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Downtown water line replacement project passes 80% completion mark, but disruption to continue into next summer

City of Durham staff updated downtown residents and business stakeholders last night on the ongoing replacement of water mains in the city center and nearby downtown areas.

It's been a necessary but controversial project, one that's brought a new wave to business owners inside the loop -- many of whom opened shop after memories of the downtown streetscape rebuild had faded. As Virginia Bridges noted in The Durham News a few weeks ago, several businesses complained to City Council about the level of noise from jackhammers and equipment, blocked streets, impact on peak hours, and the occasional instance of roads closed without work going on.

City water management staffer Bryant Green updated downtown's Partners Against Crime - District 5 (PAC5) group last night on a project he noted was now 80% complete, but which would continue to impact downtown off and on until summer 2016.

Greene sympathized with the concerns businesses and residents had raised, and shared both some of the rationale for project decisions along with steps the City was taking to minimize impact where possible. Still, in replacing infrastructure that was more than a century old, surprises abound and some disruption is inevitable, according to Greene.

"Unfortunately, with a lot of these [closure] decisions we can't pick... something that adversely impacts only a small number of people," Greene said.

While many sections of waterline were replaced in the late 2000s on those streets most impacted by the downtown streetscape and traffic realignment -- including much of Main, Corcoran, Parrish and Chapel Hill St. -- other roads like Mangum/Roxboro, Morgan St., Church, Market, and others weren't replaced at the time.

Of course, since that project -- which predated most of today's downtown businesses -- once-empty streets and storefronts are teeming with new life and customers, magnifying the impact on local stakeholders.

Greene shared the good news that the water line replacement had now been completed along many streets, including Roxboro, Church, and Rigsbee.

The Morgan St. (north loop), Foster St. and the western district near the History Hub and railroad overpass remain.

Greene did note that the work on Morgan St. is being built to match an eventual, proposed two-way realignment of the Loop, such that the water lines would be within the footprint of the eventual street, minimizing future impact.

City transportation director Mark Ahrendsen, however, cautioned the assembly that this pro-active step didn't imply that project was committed to move forward.

"It's in the plans. I don't know anybody who's against it. It isn't funded yet," Ahrendsen said.

Closures on Mangum St., home to several heavily-impacted restaurants, should be done until next summer, Greene said, when it would be time to mill and repave the roads. He added that after consulting with the businesses, the paving work would try to aim to miss the eateries' peak business times.

"We're probably going to wait until after graduation to start doing that," he said.

Greene also explained to the group the rationale for weekend work on the project. He noted that work had to avoid peak hours of morning and evening commutes, and that it took a couple of hours before and after work periods to set up traffic control, remove temporary covers and gear up for work.

During an overnight work period, that might translate to only five hours of usable work time -- not enough to be practical, and something that would drag the work out longer.

With weekend closures, Greene said, work could continue for nearly two days' time by setting up early Saturday mornings.

While he understood the optics of periods when work might be stopped during those windows, Greene noted that the trenches had to be recovered if traffic control was removed.

“The incredibly painful choice we’ve had to make for businesses is if we leave [traffic control] set up” we can finish the work faster, he said.

Indeed, when asked by residents about the poor state of the downtown streetscape stamped concrete crosswalks -- which are so odd-looking in places that one attendee asked if they were actual, legal, intentional pedestrian zones -- Greene noted an interesting analogy to the older streetscape project.

Many of those crosswalks, Greene said, had cracked and broken up long before the water project. "Back in 2007 and 2008, there was a lot of pressure to get things poured" and the work done, Greene said. One strategy used during that project was the mixing in of heavy amounts of admixture to encourage the stamped concrete crosswalks to harden faster so traffic could resume, but we've paid the price in terms of durability and quality.

"We're walking the line between trying to get that road open on Monday morning, and adding too much admixture," Greene explained.

(Bonus, perhaps, to those who don't like the red color: that admixture vendor has gone out of business, though the City is looking for a supplier who can match it.)

In other news, Greene shared that the surface parking lot on the north side of the Loop across from McDonald's and the Latino Community Credit Union was being eyed for a parking deck complete with retail wrapping at the base. He noted the project was slated to be funded out of parking funds/revenues.

Lisa Miller, the former city staffer and now Seven Stars Cycles partner, asked several questions about the One City Center project, which has blocked the Corcoran sidewalk and some parking on Parrish and other streets for months, she said, without sign of construction work beginning.

Ahrendsen said that whenever construction did begin, closures would impact the northbound (only) lane of Corcoran and parking lanes on the north side of Main and the south side of Parrish.

Finally, just in case you haven't had enough water main replacements -- and we knew you hadn't! -- there's more on the way.

Redevelopment pressures on the E. Main St. corridor, including the new Durham P.D. headquarters, mean the City is gearing up to replace the mains on Main from Angier/Driver to downtown.

And, in about three years, the American Tobacco district is slated for -- you guessed it -- new water lines.



I realize removable sidewalks made from recycled plastics (similar to the planking used for outdoor decks these days) and burying the power lines and water lines within the substructure, then improving the streetscape with an aesthetic that isn't commandeered by 'safety' and 'utilities' sounds improbable, but 'entrepreneurial' hype's got me all worked up.


Lisa Miller is still a city staffer!


"Greene also explained to the group the rationale for weekend work on the project. He noted that work had to avoid peak hours of morning and evening commutes, and that it took a couple of hours before and after work periods to set up traffic control, remove temporary covers and gear up for work."

I'm curious how this decision was made. Was it mandated by NCDOT? If so, did the City push back or have any community discussions about whether hurting downtown businesses was better than hurting the commute times for people driving their cars to RTP? If that's what we collectively decide is most important, that's fine, but I don't understand why it is the default position.

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