How light rail will change downtown Durham housing and jobs

A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.
A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.

As leaders of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project work on finalizing funding and design, a group in Durham has a different priority: making sure people can afford to live near every stop.

New jobs, development and housing will come with light rail, and the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit wants at least 15 percent of housing at the light-rail stops to be affordable, especially in downtown Durham.

The coalition still supports the project, even with recent design changes like a tunnel. It voted Wednesday to write another letter backing the $2.47 billion transit system — $3.3 billion with interest — that will connect Durham and Chapel Hill with 19 stops, most of them in Durham.

The coalition has focused on getting affordable housing downtown for those making 60 percent of the area median income or less. A two-person household in Durham at 60 percent of the AMI has an annual income of $32,400. The median household income in Durham is $54,093.

GoTriangle will submit its final application April 30 — if public and private local funding is secured — to the Federal Transit Administration, which will need to grant $1.2 billion in federal funding, project director John Tallmadge told the coalition. The rest of the project will be paid for with $190 million in state funding, a half-cent sales tax that voters in Durham and Orange counties approved in 2011 and 2012, car rental and registration fees, and private fundraising, he said.

Some affordable housing near the light-rail route is already a given.

Durham Housing Authority properties like J.J. Henderson on the west end of downtown and Liberty Street/Oldham Towers on the east side are already there. Same with Forest Hills Heights and the now vacant Fayette Place land, which will be developed by the authority. Although DHA plans to redevelop the public housing sites as mixed-use, mixed-income developments, there will still be at least the same number of units for those making 30 percent or less of the area median income.

GoTriangle leaders say the light-rail riders will be current bus riders plus new riders. Former City Council and former school board member Jackie Wagstaff asked how much it will cost to ride.

“I’m trying to understand how light rail is going to benefit poor people?” she asked Tallmadge at Wednesday’s coalition meeting.

GoTriangle has not set a price, but it will likely be about the same as bus fare, he said. The system, if funded, is supposed to begin operating in 2028.

Matthew Clark, GoTriangle government affairs manager, said light rail would be a reliable, sustainable connection to large job centers. There are rail stops at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and N.C. Central University, along with downtown Durham.

“We’re projecting a lot of the job growth will be in station areas,” Clark said.

Former city planner Dick Hails said after the meeting that he remembers other expensive projects like the widening of Interstate 85 and Interstate 40 and the East End Connector, which will be Interstate 885, now under construction, that connect Triangle employers.

“It’s all expensive,” Hails said.

Wib Gulley, a former Durham mayor and former state lawmaker, said if the project doesn’t go forward, starting all over would delay it another 10 to 15 years.

The Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit and Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods)have pushed for affordable housing on city-owned and county-owned land downtown.

“If we don’t provide affordable housing at these transit stops, they’re going to become gentrified,” Gulley said.

Housing planned

The city-owned land at Jackson and Pettigrew streets next to the Durham bus station — and a planned light-rail stop — was awarded a low-income housing tax credit and will be built as Willard Street Apartments, with 82 units of affordable housing. That project should break ground soon.

Also, the City Council agreed to sell the West Chapel Hill Street block that includes the vacant former Durham Police Department headquarters contingent on developers building some affordable housing there.

And the Durham County commissioners voted to redevelop two parking lots on the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street into affordable housing and parking garage projects. All are in walking distance from planned light-rail stops.

At the November commissioners vote, Pastor Psiyina Davis of Nehemiah Christian Center and Durham CAN told the commissioners it was an “opportunity to make sure that people of color believe they belong a little bit more downtown.” “Without your help, downtown will continue to be more white and affluent,” she said then.

Gulley said the coalition will continue to push for affordable housing on the former police headquarters block.

“The big struggle is the police site. That’s going to be a major engagement in the next year,” he said. Gulley said with thousands of new apartments in West downtown, “we want [it] to be available to all Durham residents.”

Light-rail open house

GoTriangle will hold an open house from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, to share information and answer questions about proposed changes that affect downtown Durham. The open house will be held at 201 E. Main St. in downtown Durham, Admin II Building, Rooms 126 A and B.

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