Developer Bob Chapman and partners have issued what they hope will become “a citizens’ plan” to convert the Downtown Loop into a two-way street and spur development on under-used public property.
“We think that (the Loop) really has been a girdle strangling the downtown, and it’s important to fix it as soon as we can,” Chapman said.
The 18-page plan, titled “Downtown Durham: from Potential to Greatness,” is based on a public meeting and several days’ design work that Chapman and Rob Dickson, partners in Cleveland & Church Partners, held in March.
About 85 people attended a plan-release reception last week, and Chapman and Dickson’s hope is that the public will “shepherd it forward to implementation” – as the report puts it.
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The plan calls for changing the Loop, as well as Mangum and Roxboro streets, to two-way traffic; and restoring portions of the original street grid at the Loop’s eastern and western ends.
The plan emphasizes “pedestrian first,” with re- and new development and reconfigured streets that make walking around interesting and pleasant as well as safe and easy.
Converting the Loop has been on the table for years. In a 2009 city-commissioned study, the Kimley-Horn Associates consulting firm (nando.com/loopstudy) concluded that conversion was feasible.
Former Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Bill Kalkhof had already been pushing for the switch since the mid-1990s, and conversion was integral to the downtown master plan DDI and the city and county governments published in 2000, updated in 2007 (nando.com/dtownplan) and have begun updating a second time.
Chapman and Dickson have “a great compliment, I think, to what DDI is doing, revising the downtown master plan,” City Councilman Don Moffitt said.
“I’m very, very encouraged,” said Geoff Durham, DDI’s current CEO.
“It’s being discussed as one of downtown’s top priorities,” he said. “The economics of downtown and what it means for development downtown are kind of at a point where this becomes not just a reasonable, but to an extent a necessary next step.
“Make a circle around that Loop, and you can just drive past parcel after parcel of great potential,” Durham said.
‘If you build it ... ’
Besides street conversions, the plan proposes developing on 20 new or under-used sites an additional 3,500 parking spaces and 1.79 million square feet of new office, residential and retail space. (By comparison The Streets at Southpoint mall is 1.3 million square feet.)
That would add, they figure, $312 million to the city and county tax base and yield an estimated $4.3 million a year in new tax revenue.
Chapman and Dickson propose covering the street conversions’ estimated $35 million cost with a city bond issue, to be paid with “synthetic tax increment financing” – in essence, with projected tax revenue from the new development. (See box.)
The $35 million pricetag includes “streetscaping” with decorative crosswalks and streetlights, street trees and sidewalk furniture similar to those added along Main and Chapel Hill streets downtown several years ago.
City Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen has estimated that a basic two-way conversion, without streetscaping, could be done for about $12 million. After the March charette, Mayor Bill Bell said he backed that approach and letting private interests add amenities later.
Chapman and Dickson’s report, though, advocates doing all improvements at once as more cost-effective, and said doing everything “as ‘whole cloth’ would give more confidence to future businesses and residents.”
Moffitt said he had not looked closely at the report, “but it seems like ... they’re really saying ‘If you build it they will come’ and increased property values that should result will pay for the (street-conversion) work.”
That, he said, is “very different, actually, from the typical private-public partnerships that (the city) has been funding up to now. ... We’d just have to look very closely at it.
“One thing we don’t want to do,” Moffitt said, “is gamble with public money.”
‘Synthetic tax increment financing’
According to city economic development Director Kevin Dick, tax increment financing (TIF) is a way for cities to make improvements in an area without using existing tax revenue.
“In its purest form,” he said, TIF would be applied to a geographic area – “it could a few blocks, it could be places in a mile radius, what have you” – and use the additional revenue from increased tax values the improvement creates to finance the improvement itself.”
A “synthetic” TIF is applied to a single property instead of an area, he said, and gave as an example the city incentive for the 21c Museum Hotel’s renovation of the downtown Hill Building.
In the Loop-conversion case, Chapman and Dickson’s plan suggests public-private development partnerships for publicly owned sites created or “activated” by conversion, with 80 percent of the developments’ tax revenue dedicated to servicing a $35 million bond issue. They estimate such arrangements would cover conversion costs without further public subsidy.
Cleveland & Church Partners spent $25,000 on the March charrette and planning sessions that produced “Downtown Durham: From potential to greatness,” Bob Chapman said.
The partnership’s name refers to a development Chapman and Rob Dickson have in mind, one of five “catalytic projects” described in their plan report.
That Cleveland and Church project uses a new city block at the Loop’s east end, created by restoring the pre-Loop alignments of Church, Roxboro, Liberty and Holloway streets between Trinity United Methodist Church and the Durham County Library.
On that block, they propose apartments affordable for “workforce” tenants – small units renting for substantially less than current downtown residences – and a street-level grocery store with three floors of office space above it.
The other four projects are:
▪ At West Morgan and Mangum streets: reopening Chapel Hill Street to First Baptist Church, new buildings between Chapel Hill Street and the Loop and a new face and porticos to the City Hall Annex to frame the now-little noticed Rotary Park.
▪ At West Morgan and Rigsbee Avenue: replace an existing surface parking lot with a deck and small, mixed-use new buildings;
▪ At West Morgan and Foster: add street-level retail to front the parking deck across from the Carolina Theatre and Convention Center Plaza, and reconstruct the plaza with an underground parking garage below a flat, open public space.
▪ On Chapel Hill Street: remodel the Convention Center frontage, now a 300-foot blank wall, to accommodate storefronts that invite and provide interest for pedestrians.