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Duke/Gregson street tree canopy replacement starts before New Years Day

The cherished oaks that line urban Durham's streets give near-downtown neighborhoods much of their character. But their time has been widely recognized to be coming to an end, as the trees reach the end of their natural lifespan.

And, of course, today's oaks run smack into the little problem of Duke Energy power lines, which weren't so much a concern when the trees were first planted during the Great Depression era as a WPA project.

It's fitting, then, that the economic stimulus effort of the Great Recession would come along to help replace some of these trees. (Goodness knows it's better than the trees being left to their current wacky-cutback state.)

The City's ARRA stimulus-funded program to replace 30 dead or dying oaks along Duke Street and Gregson Street will kick off next Monday, taking advantage of the light holiday traffic for significant street closings and tree removals -- with all the trees in affected blocks coming down over a three-day period.

And come January one hundred new trees, all attractive species intended to interfere less with the power lines, will go up in their place. 

The project starts Monday Dec. 28, with two crews working on Gregson to remove 13 trees between the 600 and 1200 blocks; all the trees on that segment will be removed in one day.

Work switches to Duke Street on Tuesday Dec. 29 and Wednesday Dec. 30, when two crews will remove 17 trees in the 700 to 1200 blocks of the northbound street.

Travelers beware: Gregson will be closed on Monday and Duke on Tuesday and Wednesday to accommodate the work.

The tree removal is being funded by Duke Energy out of this year's budget, which comes to a close for the utility on Dec. 31. The work period can also be significantly shortened by extended traffic closures possible only on a week like next week, when school's out of session and work traffic is light at best.

Replacement trees will go up starting next month. According to a Trinity Park Neighborhood Association newsletter from this summer, trident maples, single-stem crepe myrtles and redbuds will comprise the replacement set of trees.

Fliers are slated to be distributed to impacted property-owners today to alert them to the removal schedule; residents were consulted earlier this year when the City brought the ARRA-funded replacement opportunity before the neighborhood.

Disclosure: The author sits on the TPNA board of directors.



Good to know - since the alarming "pruning" took place, I've been calling them "amputrees".


Thanks to Alex Johnson at General Services who spearheaded this project and was able to somehow reach consensus among Duke Energy, NCDOT, the City, and Trinity Park residents - and to bring some of that stimulus money back home.

It'll undoubtedly be shocking when the "goalposted" oaks are removed, but the new trees will be generously sized at installation, and there will be a lot more of them. While I would much rather have buried power lines and huge oak trees, this seems to the best and most reasonable solution available.


There's a letter in the Duke Archives from Clarence Korstian, who advised Duke Power on trees back in the day about the Trinity Park oaks. He said they were a great selection for the roads because they wouldn't bother the Duke Power lines for some 40 years "by which time the lines will all be underground." I still wish that had happened, but this seems to be the best solution


Thank goodness no bradford pears!

Todd P

This is a better and more permanent solution than having Duke Power come through every few years to 'prune' these trees. Power lines and trees just don't mix.

I love when big oak trees make a canopy over the street, but I like having the power stay on even more. Durham should try to expand this program to other parts of town where large trees were planted too close to power lines.

Michael Bacon

Well, that's all fine and good, but I still wish someone would seriously propose what a 15-year powerline burial program would cost. Yes, we all know it's ridiculously expensive to do all at once. So don't. But could we actually, you know, get started on this? Because if we'd gotten started on it back in 1999 when I first moved back here and people were grousing about it, we might be over half done with it by now.

urban permaculturist

Seems a shame they couldn't have planted some fruit or nut producing trees. Even stunty old oaks make acorns. There will be a lot of hungry squirrels come next year... when we could have had actual urban foraging food supplies instead. Short-sighted.

Peter K

I agree with Michael, powerlines make this city ugly and while burying them all - all at once might be expensive - couldn't we at least start the process?

DPAC wasn't cheap either, but at least in this case I can imagine quite a bit of the work being done by local people.


I like shade trees as much as the next person, but the oak trees seem like bad urban trees to me: the sliver leaves clog up the storm drains and cling to shoes in the fall, and in the spring the pollen is so bad that you can't leave your windows open and cars turn yellow.


@ Michael...They could have at least focused on a couple main corridors such as Duke/Gregson.

Do the power companies have that much power? Everything seems to make it into an ordinance...why not "No new overhead powerlines." There must be a union protecting the jobs of the people who "prune" the trees or something...there are a lot more things that they could be doing for Duke Power.

