Durham County

The downtown Durham loop ‘should go away.’ Should N.C. 147, too?

N.C. 147, the Durham Freeway, cut through the center of the city and the historic African-American neighborhood of Hayti.
N.C. 147, the Durham Freeway, cut through the center of the city and the historic African-American neighborhood of Hayti.

Should highways go through cities?

Many do, including the Durham Freeway, which cut right through the historic African-American neighborhood of Hayti. nearly 50 years ago.

But should it be torn up?

A transportation engineer who has worked on removing highways from the center of cities raised the idea of removing or mitigating the impact of highways in Durham on Wednesday.

Ian Lockwood of Toole Design Group spoke at Downtown Durham Inc.’s speaker series, presenting what’s been done in other cities and lessons Durham could learn from the “Urban Freeway Removal Movement.”

Ways to mitigate a highway through a city:

Walls or fences surrounding the highway.

Underpasses and overpasses.

Elevating the highway.

Depressing the highway.

Tunnels.

Mitigation solves small problems like noise, light pollution and obstacles to walking and bicycling.

The Durham Freeway, or N.C. 147, has several points where overpasses let local roads cross the freeway. It also has a pedestrian bridge over one section, between the Alston Avenue and Briggs Avenue exits. The R. Kelly Bryant Jr. Pedestrian Bridge, named for the late African-American leader, is lit at night with an arc of bright blue LED lighting. It opened in 2010, replacing a former bridge. It connects Lakeland Street, which was severed by construction of N.C. 147.

Building highways through African-American neighborhoods was “an ugly part of transportation history,” Lockwood said.

Durham City Council member Charlie Reece said this wasn’t the first time he’s heard of getting rid of the freeway. He said questions that come up are about where the people living near it go after a “great renewal.”

Council member Javiera Caballero said she’d want those who stuck it out and still live near the freeway to still have a place to live that they can afford.

Neither said they want the freeway removed, but they do want the downtown loop to become two-way again. The city has applied in the past for grants to unravel the loop but hasn’t received them.

“The loop should go away,” Caballero said.

Beyond making the loop two-way, Reece wants to straighten out its curves by City Hall.

Downtown Durham Inc. has also called for making the loop two-way, and the master plan for the Durham Belt Line also calls to make the loop two-way.

Lockwood was a transportation planner in West Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1990s, when it was the subject of a documentary about crack cocaine.

“Anyone with a choice had left the city,” he said. He was also there during a time when planning helped change the city in a variety of ways, including reopening one-way streets into two-way streets, widening sidewalks and making room for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“The idea is to build what you want as a place,” Lockwood said. Not having left turning lanes, for example, brings congestion, “but the thing is, nobody minds ... if you have a cool and wonderful downtown.”

What’s next

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole J. Thompson said the group has no position on Lockwood’s ideas, but created the speaker series to share ideas from outside Durham. The next one, Sept. 25, will be about the role of design and inclusive communities.

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