Office project raises question for future N.C. 54 traffic

jwise@newsobserver.comAugust 30, 2013 

RALEIGH

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    The Durham City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday in the Council Chambers of City Hall, 101 City Hall Plaza. Meetings are open to the public and may be viewed live on DTV8​, Time Warner Cable

Durham and Chapel Hill spent around $350,000, and their engineers and consultants spent a couple of years, coming up with a plan to keep traffic congestion from getting much worse on a section of N.C. 54.

They finished in May 2012. Now that it’s done, the question has come up of whether to pay attention to it.

Most of the N.C. 54/I-40 Corridor Study ( bit.ly/J09r6) ideas are millions of dollars and years away, but a concrete question comes to the Durham City Council Monday night in the form of Carolina Crossing: a pair of seven story, 84,000-square foot medical office buildings and 192,000-square foot parking garage about 100 yards from the intersections of Farrington Road, N.C. 54 and Interstate 40 – by some accounts, the most congested intersection in the Triangle.

“If we gauge everything we approve or disapprove by traffic, the tax base will be flatlined,” said Durham Planning Commissioner Ricky Padgett, one of four commissioners who supported the project when it came up for that group’s recommendation in July.

Eight other commissioners were against it, recommending the City Council deny a rezoning that Carolina Crossing’s developers need to move ahead.

“We’re just making things worse. We don’t need this,” said Commissioner Rebecca Board.

According to the N.C. 54/I-40 Corridor Study, peak-hour traffic on N.C. 54 can back up almost half a mile from Farrington Road, and down the access ramp to a travel lane on westbound I-40.

To mitigate the effect of added traffic, Carolina Crossing’s developers have committed themselves to around $1 million in road improvements.

Those, according to the City-County Planning Department’s report, would leave Farrington Road slightly below capacity on the standard traffic engineering scale and N.C. 54 slightly above – but within the limit allowed by city policy.

The Corridor Study, though, calls for the Carolina Crossing site – five acres at Farrington Road and Cleora Drive now occupied by Farrington Road Baptist Church – to become residential, mostly multi-family; and for rebuilding the current jammed intersection, replacing the Farrington Road/N.C. 54 intersection with an overpass and a new Farrington/54 connection farther west – away from Carolina Crossing.

Crossing developers objected to the rebuilding plan before the Corridor Study was finished, claiming it would discourage commerce around the intersection. The N.C. 54/I-40 Corridor Study ( bit.ly/J09r6) was finished and adopted in May 2012 by the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.

However, while Chapel Hill has formally adopted the study and its recommendations, according to Durham Senior Planner Aaron Cain, Durham has not. The City-County Planning report does mention that the Carolina Crossing site is designated residential by the Corridor Study, but concludes that the office complex is “consistent with” adopted Durham policies.

That left planning commissioners debating whether they should take the corridor study into consideration or not, and Durham City Council Member Diane Catotti brought the question up to a group of city and county elected officials in August.

“We don’t want to be adopting development or construction that’s going to undermine future plans or have people put in road improvements that are gong to have to be torn up later,” Catotti said. “Whether private or public investments, (taxpayers) don’t like to see that kind of waste.”

One neighborhood group in the area, the Downing Creek Community Association, went on record against Carolina Crossing last week.

“Adding both more cars and more lanes to this (Farrington-54) intersection is a bad, and dangerous, idea,” its board stated in an email to council members. “Any changes to this intersection should be steps toward the (reconstruction) called for by the Study, and not ‘improvements’ that take the intersection in the completely opposite direction.”

Planning Commissioner David Smudski had a different perspective. Traffic was his big concern, he said, and he was impressed that the developers were prepared to spend $1 million on the roads; but any real improvements would take help from the state DOT.

“I think approval of this (zoning) request,” he said, “would bring pressure to bear that something needs to be done.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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