What it will take to turn the Duke Belt Line into a downtown Durham greenway

Earlier this year, the Conservation Fund of North Carolina paid $7.1 million for Duke Belt Line – an abandoned railroad the city hopes to turn into a downtown greenway.

The line, which snakes from West Village to the Old North Durham neighborhood in a two-mile arc, has long been targeted as a potential link between the Ellerbe Creek Trail in north Durham to the American Tobacco Trail.

But finding the money needed to buy the 18 acres of the Belt Line has long stalled the city from purchasing the land outright from railroad company Norfolk Southern.

Which is why the Conservation Fund – a national environmental nonprofit with a North Carolina office – agreed to buy the land while a variety of funding is gathered to cover the costs of turning the overgrown railroad into an inner-city greenway fit for bikes and pedestrians.

“I think it is a game changer for downtown Durham,” said David Proper, an urban program director for the Conservation Fund. “This is an opportunity to create an 18-acre linear park – a truly significant expanse of urban green space that is not just a connection to other trails but to neighborhoods as well.”

The Conservation Fund’s purchase is pivotal first step for the project to get off the ground, said Geoff Durham, president and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, which is helping to raise money for the Belt Line.

“The reality is this is a project that is 15, 20 years in the making, and it’s no secret how city leaders have been desirous of acquiring this rail line,” he said.

“The fact that the Conservation Fund is now in ownership of the land is a tremendously huge first step.”

‘An important link’

The Duke Belt Line dates to Brodie Duke, the oldest son of tobacco magnate Washington Duke, who built it in 1892 to connect the Duke cigarette factory with the city’s main rail line.

Norfolk Southern shuttered the rail line in the early 1990s – and the city and county has shown interest in acquiring it since 2001, when it was included in the Durham Trails and Greenways Master Plan.

The Belt Line is attractive because of its central location between downtown and north Durham neighborhoods, said Dale McKeel, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the city.

“This trail could provide an important link in the transportation system by providing a way for people to walk and bike to downtown Durham from areas north and east of downtown,” he said. “It also connects to other greenways in the system, such as the Ellerbe Creek Greenway, the American Tobacco Trail, and it will connect to our Amtrak station, the Durham bus station and the future light rail system.”

McKeel is in charge of a commission that is creating a master plan for the project. The city originally received a federal planning grant in 2014 for more than $200,000 to fund a master plan for the Belt Line greenway. That was also when the Conservation Fund began working with the city to negotiate with Norfolk Southern.

The planning committee is guiding consultants and studying successful greenways such as Greensboro’s Downtown Greenway and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Funding the Belt Line

Though the planning committee is already at work – it’s visiting Greensboro’s greenway this week – there is no formal purchase agreement between the Conservation Fund and the city.

Yet the two sides both say it will happen, according to Proper and Tom Bonfield, the city manager.

“We have not begun negotiations (for them) to sell us the property, though, that is the plan at some point,” Bonfield said.“They are looking at some other funding sources to reduce whatever number they would have to sell the property to the city.”

Some of those other sources will likely come from Durham’s business community. The Conservation Fund, in partnership with the Durham chamber and Downtown Durham Inc., has been reaching out to corporate partners throughout the city.

A draft of the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Improvement Program from June includes funding for the Duke Belt Line, according to McKeel, with the current draft showing the project needing an estimated $2.7 million from somewhere other than the city, county or NCDOT.

The draft estimates the total cost of the Belt Line project at $11.6 million, with $2.5 million slated to come from local funding, $6.4 million from the NCDOT and $2.7 million coming from alternative funding.

Those costs could change, though, once the master plan for the park is completed in the first quarter of 2018, McKeel said.

For his part, Bonfield cautioned that this project is still in the early stages.

“These things take a long time,” he said. “These projects are for patient people. I’ve worked on this project since I got here nine years ago.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes