In general, the mood of Mayor Bill Bell, publicly at least, rarely runs higher than room temperature. Even-keeled, even poker-faced, he’s a hard guy to read. But at yesterday’s final presentation of ideas to reconfigure the Loop, Bell, well, I wouldn’t call him excited, but he did seem animated, possibly intrigued by the idea.

“I think we need more discussion, but it might be easy to do,” he said. “We would need to find the money to make it happen.”

After two days of discussion, drawing and math, a group of developers and urban planners—with input from the city and several downtown residents—presented preliminary recommendations for reconfiguring the Downtown Loop from one-way to two.

Developers are interested in eliminating the Loop because it would provide more money-making opportunities for new retail, housing and office space. The pros and cons of this plan hinge on affordability for residents and small businesses—and make no mistake, that’s a major concern among even those of us who scorn the Loop.

But overall, the idea is a good one: to make the Loop feel and look less like Soviet-era monotony and more like Main and Chapel Hill streets, with buildings close to the street and open space that makes walking downtown enjoyable.

Some quick facts, as presented yesterday afternoon

  • There are 19 potential development sites downtown, many of them parking lots.

  • The total size of those sites is 18.34 acres.

  • 50 percent of the acreage is government-owned (originally an 85 percent figure was mentioned; that was updated), with just under a third belonging to non-profits and 20 percent in private hands.

  • The proposed land use would be 20 percent plazas, public squares and “circulation,” pedestrians getting from one place to another. This proposal would need to dovetail with the city’s Downtown Open Space plan, a work-in-progress.

  • Another 17 percent of downtown land would be allocated to parking. The amount of planned development, said Bob Chapman, himself a developer with Church & Cleveland Partners, would require 3,500 more spaces totaling 954,000 square feet.

  • Slightly less than two-thirds would be office, residential and retail space, about 1.8 million square feet. Some of this would be contained in “liner shops,” storefronts on the ground level of some parking garages. A good example would be that awful fortress called the Durham City Centre garage on Morgan Street, across from the Carolina Theatre.

  • Microlofts and a full-service grocery were also mentioned. 
“I want taller buildings,” said downtown architect Scott Harmon of Center Studio Architecture. “We can have buildings 15, 20, 35 stories tall. I’m hoping for more density.” County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow agreed, noting that because of its width, a two-way Loop could support taller buildings, especially for residential. The Loop’s proximity to the proposed light-rail station downtown also buttresses that argument. “We’d be missing the boat to go with lower buildings,” she said.


The nuts and bolts

In today’s print edition I wrote a story with more details of the Loop reconfiguration, but here’s a summary

  • The plan would turn the Loop into a two-way, including Roxboro and Mangum streets.

  • It would restore downtown to its original grid pattern, which means squaring off the east and west ends.

To the east, this would reconfigure Cleveland, Roxboro, Liberty, Holloway and East Chapel Hill streets, making those intersections tidier and less death-defying. There is also interest from developers—Church & Cleveland Partners, thus the name—who want to build in that area.

    The rethinking of this end of downtown also would affect the Main Library, which is planning for major renovations to not just the building but the lot. The lot could include a plaza or even a buildout of the library closer to Roxboro Street.
  • To the west, the squaring would intersect with the History Hub at Great Jones and Morgan streets, and the SouthBank building lot. Now, that lot is planned for redevelopment by Austin Lawrence Partners, the developers behind the 27-story City Center skyscraper, the restoration of buildings along Main and Parrish streets and the Jack Tar Motel.
 Paul Smith of ALP East emphasized the company has not filed a site plan, but that its long-range vision could include more condos, apartments, office and retail there—and possibly an urban food plaza.

  • It would be done in phases, although it’s still uncertain which parts of the Loop would be prioritized.
  • Taxes from these developments could generate $4.2 million a year.

  • It would cost $12 million (without streetscaping) to $35 million (with all the bells and whistles). Paying for it could be done with Tax Increment Financing. This will be covered in a future article, but the Civics Lab has a good explanation of this method, especially for those of us who aren’t finance majors.

    “Let’s get the traffic solved and set up the street blocks,” Harmon said. Then each developer can contribute to the streetscape.”
If the city and/or county sold some of its property, it could help pay for the conversion.

    And to retain some level of affordability, urban designer and planner Dan Jewell said, the city and county could co-own some parcels with developers. They would then form covenants to ensure that some spaces remained affordable.

A final report is scheduled to be issued within the next month. Expect City Council and the County Commissioners and the Joint City-County Planning Committee to hold extensive discussions and eventually, public hearings on the issue.

And now this from Billy Preston, your soundtrack for the day: “Will It Go Round in Circles?”