Lee L

While I can't specifically say anything about Durham City, there are ordinances in most municiplaities stating there can be no new overhead lines. Also, the power companies usually want them underground anyway for storm survival. Doing it at the time of subdivision contruction just does not cost that much more than overhead.

As far as pollen goes, the yellow yucky pollen we get on cars and everything else is from pine trees. The oak pollen, which I and many others are allergic to, is pretty much too small to see and comes a little after the pine pollen has reached its peak.

Todd P

The city spent a million dollars to bury the utility lines near West Village on Main Street - that's what, maybe 3 or 4 blocks?

I agree with requiring new development to bury the lines, but retrofitting existing areas would be hugely expensive. Especially for a city that can't pave its streets, maintain its parks & buildings, or do many of the other things expected of local government.

Maybe the city should establish a program similar to the process of paving dirt streets or adding curb and gutter or sidewalks. Residents could petition to have utility lines buried, but would have to agree to an assessment to cover the costs.

Frank Hyman

A few comments:

* New subdivisions do put their power lines underground. That's been happening for a number of years. Unfortunately, they do not plant street trees very often.

* If we quantified the costs of economic downtime due to the disrupted powerlines from storms, I think that the alternative costs of a bond to pay for putting lines underground would be feasible and affordable over the 20 year span of a bond.

* I have a number of fruit trees in my yard and plant them for clients as often as practical, but fruit trees as street trees would not be wise. In the old days, people would corral their household cow, horse or pig with the fruit trees so they would eat up any fallen fruit. It's extremely unlikely that the average homeowner would pick every ripe fruit (or nut) on the tree in their front yard, and then you'd be left with a slippery mash of half rotten fruit on the sidewalk--and you know what that would mean--lots of snarky comments from anonymous commenters about how screwed up the city is, or how screwed up the homeowners are who don't get out a ladder and thoroughly harvest their city-supplied street-side fruit trees :-)

Sounds like the urban forestry folks made a good call on tree selection.

Frank Hyman

Kevin Davis

Also worth noting that, as the Herald-Sun pointed out, undergrounding power utilities along Duke/Gregson and other streets with mature trees runs into the small problems of the root systems. Youd likely kill the trees anyway.

An idea I thought was excellent and which hasnt gotten much attention: in urban neighborhoods where you have alleyways, why not erect poles in the alleys and run power lines down those corridors instead of along front streets? Aesthetically, people would mind the impact on rear-lot trees far less, and you could thus trim back much further, limiting the impact during storms. At the same time, the cost of relocating and providing new connections to homes would be much less than that of undergrounding power.



Your suggestion is exactly what urban planners used to do. "Wet" utilities (sewer, water) ran down the streets and came in the front of a house. "Dry" above-ground utilities (phone, power, trash collection) were hidden away in the alleys. This is still the case in many of Durham's oldest neighborhoods, including parts of Trinity Park, and - along with the huge old street trees - is a key part of what makes those areas so attractive and desirable. Unfortunately, many of us don't have alleyways behind our houses and only the most visionary of new developments (Trinity Heights) are designed in this fashion.

I like the idea of starting to put in the infrastructure (concrete ductbanks, vaults, etc.) for burying existing transmission lines a bit at a time. When the next ice storm strikes, and the power grid has to be essentially re-built again (as it was in 2002), at least some of the new lines could be routed below ground instead of hacked back through the tree canopy.

Of course none of this will ever happen because it doesn't involve an immediate profit for Duke Energy shareholders, and no one at the City has the cajones to make them do it.

Frank Hyman

One of my many delightful discoveries in Denmark, was that they ran their utilities not above the street or under the street, but under the sidewalks and the sidewalks were made of stone or concrete pavers. That way, 2 guys with handtools could open and close up the sidewalk and access any utility work without disrupting the street traffic or leaving a bunch of poorly filled openings in the asphalt or butchering the trees.

Oh, to live in a place where good design is common place.

Frank Hyman


Let's see...

Back Alley that...check
Concrete Pavers...check
Accessible vaults for maintenance...check

If we can convince Verizon to bring FIOS (fiber to home), they build a vault through the back yards/alleys that contained power and fiber. Combine with smart grid tech that can reroute around failures in a particular area and Duke Power/Verizon can depreciate the capital investment for x number of years AND save on maintenance. Sounds like a long-term win-win to me.

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