MILDLY RADICAL IDEA DAY: CHAPEL HILL ST. CAP

While there are quite a few dimensions to the problems with the current landscape of West Chapel Hill Street, one of the more egregious ones is the interchange with the Durham Freeway. On the north side, the interchange is 707 feet wide (0.15 mi); on the south side it is 382 feet wide (0.07 mi). This is a huge, gaping hole in what was once a continuous streetscape.

So what to do - get rid of that pesky Durham Freeway? Nah, this is only mildly radical idea day. While I think the Freeway was ill-conceived and has cost Durham more than it has gained Durham, I recognize that it isn't going anywhere. So while I think it's instructive to look at the decisions that led to the Freeway (particularly when some of the same ideas go into similarly ill-conceived projects like the widening of Alston Ave., or Eno Drive,) the focus should be on how to minimize the Freeway's negative impact on the landscape. Because right now, no one is trying very hard to do that.

So, what, more flowers on the roadside? No, not good enough. I'm a fan of landscaping, but it is kind of an-aspirin-for-your-amputation when it comes to the Freeway.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of a modern-day London Bridge (not the one in Phoenix or wherever) - with buildings lining the side of the bridge. Then, about a year ago, I read about a project in Columbus, OH called 'The Cap at Union Station' that did just that.

Building something over the freeway isn't unique - big modernist structures spanning the freeway have been around for awhile in several large cities. What makes this project innovative is that they have turned a freeway overpass back into an actual streetscape by combining innovative reuse of wasted space with great design.


Aerial view of The Cap.
(Melaca Architects)


Corner view of The Cap.
(Melaca Architects)


Streetscape view of The Cap.
(Melaca Architects)

Streetscape view of West Chapel Hill St., looking west.

The West Chapel Hill St. topography is such that the overpass would be well suited to structures on either side of the overpass, spanning the Freeway. For the parking worriers, I've filled in potential space for parking in grey.

An even more ambitious proposal would extend the 'cap' on the south side back to Jackson, or even Vickers, thereby reconnecting the grid. But this requires closing or figuring out what to do with the eastbound on-ramp. While this is hardly infeasible, it moves the project out of mildly-radical territory.

Beyond Vickers, the topography changes significantly as the Freeway moves into the streambed of a branch of Third Fork Creek that runs in the woods near Gregson and Jackson (which is culvert-ed under the Freeway and, I believe, re-emerges behind JJ Henderson).

Must be talking scary costs, huh? Well, what I've read about the Columbus I-670 cap states that the cost was $7.8 million. For those counting, that's somewhat less than 1/6 of a Performing Arts Center. If it costs $18.5 million to fix the Loop, as per Bill Kalkhof, that means that we could build a cap at Chapel Hill St., another at Fayetteville St., another at Mangum St. (or Swift), and fix the Loop for about the same price as the theater.

I'm not suggesting that we run out to spend another $44 million. I am suggesting that when we talk about spending huge sums of money, fixing our infrastructure problems should be on the table. My opinion is that repairing some of the damage caused by the Loop and the Freeway would do more for the overall quality of life of the people who actually live downtown and in the near-downtown neighborhoods than the Durham Gritty Performance Center.

Comments

Well, as a libertarian of course I'm opposed to public spending on things like this. But I like it, especially compared to the stupid theater.

What I would like to see happen is for these types of infill development projects to happen "naturally" as a result of higher density development, rising property values and the government's need for cash. I remember when I lived in Boston the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority got an enormous amount of money in exchange for the air rights needed to build the Tower Records on Mass. Ave. above the Mass. Pike. A great outcome for all involved: toll-paying commuters, neighborhood activists, taxpayers.

There are so many things to love about this:
1. It'd be a lot harder to widen the freeway with all of those (privately owned) buildings on top. We'd be forced to optimise the traffic flow through demand pricing, dedicated bus lanes, etc. instead of simply knocking down more trees and Kelo-ed buildings. Mass transit could get a foothold if we stop subsidizing the car culture.
2. It's a great way for the government to raise funds without raising taxes. If the air rights aren't valuable enough, use tax increment financing like Bloomberg is doing above the west side railyards in manhattan. (Admittedly, this would be quite speculative in Durham, but no more risky than the "investments" we're making in the theater, war on drugs, hip-hop council, etc.)

Also, we could turn "The Eloise" into a Talbots! That building is a spitting image of the Talbots on Madison Avenue between 53rd & 54th St.; I once dated an investment banker who was oh-so-proud that she lived in the condos above the store. I have to admit it was a cool building, being in the midst of all the midtown glass and steel. It's mentioned in this article, unfortunately without a picture.

