Have you noticed the road construction along the Durham Freeway near Briggs Avenue?
It’s a project called the East End Connector, which will connect the Freeway to U.S. 70 and, in turn, I-85. It’s also one of the reasons Durham needs to start thinking about another project on the downtown section of the Durham Freeway: its demolition.
The Durham Freeway was a product of 1960s urban renewal, a program which, contrary to its name, helped facilitate urban sprawl. The Freeway did nothing to reverse the fortunes of a struggling downtown Durham and was the nail in the coffin for the once-thriving Hayti neighborhood. Along with the conversion of neighborhood streets into mini-freeways (Duke, Gregson, Mangum, and Roxboro streets) and the comically misguided Downtown Loop, the Durham Freeway put a stranglehold around downtown.
Through smart public-private partnerships and a nationwide movement back to urban cores, downtown Durham and some of the nearby neighborhoods have experienced tremendous revitalization in recent years. Unfortunately, the Durham Freeway places a ceiling on the long-term potential of that renaissance. The former auto dealerships near the Freeway are being snapped up and converted to walkable mixed-use developments, but soon those underutilized parcels are going to run out and the Freeway will become a barrier to continued growth.
Access to downtown from neighborhoods to the south would be greatly enhanced with the demolition of the Freeway, particularly for those on foot or on bike. This includes the Southside neighborhood, where the City of Durham has invested significant amounts of money and energy to create new affordable housing. Gone will be the harrowing crossing of on-ramps and off-ramps. In its place could be a beautiful, tree-lined boulevard – a great street worthy of the Bull City.
Many economic and social benefits could be generated if the Durham Freeway is demolished. Imagine converting Jackie Robinson Drive from a highway off-ramp into a Durham Bulls-related party each game day. Or creating a grand entryway for the American Tobacco Trail on space now occupied by Morehead Avenue. And most importantly, think about how much land would open up for much-needed new affordable housing units, offices, and open space.
Which brings us back to the East End Connector. While it continues our region’s unsustainable trend of highway-building, its presence makes it possible to seriously discuss the demolition of the Freeway and those high-speed neighborhood streets. People who live in northern Durham and work in RTP will no longer have to cut through the middle of residential neighborhoods and the heart of downtown to get to their jobs. People who use the Durham Freeway as a pass-through to avoid I-40 will have another option. The transportation need for the Durham Freeway will be greatly reduced.
There will no doubt be those who will worry that demolishing the Durham Freeway will hurt downtown businesses. Similar freeway demolitions across the United States, including ones in similarly mid-sized cities such as Milwaukee and Chattanooga, have shown the opposite to be true. And consider this: Durham is the only city in the Triangle with a freeway running through its downtown. Downtown Raleigh doesn’t have a highway running through it, yet it is every bit the success story downtown Durham has been.
The construction of the Durham Freeway nearly 50 years ago destroyed neighborhoods and made downtown a pass-through. Its demolition will allow Durham to begin to knit communities back together and allow downtown to continue to grow. Let’s get started.
Erik Landfried is a member of Durham Complete Streets (www.durhamcompletestreets.com).