Almost from the get-go some 40 years ago, Durham’s one-way Downtown Loop was recognized as a monumental mistake, an asphalt anaconda that devoured hopes and plans for renewal.
Of all the remedies proposed over the years, the latest one likely has the chops to get the job done. The plan comes from developers Bob Chapman and Rob Dickson, members of Cleveland and Church Partners.
Chapman and Dickson start where everyone else does, changing the Downtown Loop into a two-way thoroughfare. That’s the keystone for everything that follows.
Why the Loop has resisted rebirth as a two-way conveyor of downtown traffic has to do with the inertia of local government and, of course, money. More specifically, the lack of it.
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Former Downtown Durham Inc. chief Bill Kalkhof lobbied for years on behalf of undoing the economic damage inflicted by the Loop, but that would not be one of his many accomplishments. A conversion plan proposed in 2000 by DDI and local governments went on the shelf and stayed there.
City Hall tried again in 2009 with a report from Kimley-Horn Associates saying – no surprise, here – that converting the loop was feasible. Predictably, nothing came of it.
Now Chapman and Dickson confront the monster. They estimate the work would cost $35 million. Not all of that is for conversion to two lanes, which alone costs only $12 million. The rest of the sum goes to streetscape improvements, parking facilities and the like.
Their plan calls for five “catalytic sites,” magnets for private investment – and tax dollars. One such site is the eastern end of the Loop, where a new block would be created by restoring the original alignments of Church, Roxboro, Liberty and Holloway streets.
This is the notorious “lost province” between Trinity United Methodist Church and the Durham County Library, the stuff of motorists’ night terrors with its panoply of traffic signals and fast lane changes. Get behind a truck, and you’re stuck.
But to regain the promised land on the east end, for example, the city would have to enter into another public-private agreement for redevelopment of publicly owned sites or those created by the street conversion.
Eventually, Chapman and Dickson estimate, the new driver and pedestrian friendly Loop could attract $312 million in downtown development, including affordable housing.
That amount would produce $4.3 million a year in local taxes, much on the scale of Southpoint Mall in southwest Durham.
The elephant in the room, of course, is how to pay for all this.
Chapman and Dickson suggest using a bond issue for the street conversion and paying for it with projected tax revenue from new development. This is where city and country officials get go wobbly, because local government would have to make up any shortfall.
The technical term for this method of financing is synthetic tax increment financing. It’s a jawbreaking way to pay for public projects without diverting current tax revenue.
In other words, rain follows the plow.
Personally, I think Chapman and Dickson are on to something. Downtown Durham has risen from its deathbed over the last 40 years to become a vibrant destination south of the Loop. Opening the very core of downtown to more upscale development can only add to the momentum.
The future is always fraught with risk, and rarely more so than when public monies are put into speculative projects. Yet, to do nothing is to have nothing.
Chapman and Dickson are proposing a turnkey project – get it all done in one swoop. At the least, local government should hear them out. If not now, when?
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.