The city of Durham is taking steps to acquire a defunct rail line and convert it into an urban greenway.
The City Council approved a master plan for the Durham Belt Line project at its regular meeting this past Monday in a six-to-one vote. At its next regular meeting, on August 20, the council will vote on whether to acquire the property around the rail line from the Conservation Fund, which purchased it in 2017 and has held it for the city.
The cost to buy the nineteen acres surrounding the rail line is just over $7.8 million, which covers the $7.1 million the Conservation Fund spent as well as administrative fees and costs for appraisals, land surveys and environmental studies.
The city has this money budgeted, as well as funds for design of the project and “a large portion of the construction,” Bill Judge, assistant transportation director, told the council on Monday.
Overall, the project is now projected to cost about $17.5 million. About $8.4 million of that would come from federal funds awarded to the city. The rest would come from city funds and private donations.
The council had discussed on Monday whether to pause plans to move ahead with the Belt Line amid concerns that it would lead to the displacement of residents along the 1.7 mile-route. Similar green infrastructure projects have led to increased property values in other cities.
Fears about gentrification along the Belt Line are most acute in neighborhoods along the Eastern end that are home to communities of color and many cost-burdened renters. Within a quarter-mile of the route, the median household income ranges from $62,000 to $18,000 by census tract, compared with the citywide median income of $50,000.
Council member Javiera Caballero cast the lone vote against adopting the master plan, heeding the concerns of members of Durham’s Open Space and Trails Committee — on which she previously served — that the planning process could leave vulnerable residents behind.
“This is something I’m actually very torn about,” she said.
Council member DeDreana Freeman also expressed reservations about not having a more detailed equity plan in place prior to moving forward, but ultimately voted in support.
“When a community stands up to say that they need a pause there’s usually some history, some background and some issues that have arisen that have created a kind of agita about what’s coming that is real,” she said.
Because the Belt Line is a long-term project, the city has time to develop an equity plan before construction begins, said Mayor Steve Schewel.
“We all know that in addition to getting the funding together for this project, the equity issues are going to be the ones that are central to the trail’s success,” he said. ” …. We have a long way to go even before the first piece of asphalt is laid down. We’re talking a year and a half before that happens. We are going to be in a pause.”
The planning process so far has already included online surveys, open houses and pop-up informational events, but the master plan recommends additional outreach in the Avondale Drive area, at the Eastern end of the route. Schewel asked city staff to create a community engagement plan and present it to the council in ninety days.