Durham Wants to Turn a Defunct Rail Line Into an Urban Greenway. Some Residents Worry It Will Force Them Out. | Durham County | Indy Week
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Durham Wants to Turn a Defunct Rail Line Into an Urban Greenway. Some Residents Worry It Will Force Them Out. 

click to enlarge The proposed greenway begins near West Village (above) and ends in Old North Durham.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

The proposed greenway begins near West Village (above) and ends in Old North Durham.

When Fred Snider moved to Edward Street in the 1980s, the Old North Durham neighborhood was largely populated by one-story duplexes. Now, brightly colored homes are starting to pop up and tower over them.

"The reason why I bought this house is the neighborhood. If they're going to turn it into that," he says, pointing to a yellow two-story on the opposite corner, "that's not a good look for me."

Standing in his neighbor's driveway, Snider says that his neighborhood is more diverse than ever. But he's seen his neighbors' homes foreclosed on, and like others on this street, he gets phone calls and fliers every month with offers to buy his house.

He's concerned that the city's plans to build a 1.7-mile greenway from downtown Durham to Avondale Drive, just a few blocks north of his house, would accelerate these changes. The Durham Belt Line, an estimated $15 million project that would turn a defunct rail line into a linear park, is intended to provide access to walking and biking trails connecting to public transit, amenities, and jobs downtown.

"If you're going to improve this city as a whole, you've got to do it around transit," Snider says. "It's moving in the right direction. I just don't want to get lost in all that."

Greenway projects in cities like Atlanta and Chicago have led to increased property values and displacement in surrounding neighborhoods. With a draft plan for the Durham Belt Line out for public input, an initiative known as Durham Belt Line for Everybody is coalescing to ensure that this doesn't happen in Durham.

While some neighborhoods along the route are largely white and affluent, others—like Snider's—are home to lower-income residents, communities of color, and renters burdened by housing costs. The two ends of the route stand in stark contrast. On one end are downtown's lauded restaurants, swanky hotels, and tech startups. On the other, aging homes abut body shops and convenience stores with signs in Spanish.

"Creating low-cost and low-carbon transit is a wonderful idea," says Tara Mei Smith, executive director of Extra Terrestrial Projects and one of the organizers of Durham Belt Line for Everybody. "I think the goals of the projects are great. It's just that when it's actually implemented in other places, that's not what has happened. It's really been a project to remake the city for the sustainability class."

The rail line was originally built in the 1890s and, throughout its hundred-year life, carried cotton, textiles, tobacco and people.

Plans to convert the line into a greenway have been in the works since 2001. The seventeen acres surrounding it were recently acquired for $7 million by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, and the city hopes to buy the land in the fall. In his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, city manager Tom Bonfield is recommending $2.4 million for the project, in addition to $2.5 million budgeted two years ago. Construction could begin as early as 2020.

A draft plan for the Belt Line includes public art, scenic viewing spots, and an urban park between Chapel Hill and Morgan Streets. The route would connect to the future 1.7 million-square-foot Innovation District, the South Ellerbe Stormwater Restoration Project, and Goose Creek Trail in Northeast Central Durham. Planners envision it will ultimately join a trail connecting Durham to Wake County as well as the three-thousand-mile-long East Coast Greenway.

The plan also identifies sites for affordable housing and offers recommendations to make building and preserving it easier. According to the plan, the Belt Line would connect 776 non-vehicle households within a quarter-mile of the route to alternative modes of transportation and would increase the number of surrounding households with access to open space by 52 percent.

But Smith says the plan doesn't do enough to ensure that neighborhoods surrounding the Belt Line are protected before work gets underway. Planning for Washington, D.C.'s 11th Street Bridge Park, considered the best example of an equitable greenway project in the U.S., for example, implemented neighborhood-stabilization efforts like a savings program for renters six years in advance.

"Once you start to roll the dice in creating this development, there's no way to slow down the market," Smith says.

Within a quarter-mile of the Durham route, the median household income ranges from $62,000 to $18,000 by census tract, compared with the citywide median income of $50,000. Census tract 2, where the Avondale Drive end of the trail terminates, is considered severely housing-cost-burdened, with 35 percent of renters spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing costs, according to UNC's Center for Urban and Regional Studies. Tract 9, directly to the south, is also severely cost-burdened. They're also home to the city's fourth- and fifth-largest Latinx populations. Tracts slightly farther out from the route are seeing some of the city's highest rates of eviction filings.

"Where the social tensions are in a particular place, they are exacerbated by these kinds of things," says Justin Robinson, who is also working on the Durham Belt Line for Everybody initiative.

Kofi Boone, a landscape architecture professor at N.C. State who studied perceptions of safety on the American Tobacco Trail and served as a consultant for the Belt Line, says the latter touches more underutilized land ripe for development.

"I think that's one of the reasons why people are more concerned about its potential for gentrification and displacement than they were with American Tobacco Trail," he says. "It's a different time. There's a different climate and political momentum, and the context suggests that the areas around the Belt Line could accept a lot more development in a short period of time."

Jake Petrosky, a planner with Stewart, the firm designing the project, concedes that urban greenways increase property values, but he argues that's happening along the Belt Line now and would continue whether it's built or not.

"If we build this trail, it is likely that we could accelerate those property-value increases by one year," he says. "The alternative, though, is not really attractive because you'd be taking away this spike of public access, increased mobility, and connection to the heart of Durham and replacing it with likely more market-rate housing."

Durham Belt Line for Everybody's main concern is that residents should be involved in the process. About seven hundred people have given input so far through surveys, meetings, and pop-ups at places like the farmers market, but there has not been a door-to-door effort to reach residents like Snider and his neighbors, who told the INDY they had either never heard of the Durham Belt Line or had no idea the greenway would pass so close to their homes. Petrosky says there will be more opportunities for community engagement as the project moves forward.

Part of the challenge, Boone says, is reaching people who aren't already interested in green amenities and getting them to see the Belt Line as not only a trail but as a means to improve their quality of life and more easily connect to jobs and the services they need.

"I think the perception is still that it's a green-people thing," he says. "My hope moving forward with the community-engagement process is that that message becomes more nuanced and becomes more connected to the actual needs of the communities that it's supposed to serve."

A public survey is available at DurhamBeltLine.com through June 25, and a community meeting will be held June 11 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Durham Nativity School.

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