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A new column about Durham development launches with a controversy over Club Boulevard

Club Boulevard decision delayed 

After two hours of passionate testimony and intense deliberation, willow oak trees stood between the Historic Preservation Commission and a final vote about Club Boulevard.

The HPC spent Tuesday morning debating whether the proposed traffic-calming devices on the Durham Speedway, aka Club Boulevard, would meet design criteria for the historic Watts-Hillandale neighborhood. That criteria includes "maintaining the current vegetation." The current vegetation, some of it, anyway, is the graceful stand of willow oak trees along the boulevard.

Many members of the neighborhood association support the proposal, even at the trees' expense, because the breadth of the boulevard—40 feet—and the speed of 7,000–8,000 cars and trucks per day—make it a death-defying experience to cross the street.

"It is a worthy tradeoff, the trees and the granite curbs that I love to look a,t in the service of keeping Club Boulevard a residentially oriented street," said neighborhood resident Ellen Ciompi.

"The biggest threat to the viability of the neighborhood is the inexorable traffic," said Tom Miller, an attorney, longtime neighborhood resident, Durham historian and planning commission member. "People don't use their front porches [anymore.]"

The collision between the interests of trees and the traffic would occur with the installation of curb islands and other sidewalk improvements. These alterations would kill the trees by disrupting their root systems. So the city would cut down three trees at each intersection, including the old willow oaks that define the character of the neighborhood.

While two trees would be planted for every one sent to the chipper, they would not be the willows. That variety grows too tall to accommodate Duke Energy's power lines, and thus would be subject to the infamous Duke crotch treatment, in which the center of a tree is cut back resulting in an object that no longer resembles a tree but a pudenda.

As for curb islands, they are short, narrow concrete planters erected between the sidewalk and the street. Several have been installed on Anderson Street, where the traffic speeds by undeterred. However, they're ideal for growing weeds.

There is not a neighborhood consensus about the traffic-calming devices. Adam Haile, who opposes the plan, noted that curb islands are hazardous for cyclists who have to steer around them. Cutting down the trees and removing granite curbs would cause "irreparable harm" and "forever change the historic appearance of the neighborhood," he said.

Haile suggested alternatives such as installing dedicated, striped crosswalks equipped with blinking lights and lowering the speed limit from 35 to 25.

Club Boulevard's width—equivalent to that of two double-wide trailers—is a vestige of its previous role as a streetcar route. Trolleys operated along Club, formerly known as E Street (as in Bruce Springsteen's band) until 1931.

The HPC continued the hearing until October to allow the city to consult with arborist Alex Rogers about tree replacements.

LOT OFF ALLEY 26 APPROVED: The HPC did approve a certificate of appropriateness for the development of a small vacant space off Alley 26 at 120 W. Parrish St. The INDY reported earlier on Arthur Rogers' plans to build a two-story building within the walls of an odd, five-sided, burned-out building that was once a furniture warehouse. The HPC's only caveat was that Rogers leave intact the two overhead walls that span the alley. Those walls used to form a second-floor room, and thus a tunnel in Alley 26, but that structure burned in 2009.

CAUTION, FALLING TIPPLERS: At least two rooftop bars have been proposed for downtown: One at Hotel Durham, which is under construction in the old Mutual Savings Bank building at 315 E. Chapel Hill St.; another atop the former Jack Tar at Corcoran and Parrish streets. Could it be time to cover the sidewalks with rubber playground mulch to catch the inebriated?

This article appeared in print with the headline "A bump in the road"

A Better Place is a new column about Durham development. Lisa Sorg is the INDY editor. Contact her at lsorg@indyweek.com .

  • A new column about Durham development launches with a controversy over Club Boulevard

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