Durham County

Is city moving too fast on Durham Belt Line? Some say slow down for fairer trail

A bicyclist passes the old Durham Belt Line railroad tracks on a Lime Bike in downtown Durham on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. The Belt Line will be turned into an urban trail if a master plan comes to fruition.
A bicyclist passes the old Durham Belt Line railroad tracks on a Lime Bike in downtown Durham on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. The Belt Line will be turned into an urban trail if a master plan comes to fruition. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

A new trail is coming to downtown Durham, and if you want a say in what it looks like and who uses it, now is the time to speak up.

The City Council will hold a public hearing Monday, Aug. 6, for the Durham Belt Line master plan, which would turn the old Duke Belt Line railroad tracks into a linear park.

For more than a decade, Durham has wanted to turn the old railroad spur — once used by Brodie Duke’s company to transport tobacco within the city — into a trail.

But some people don’t want the city to rush into turning the tracks into something that benefits just those with the most money, if people of more modest means can’t afford whatever gets developed around the future trail.

The Belt Line’s two miles of tracks go through the west side of downtown from the bus station, past West Village, past the Durham Athletic Park and up through Old North Durham, ending at Avondale Drive. Weeds and occasionally a tree grow between the railroad ties.

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The Durham Belt Line is an old railroad spur that will be turned into a linear park through downtown. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

But soon the city will own the land and the council is set to approve a master plan to turn the tracks into a linear park that connects to existing and new parks and trails in and around downtown.

The draft master plan also calls for making the downtown loop into a two-way street.

One area of the Belt Line will connect with a project underway: the Ellerbe Creek stormwater restoration, which will bring urban wetlands and a boardwalk to the north side of downtown. That project, at 808 W. Trinity Ave., is expected to cost $8 million, not including amenities, and will be funded primarily from the city’s Stormwater Utility Fund.

Making the Belt Line a greenway for walkers and bicyclists with places to stop along the way is likely to draw people to it.

Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta, said young people want to live in dense, walkable areas, so you can “get your coffee or latte and ride your bike to work.” That kind of connection, he said, leads to development around it.

Equity and the Belt Line

“I think the challenge is if you’re not creating a Belt Line for everybody, if you’re creating the circumstances that perpetuate a really separate but equal city, the only people who will be able to live around the Belt Line area are people who can afford million dollar homes, like in Atlanta,” Smith said.

Smith is coming to Durham this week to talk about lessons from the Atlanta BeltLine, a project he left when he saw it wasn’t going to be an equitable project for all. He doesn’t think Atlanta leadership advanced the policies needed to manage the market as housing prices around the BeltLine increased.

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Nathaniel Smith

He will speak about “Creating an Equitable Durham: Lessons from the Atlanta BeltLine’ on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church.

Smith was invited by the grassroots group Durham Belt Line for Everybody, started by Tara Mei Smith and Justin Robinson of Extra Terrestrial Projects. Tara Mei Smith recently asked the City Council to think about equity in every aspect of planning the Durham Belt Line.

It has taken a long time for the city to acquire the land, and it’s close to sealing the deal on owning it after it was sold by Norfolk and Southern Railroad to The Conservation Fund and soon to the city with federal money through the N.C. Department of Transportation. At Monday’s council meeting that will have the public hearing on the plan, the council will also vote on accepting $8.4 million of federal funds. All that money covers the project through the design phase. Construction could be funded through private donations, grants and local, state and federal funding.

Mayor Steve Schewel said they can build a “fabulous, fabulous trail” that is truly for all of the community.

Nathaniel Smith urges them not to move too quickly.

“Time can really be the greatest enemy of equity,” Smith said. There are political and market implications, he said, but it’s still better to slow things down.

Talk to the community more, he advised. “Create as many opportunities as possible for the community to be heard.”

Smith said thosesupporting the Durham Belt Line should understand now the project could shift the market around it, before they build it.

“A reactionary approach to the market is never successful,” he said.

What’s next

Nathaniel Smith will speak from 5:45 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, at Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, 107 N. Driver St. Child care is available by calling 919-295-0483 or emailing durhambeltlinefor everybody@gmail.com.

The Durham City Council will hold a public hearing on the Durham Belt Line draft master plan at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 6, at City Hall, 101 City Hall Plaza.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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