Dave

I don't necessarily disagree with you on the financing; by necessity, I think public money would be involved because of modifications to the state-owned transportation infrastructure and the relative weakness of the market in Durham compared to a place like Boston. But ideally, the gov't would simply construct the support system/building pad in such a way that they were satisfied it did not impede or endanger traffic, and then sell the building pad, air rights, and the wasted land inside the exit ramps to a developer, recouping much (if not all) of the construction costs. I'd support public expenditure on it because I consider the externalities caused by the state-owned Freeway (in terms of the effect on the WCH St. streetscape) to be a problem that needs to be corrected, and I think the property owner should correct it. As opposed to the theater, which is simply an expensive speculative venture with nebulous public benefit.

While it's probably enough to make a Libertarian nauseous, places like Japan finance a good portion of their rail system by the gov't simply buying many parcels along the right-of-way (I don't know whether these parcels are 'taken' or not, and I suspect they would have a quite different view of property ownership than the U.S.). Once the rail line is built, they simply resell the land and recoup the value added by the public investment to defray the public costs. Kind of a different permutation of our own 19th century railroad expansion in which the U.S. gov't gave away extra land to the private railroads along the right of way so that the railroads could sell them for added value.

The image of Talbots in The Eloise is fantastic. I'm sure Laura Ashley in the Urban Merchant Center would follow soon thereafter.

GK

Wow!! This is "mildly radical" idea that I find fascinating. The city and private developers would have to do more economic analysis, of course. But on the face of it, this is just the type of creative planning that Durham needs a lot more of to both fix existing problems and also avoid becoming just another colony of blah sprawl.

Anon

Glad you like it - and you've put it well. My suggestion is not that this is the one project that will fix problem X. The suggestion is that we keep 'fixing' the wrong kind of 'problems'.

GK

Gary, sometimes I think you've been rummaging around inside my head. I didn't know they'd done this in Columbus, and frankly it had never occured to me to do it on W. Chapel Hill St. I'd thought WCH needed a new bridge with better pedestrian crossings, but this is much better.

The place I'd thought to do it was on Anderson St. The nice thing about Anderson as a test bed is that given the right circumstances, Duke would probably be interested in being the private developer of both sides, or at least chipping in on part of it. as part of their Grand Master Plan for Perfection on Central Campus.

In any case, I'm shocked that the price tag is that low. I imagine the public parts of this could easily be paid for with tax incriment financing (that is, once we convinced the legislature to let us do that), and the city would see dividends based on the increased property values on either side.

Someone needs to get this in front of Alan DeLisle. I think I'll mention it next time I see him. (If I can remember to do that and try once again to sell him my city market idea...)

Oh, one other thing... Everyone knows by now that I'm a reluctant supporter of the theater, so take this for what it's worth, but... I know it sounds great to compare what we could have done with the money paid into the theater, but I do have to point out where the money came from. Of the $44 million, about $7 million is coming from Duke to protect their ADF income, about $3-$4 million is coming from things like naming rights and operation of the big display board, and about $30 million is coming from hotel tax revenue, for which the GA generally only approves for visitor-related expenditures, like marketing or tourist venues. Only a million or two are actually coming from sources which could, without major contortions and fighting, be spent on infrastructure.

As it is, I'm glad the money's getting spent on something arts related, rather than yet another damned convention center or lame-ass marketing campaign.

Michael

Yes, that strange squishy sound in your head is me tramping about.

Anderson St. is an excellent choice for this as well. Better in some ways, because there are no access ramps and Duke might be persuaded to pay for it.

Point taken on the revenue stream for the theater, and I don't mean to imply that that money could simply be reallocated to other projects. I mean to point out what X amount of money buys, and what I feel the comparative result of different expenditures would be.

I would argue, though, that we pay much of that cost in other downstream ways - visitors spending less, loss of political capital (well, we passed that tax for Durham already), and, most importantly, the seemingly unending time, effort, and focus that has gone into solving the problem of a lack of a large theater in downtown rather than, I'd argue, real problems. I, too, am glad it isn't being spent on some ridiculous marketing campaign, but I still think it is a waste. But it's happening, so I'll just have to be content with the fact that it will likely help my property value....

How much did the Big Dig in Boston cost? If tunnels are not for Durham, then I am all for the Caps!
Please no Laura Ashley though.

Coco

I guess the leakage from Third Fork Creek wouldn't be too bad, but the Big Dig cost around $15 billion, with a B.

GK

I love this idea ... and I really wouldn't care who pays for it.

I imagine this sort of cap would do wonders for highway noise abatement in the area where it's constructed?

I enjoyed visualizing this idea while coming up the 147 exit ramp from the west.

Believe it or not, I had EXACTLY this same idea. It came to me after getting a flat tire at the police station, and having to walk over the freeway back home to Burch Ave n'hood. Awesome to see it's actually been done. Would have added advantage of likely clearing Urban Merchant Monstrosity and Bill Fields Disaster out of the way. When lots of different people are having the same idea -- or like the idea -- maybe it's no longer "radical?"

i'd love to see this happen! please push this idea, anyone with any kind of connections! revitalize the area and remove the eyesores that are these overpasses!