Developer Bob Chapman sees the Downtown Loop as “a girdle” on the city center, “binding and preventing downtown from growing.”
So Chapman and Rob Dickson, partners in Cleveland & Church Partners, and several colleagues in urban design, spent several days last week drawing plans and crunching numbers to show what a Loop, converted to two-way traffic, could be and what it could mean for downtown.
By their figuring, $312 million worth of new construction, $4.3 million a year in new tax revenue and an inviting, busy corridor in a downtown that’s easy to navigate by car or bicycle or on foot.
“The process is under way,” Chapman said, “to turn the Loop from a racetrack for cars into a corridor which would be fronted by beautiful buildings where people live, where there would be great shops.”
Chapman’s past Durham projects include Trinity Heights near East Campus and several remodeled buildings in the trendy district around Geer and Foster streets. Dickson is a North Carolina native who settled in Durham last year after 15 years in downtown-redevelopment work in Albuquerque, N.M.
Downtown Durham has made “tremendous strides,” Dickson said. “This exercise has been about what are the best next steps.”
Chief among them, he said, is doing something about the Loop, which “reduces the development feasibility of land throughout downtown.”
Chapman and Dickson gave local leaders an “in-progress” presentation last week. Their ideas got a warm reception.
“I think this needs to be a focus for Durham going forward,” said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Harvard University. “It presents tremendous opportunities.”
Mayor Bill Bell and City Council members gave the Loop conversion a low priority among 10 top-dollar projects they ranked in conjunction with planning next year’s city budget. After hearing what Chapman and Dickson had to say, Bell said, “I think it rises a little higher.”
No new idea
The Loop was created by reconfiguring four streets – Morgan, Great Jones, Ramseur and Roxboro – in the late 1960s and early ’70s. It was intended to be a high-capacity bypass, relieving congestion that, it was thought at the time, was strangling commerce in the central business district.
Instead, as city transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen and others have observed, it created a multi-lane barrier between the city center and the rest of downtown, confusing to drivers and intimidating to pedestrians.
The idea to turn the Loop from one-way to two-way travel has been on the table for years. It was integral to the downtown master plan Downtown Durham Inc. and the city and county governments published in 2000 and updated in 2007 (nando.com/dtownplan), and a 2009 study the city commissioned by the Kimley-Horn Associates consulting firm (nando.com/loopstudy) concluded that a conversion was feasible and laid out two plans for doing it.
Like the Kimley-Horn report, Chapman and Dickson favor restoring the historic grid pattern of streets at the Loop’s eastern and western ends – near the main public library and West Village, respectively; and restoring two-way travel on Mangum and Roxboro streets.
That would improve traffic flow and open some now-unusable property for private development – such as the “micro-loft” apartments Chapman and Dickson have in mind for the space between Trinity United Methodist Church and Roxboro Street.
“If the Loop is undone, there’s a whole city block here,” Chapman said. “So we said, let’s look at the whole loop and see what the benefit would be of going ahead and doing (the conversion).”
Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Geoff Durham said he was pleased with their work and the overall positive reaction to it he had heard.
“It’s good,” Durham said. “It’s also valuable to have a private developer pick up on what’s been a long-standing initiative and then try to advance it, from a private standpoint.”
A better A to B
Chapman and Dickson’s proposals also involve private or public-private development and redevelopment on most of the current Loop frontage, which is now dominated by city-owned parking lots and decks. Existing decks could be redeveloped with street-level retail shops, new buildings could incorporate parking while adding interest and vitality to the streets.
“Walking along Morgan Street,” Reckhow said, “it’s just one parking lot after another.”
Converting the Loop would be beneficial on two fronts, Durham said. Turning currently underutilized lots into “quality redevelopment, I think, is very, very significant.
“Equally important ... is a connectivity standpoint, Durham said. “It makes for more efficient vehicular trips within the downtown and also puts downtown on sort of a road diet by improving the walkability. ... Making getting from point A to point B better.”
New tax revenue from development on land that now produces none – 80 percent of the current Loop frontage is government- or nonprofit-owned, Dickson said – could, over time, cover the Loop’s converstion cost.
That cost, according to Ahrendsen, could run from around $12 million for a “functional conversion,” to $35 million with “streetscape” amenities such as trees, ornamental lighting and decorative crosswalks like those installed along Main and Chapel Hill streets several years ago.
Bell said he’s inclined toward a basic conversion, “then let the market decide” where to go with amenities.
“I’ve always questioned the Loop and wondered when we would be able to make it two way,” Bell said. “Now we’ve got some possibilities, based on the work they’ve done.
“The numbers Bob threw out there,” he said, “that’s all stuff we’ll have to look at.”
A word from NCDOT
One hurdle for any changes to the Loop and restoring the old street grid is getting a blessing from the state Transportation Department: the Loop is part of Business U.S. 70, a state highway.
But Nick Tennyson, former Durham mayor now chief deputy secretary of NCDOT, said he thinks the department “would be friendly to re-development of the traffic pattern around downtown Durham.
“As a general statement, I think NCDOT wants to facilitate the achievement of local goals consistent with our mission to protect safety and deliver mobility,” Tennyson said.