neckdowns detract from the street’s 40-foot historical width were raised as issues, too, but the trees and what would go in their place dominated the discussion.
Several residents and Wendy Hillis, director of Preservation Durham, spoke against the plan.
“The wide boulevard with its tree canopy ... gives a luxuriant and exclusive feel,” Hillis said. “Less drastic interventions (for slowing traffic) have not been tried.”
Other interventions, though, were not under consideration – just the particular city plan and request for a certificate of appropriateness. Resident Tom Miller, a past president of Preservation Durham, spoke in favor of the city proposal, pointing out that traffic-calming measures were a recommended policy in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale preservation plan the city adopted more than 10 years aog.
“The city has to and you have to, I submit, come up with a program that as nearly as possible achieves the preservation goals but has to work within the very real legal and physical constraints here,” Miller said.
When the time finally came for a vote, three commissioners voted for the certificate, three against. But approval passed by a procedural quirk.
Commissioner James Leis was present when the meeting began, but left early. That constituted an “unexcused absence” and, by custom with city commissions, an unexcused absence counts as a “yes” vote.