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Angier/Driver streetscape project gets closer to being shovel-ready with 2011 start projected

When Durham city officials finished rebuilding downtown's streetscape a few years back -- a move that helped not only to improve aesthetics, but to prime the district for private-sector building improvements, space upfits and a range of new businesses -- many residents in near-downtown neighborhoods pressed anew for a share of infrastructural improvements, too, to spur on the same improvements.

Five different plans were designed, ranging from the low millions in areas like West Chapel Hill St., East Main St. and Old Five Points to the $30 million-plus tab for redoing a long stretch of Fayetteville St.

But as BCR's Rob Gillespie noted here last year, City officials decided in 2010 to prioritize the Angier/Driver corridor as a sole recipient of Durham's limited neighborhood streetscape revitalization funds, in an effort to show immediate impact, as opposed to several years' worth of necessary but intangible planning studies.

That move's had supporters along with detractors. But there's no denying one thing: it sure means that the City has something to get shovel ready. And along the way, it means Durham will avoid what a project consultant told a couple of dozen Durhamites tonight called a "patchwork quilt" approach to neighborhood business district fix-ups -- a patched sidewalk here, new curb there, new streetlights elsewhere.

Assuming that City Council supports the choice of an eventual low-bidder for the $2.5 million project in a likely late fall vote, the project should be under construction this year, with a summer 2013 finish.

One multi-million question stands out, though. Residents have wanted a streetscape that brings the advantages of downtown's renewal -- but is this still-nascent commercial district ready for the possible disruption that the work can bring? And is the City ready to support businesses through the transition.

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Roughly twenty Bull City residents and a coterie of City staff and consultants showed up Monday at the Angier Ave. Baptist Church for the unveiling of the Angier/Driver streetscape plans, culminating more than two years of study and analysis.

"I'm enthusiastic to see these pictures on the wall," said Chris Dickey of the City's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "What I see is a pretty good design based on the input" of the community during that study period.

Residents familiar with downtown wouldn't have been surprised by those images, per se; with few exceptions, they mirror the design choices in the city center rehab, from historic-style lampposts to traffic signals on steel mast arms instead of fading wood poles to new concrete sidewalks with brick insets.

In fact, consultant Rod Garrison from consulting firm EG&G referenced 'just like downtown' similarities several times in drawing connections between the two areas.

Still, the Angier/Driver district's smaller-scale footprint means some differences.

Sidewalks are narrower, less than 7' in many areas, coupled with buildings that often come very close to the street and right of way. Besides requiring individual private property owners' approval for much of the work, Garrison noted that that limited the ability to install amenities like street trees, which largely will be found only on "bumpout" segments near intersections where the sidewalk can intrude into street distances in areas that are no-man's-land for both turning radii and on-street parking.

Parking would be expanded in the district, with better-marked on-street stalls and, in the case of at least one stretch of N. Driver, the shrinking of a loading zone. Handicapped parking spaces would be added, too.

The Angier/Driver intersection itself would have a stamped-concrete treatment meant to highlight the crosswalks and give a brick-like experience -- the same, again, as was the case downtown, though at least one resident noted the deteriorating look of some downtown intersections. (The technology keeps improving, one consultant said hopefully, though road paving crews that hit downtown last summer also got some of the blame.)

One noteworthy element in the plan is a proposed civic area or "mini-plaza" proposed for the northeast corner of Angier/Driver, should residents like the idea and Angier Ave. Baptist be willing to part with some property. A curved masonry wall would highlight the neighborhood by name and include a stone plaque or public art talking of the history of the neighborhood.

Interestingly, the mockups showed the neighborhood by the appellation "Old East Durham," which among other things has been recently in vogue as the term a number of neighbors moving in and revitalizing homes in the area have chosen. (Cue the linkages to Old West Durham and Old North Durham, too.)

"I had one suggestion already this evening that Old may be the wrong word; maybe it should be 'New East Durham,'" Garrison suggested.

There'd be some underground fix-up too; an aging water main would be replaced while the roads are torn up, using funds outside those allocated for the project. Public Works' Mike Hughes described this as the result of one lesson-learned from downtown, where water mains weren't replaced and where frequent breaks are leading to incursion upon incursion in the asphalt.

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Still, a number of residents (and this correspondent) had other lessons of downtown on the mind when evaluating the streetscape plans.

One recalls the downtown work as a success, but there were also businesses -- notably downtown alt-club Ringside -- who decried the impact of torn-up streets and sidewalks. (Ringside would go on to close; a residence has gone into that building's upper floors, while office or retail use awaits an attractive Main St. first floor.)

An N&O blog post last year noted the City's choice of Angier/Driver as a starting point for streetscape work as being motivated in part by the sense that the district was the closest to getting businesses back, what with a partially city-supported opening of Joe's Diner by Joseph Bushfan, along with a nascent grocery store run by TROSA.

Yet those businesses, open that they might be, are still just getting off the ground, and none have long track records. How will they survive disruption, and what will that disruption be?

Former City Councilman (and Bushfan backer/investor) Dan Hill pressed officials to work with local property owners to help them through the process. "You've already done [streetscape work] in downtown Durham and you know what kind of mayhem" might result from partially-closed streets, sidewalks, and potentially fewer shoppers.

Hill called on the City to provide advice to local businesses, down to help in suggesting how impacted businesses should adjust their inventories and other cash-flow-sensitive elements of their work.

"We met with the business owners, and we understand what the concerns are," Dickey noted. "We're going to try to get out in front of these things."

Project leaders assured residents that streets wouldn't be closed in toto, with intersections usually half-closed with signalers managing traffic through one lane while paving and concrete work are underway.

Some businesses' patrons might need to use plywood or temporary accesses during sidewalk work, though, with even brief full-stop access interruptions when work came up to business doors. Dickey stressed that the City would work with businesses to avoid key hours of operation, and noted the crews' ability to work on Saturdays and off-hours as needed.

Still, there'll be the little surprises along the way.

Like coal chutes, usually long-abandoned (for delivery of the nasty stuff to basement boilers) but still leaving voids under sidewalks. And those temporary entrance diversions.

Public Works' Hughes added that City staff would follow the model they have used with the ups-and-downs of the reconstruction of Revere Road in Parkwood, a project which drew praise from the neighborhood association's president in a recent Herald-Sun story for strong communication channels with residents.

But that's not to say that even the repaving of bumpy old sidewalks and streets will be all smooth sailing, even if smooth surfaces are the desiderata when all's said and done.

"How aggravating is this going to be while this is getting built?  A little bit," Hughes admitted with a bit of a smile.



It wasn't just Ringside, although as a bartender during the "streetscape years" I can attest to the dramatic decrease in business that lead to deferred maintenance and closure. One of our DJs actually built our drawbridge after the city left a muddy pit where the sidewalk used to be.

Peacefire closed after the city parked their equiptment in front of their store. Their sales dropped to 30% of their former sales in the first three months of the streetscape project. When they asked for the city to decrease their rent (as they were renting the city space at 5 points) the city demured.

Safari Cuisine also closed at this time after the city required fire supression but wouldnt extend the lease or pay for it.

Main St Deli closed during the streetscape project.

What other businesses am I missing??

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