What do Durham and its people need more:
• An outdoor sports complex with enough fields for tournaments?
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• Streets, sidewalks and bikeways and parking for light-rail stations?
• A two-way Downtown Loop?
City Manager Tom Bonfield has asked City Council members to pick among those big-ticket projects and seven others to put on the city’s to-do list over the next three to seven years.
“There have been a number of very, very large capital projects that have been in discussion ... over the last half a dozen, maybe a dozen years,” Bonfield said.
They’ve never been added to the city’s construction schedule “because, quite frankly, we couldn’t afford them,” he said, “but at the same time they have continued to be discussed as if we could.”
Some might become feasible if the council goes along with city Finance Director David Boyd’s suggestion to change some longstanding policies on debt, using a line of credit for short-term borrowing and designating a set amount of the property-tax rate to pay it back.
The system, according to Boyd, would give the city predictability and flexibility year to year than the current practice, in which the city’s ability to borrow for major projects varies tremendously from one year to the next.
With that idea on the table, city administrators could start planning some major construction projects that have been only on wish lists.
“There is no way we can do them all,” Bonfield said. “We have to come up with a way to prioritize.”
He asked the council to have their priorities in order, using “paired comparison analysis” ( nando.com/uwash), an objective system that is, Bonfield said, useful when “comparing apples with oranges.”
At this point, the projects are just concepts, with details and costs to be determined, said Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson.
“The very nature of some of these big idea projects is, they’re far enough out (in the future) that we haven’t done a lot of work on them,” Ferguson said. “So I encourage an awful lot of taking a grain of salt with any of the cost numbers. A lot of the details are not worked out.”
Financing some might involve public-private partnerships, he said.
Here are the 10 projects presented for the council members’ consideration.
•Athletic tournament site.
“A site that will serve the residents of Durham with three or four fields, maybe five, in a complex,” said Beth Timson, assistant parks and recreation director. Durham is “half a dozen fields short of where we need to be” to serve current needs, she said, and with a cluster of fields local leagues could host tournaments “and not have to go to Wake County or Orange County or even further afield.” City land adjoining Twin Lakes Park on Chandler Road has room, but would require a new access road and a long water-sewer line, running the cost toward $15 million.
The parks department wants to develop an aquatics master plan for the city’s aging pool system. Outdoor pools are less expensive than indoor, but are open only 10 weeks a year. Several small pools or one big one? A small outdoor pool costs about $5 million, Timson said; a large one with diving boards, spectator seating, toddler play area and so on about $15 million. An indoor aquatics center with all the amenities, about $25 million. “If you’re talking about getting our system where it needs to be,” Timson said, “we’re looking at $20 million to $25 million.”
A new pool might be combined with a new recreation center, including gymnasium, exercise rooms and meeting spaces, Timson said. “But if you put the two together you’re certainly talking a big-ticket item.” A new rec center would go up north of the Edison Johnson center on Murray Avenue or south of Campus Hills, on Alston Avenue, probably requiring the city to buy land. Without a pool, a rec center would cost $20 million to $25 million, she said. With pool, “you’re looking at closer to $40 million or $45 million.”
•Station area strategic infrastructure.
If the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit line is built, Triangle Transit is responsible for building it, but it will be up to Durham to provide infrastructure to get riders to and from the six rail stops inside the city limits. City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin said the projected cost is $24.8 million, for four miles of new bicycle facilites, three miles of sidewalks and almost four miles of “streetscape” work. Some of the cost might be passed on to private development near stations; but the pricetag does not include parking facilities or land acquisition for the low-cost housing the city and county have made a priority for the station areas.
•Central Park garage.
Residents near the Motorco/Fullsteam/Pit entertainment district north of downtown are already complaining about lack of sufficient parking for traffic into and out of the area, said Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen. The city’s recent parking study recommended a 750-space parking garage somewhere in the Central Park vicinity. His estimate, $18.5 million, is just “an order of magnitude” figure; some of the cost might be shared with private developers, and a garage would generate some revenue to help offset the expense of building it.
•Downtown Loop two-way conversion.
Downtown boosters have pushed for years to have the Loop converted to two-way traffic and a 2009 study found it could be done, Ahrendsen said. Changes downtown since then, though, could call for an update. Conversion would require some reconstruction at the west – toward West Village – and east – toward the main library, he said, with a cost projection “in the $12 million range,” or $35 million if the reconstructed streets were to get streetscape improvements to blend with Main and Chapel Hill streets inside the Loop. What happens to the Loop will affect downtown development and planning, the light-rail line and the main library’s planned expansion, Ahrendsen said, so, “We kind of need to make a decision.”
Converting the old railroad route circling west and north of the city center into a bicycle-pedestrian trail is a popular idea, and some money is available for it: a $350,000 federal planning grant came through last year, and a $1.7 million federal earmark, dating from 2005, “is still on the books,” Ahrendsen said. Most of the $10 million estimated cost is for buying the right-of-way from the Norfolk Southern railroad, which is asking $7.1 million for the two-mile stretch of overgrown track and roadbed.
•Fayetteville Road widening.
This project would complete the street widening from Cornwallis Road south that began with construction of The Streets at Southpoint, Ahrendsen said. Currently, the city is working on improvements to the Fayetteville-Buxton-Riddle intersection and widening between Riddle to Buxton. Widening between Barbee Road and Woodcroft Parkway, with sidewalks and bicycle lanes and moving utility lines, would run around $12.5 million.
•New downtown parking garage.
Demand for parking inside the Downtown Loop has city garages near capacity, and demand is expected to increase with the new hotels under construction and other redevelopment. The Transportation Department’s thinking is to put a new 500-space garage on an existing city-owned surface lot, sparing the expense of buying land but still running to around $10 million.
Ahrendsen suggests updating the 2006 DurhamWalks! master plan over the next two fiscal years, in the meantime continuing construction on sidewalks “in the pipeline” with funding available. With a revision, the current order of priority may change, but the existing plan’s top 24 unfunded projects would cost about $14 million, he said. Projected cost to build some of the highest priority sidewalks in an updated Durham Walks! is $15 million.
Council members responded to the 10 proposals with some enthusiasm that they might actually get built, but added some caveats.
“I just hope we don’t forget to think about the operating and maintenance costs,” said Mayor Bill Bell.
“I don’t think we ought to be adding anything to our list of assets that we can’t maintain.”
Councilwoman Diane Catotti said, “As much as I want to get to this list of new projects, I really think we’ve heard loud and clear from our citizens they want their most basic services met.”
And Councilman Don Moffitt cautioned:
“There are communities in Durham that are very skilled at advocating for projects. And there are communities who are not,” he said.
“We have to keep in mind all over Durham, and we have to fund project that are going to increase the quality of life for everyone.”