Customers trickled into Los Primos grocery in East Durham early Monday, browsing stands of produce and plastic-wrapped spices while Latin music chirped above them. While one woman tended to a toddler, another hovered in the meat aisle, which offers at least a half-dozen types of sausage in Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan styles.
According to a survey by the N.C. Department of Transportation, two-thirds of the grocery's regular customers live within walking distance of the store, located at the intersection of Main Street and Alston Avenue. It's the only full-service grocery for nearly a mile. Many rely only on their two feet, or sometimes even a powered wheelchair, to zip along or across busy Alston Avenue from nearby homes and apartments.
So it's important that the grocery remain, and that Alston Avenue stay friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, residents say. They carried that message to Durham City Council, which on Monday proceeded in negotiations with the N.C. Department of Transportation on the design of a $25 million road-widening project to ease congestion.
The N.C. DOT would use federal and state funds to transform Alston Avenue from its current three lanes into a four-lane highway from its intersection with the Durham Freeway about a mile north to Holloway Street. The thoroughfare would be divided by a median and would split into additional turn lanes at some intersections. An early design would have run right over Los Primos, forcing the N.C. DOT to pay to relocate it. But new plans take the expansion east, cutting into two storage buildings at the Durham Rescue Mission, also at Alston and Main.
Durham's City Council voted to formally ask the state to adjust its plans. It is asking that the road include one lane in each direction for vehicle traffic, plus bike lanes and on-street parking.
The N.C. DOT is expected to respond with additional information in a few months. State officials have also agreed to hire a consultant to determine how much traffic Alston Avenue will lose to the East End Connector, which will link U.S. 70 and the Durham Freeway. Durham Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said as much as 20 to 30 percent of the traffic on Alston might be diverted by the connector. Construction on the connector will begin in 2014.
Although state transportation data shows several intersections on Alston are backed up during rush hours, some residents in the nearby Cleveland-Holloway, Golden Belt and Old East Durham neighborhoods say traffic isn't a problem and will be eased by the connector. The bottom line, several residents said: Alston doesn't need to be wider.
"This project is indeed one of an inner-city street turned mini-freeway," said Anthony Maglione, who lives on Wall Street. In some places, the road would be as large as Fayetteville Road in front of the Southpoint mall, at 80-plus feet. "This will, under no uncertain terms, separate the neighborhood," he told the council. Others contend that although the posted speed would remain 35 mph, an improved traffic flow, aided in part by no left turns at several streets, would encourage speeding.
Two people spoke in favor of the project, saying it would not only ease traffic but help future economic development. On both sides of the issue, residents said that they wanted a more comprehensive project that added amenities such as bus shelters and benches. But the funding is specifically intended to improve road travel, not to make the street more attractive, explained Chuck Watts, who represents Durham on the N.C. Board of Transportation. He told the council it would have to find money for those amenities locally.
"The federal money is not available to do beautification and community development," Watts said after the council meeting. "So when the board members are up there wringing their hands and make it seem that the N.C. DOT should do more to promote the interests of the community, in the end maybe that's something the council ought to be doing."
With only Councilwoman Diane Catotti in opposition, the council voted 6-1 to support the N.C. DOT project, but with the recommended bike lanes and parking spots to be kept in place until traffic volumes demand that the spaces be eliminated to create another travel lane.
In addition to impinging on the Durham Rescue Mission, the expansion would cut into Leo's Seafood, a convenience store and a taqueria. If the project proceeds, the state would begin acquiring the necessary land from the owners in about a year, Ahrendsen said. Meanwhile, some council members have speculated that although current plans avoid Los Primos, other challenges to the grocery may force it to go out of business before construction begins, which would be 2013 at the earliest. If that happens, the plans could shift back through the grocery's property.
Just over a month ago, two Los Primos employees were charged in connection with a police bust of several area convenience stores believed to be stealing and reselling merchandise from major retailers. Police seized five guns from Los Primos, and the store also was forced to forfeit its license from the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, according to a statement from Durham police.
Reached at his store this week, owner Miguel Collado said he was hesitant to be interviewed because of the issues. "Right now there's a lot of things going on here and I'm just sitting here and not saying anything," he said. But, he offered, he takes issue with people saying the lack of beer sales will put Los Primos out of business.
"Beer is 2 percent of our sales in this store," Collado said. "We sell more meats and groceries than beer." In fact, he said, the store has been so peaceful without beer sales—without people begging or employees having to chase shoplifters—that he's considering not selling it again. "It's been a blessing," he said.