I Walk the Line: Downtown, the Great Wall and the Great Gap

girl and dog blog
Mr. Big and friend, Pettigrew Street, outside of the Durham County jail

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a woman and her two young daughters stood on the sidewalk along Pettigrew Street, waving in the direction of a small incision in the Durham County jail.

The family had brought their pit bull, Mr. Big, who strained at his leash to sniff and greet me.

“That’s my baby,” the woman said, pointing up at a window.

I could not see her loved one among the anonymous slits in the wall. But she could, which was all that mattered.

I’m one of the few Durhamites who favor the jail—while architecturally hostile as warehouses of human misery tend to be—being located downtown. When we sweep our social issues to the boondocks, we can forget that our problems—and the people caught in them—exist.

However, I’m admittedly in the minority. Many, if not most, Durham residents oppose the siting of the jail, especially considering its proximity to the Durham Performing Arts Center. But the jail was there first, built in 1996 when downtown was desolate. DPAC opened next door in 2008, when the downtown renaissance, while tempered by the recession, began.

The duality is almost poetic: DPAC, with its glass exterior, creates a fantasy; the jail, impenetrable and opaque, presents reality. I’d argue there is room for both.


However, apparently there’s not room for a train station here. GoTriangle has proposed the downtown stop be located at the current bus station, which gives the project points for connectivity. The agency opposes building another station near DPAC, though, not only for financial reasons, it says, but also because the extra stop would slow down the train.

(Fun fact for newcomers: An old freight depot, its side painted with an American flag, used to be along Pettigrew in front of DPAC; it was torn down in 2007 as part of the center’s construction.)

“This location … would create a highly visible gateway, unlike the proposed location at the bus station, which is far from the center and far from walkable.” —Durham Area Designers

Durham Area Designers, a volunteer group of architects and urban planners, disagrees.

(They detailed their thoughts in a letter to GoTriangle: Durham Area Designers DO LRT Downtown Section Comments)

A station at Mangum and Pettigrew streets is necessary to serve DPAC, which broke records last season with nearly 444,000 attendees. Yet nearly two-thirds of DPAC audience comes from outside Durham County. Those from Chapel Hill could ride the train; those car-bound from Wake County could not, because regional connectivity to the east has become a victim of politics.

The downtown light rail stop would be located at the current bus station. The train would travel down one lane of Pettigrew Street, leaving another one-way, eastbound lane for cars and buses.

A DPAC station then, needs to deliver more. DAD says it does. A City Center station at Mangum and Pettigrew, DAD says, would also close the downtown service gap between stops: DPAC, the jail, City Hall, the old county courthouse, and several blocks of the central business district lie beyond the quarter-mile “catchment area”—the distance most people are generally willing to walk to a stop—in this case, the Dillard Street and downtown stations.

“An opportunity would be missed to align the light rail system with the geographic and symbolic heart of downtown Durham,” DAD wrote to GoTriangle. “In short, it would miss the mark.”

Transit researchers have found the optimal distance varies, depending on a city’s walking culture. (We see more people on foot now, but I’d still give downtown Durham’s walking culture a C; further out where sidewalks are scarce, an F minus.) Those living near transit will walk a half-mile; people working near one have a lower threshold, a quarter-mile.


And consider this DAD idea: GoTriangle should move the downtown station about a block west to the vacant Greyhound station. GoTriangle already owns that property. A station there could connect with the Brightleaf District, DAD says. This site also addresses the bus-train-car-pedestrian axis of evil that already plagues the Pettigrew/West Chapel Hill Street intersection.

Hanging out by the tracks after the Solidarity March in May. This is at the intersection of Pettigrew and Chapel Hill streets. The Amtrak station is in the background.

This importance of connectivity between the north and south sides of downtown can’t be overstated. Downtown already has linkage issues because of the Downtown Moat, er Fifth Circle of Hell, er Loop. The existing railroad, used by freight and Amtrak, creates a psychological barrier that only the come-hither of the Durham Bulls, DPAC and American Tobacco Campus has managed to overcome.

Earlier this year, DAD persuaded GoTriangle to ditch a plan that would have created the Great Wall of Durham. The light rail line originally was to be elevated, over Pettigrew Street, rather than in the street as it’s proposed now. (Buses and cars have their own travel lane, one-way east.) There was great concern that an overpass would essentially act as a force field between the two parts of downtown. And the Goodmon family didn’t pour bazillions of dollars into the Bulls and American Tobacco Campus—and the city, DPAC—to see a rail line keep people from these money machines.

So GoTriangle got creative. They did it once. They can do it again. And again.nvItkk-17-DOLRT_SEGF_SHTS_Page_5


One thought on “I Walk the Line: Downtown, the Great Wall and the Great Gap

  1. many

    “…… because the extra stop would slow down the train.”

    DOLRT is already slowing. End to end time has eroded from the original 39 down to 42/44 minutes. Sadly no one points out that this is very close to the time TTA/GoTriangle said was too slow when they rejected BRT as an option. Not having public transit to DPAC is very shortsighted, moving the bus station would be impractical and even if it could be done very costly. Adding more stops slows the train further making the commute aspect less attractive for the only major employers on the route, likely reducing ridership. Missing the mark indeed. What to do?

    Lisa, You left me hanging on the “creativity” ending. I was not aware deciding not to do something and not having an alternative qualified as creative. Things this big ought to have been settled before funding, don’t you think? Any engineer can tell you that design on the fly has well documented issues mostly time and money. I wonder what other discoveries await you down the line……


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