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Demolishing an old railroad bridge to improve a downtown gateway

As a building boom in Durham transforms the cityscape, new developments under construction downtown such as the Willard Street Apartments building and the 555 Mangum Street office space are beginning to rise on the skyline. It’s a time of change for the city. 

But modernizing requires demolition too, and that’s the case at a key route in and out of the heart of downtown. An inactive railroad bridge spanning over downtown Durham’s West Chapel Hill Street has been taken down.

The removal last month is expected to improve safety and help beautify a city that is still growing. “That road is a key gateway into downtown, and it’s sort of an eyesore. It’s dark and it’s industrial,” said Rachel Wexler at Downtown Durham, Inc. 

While taking down an old bridge may seem like a simple step for a developing city, many organizations helped make it happen. North Carolina Railroad is collaborating with Norfolk Southern, Downtown Durham, Inc., and the City of Durham.

The recently removed segment of rail line was owned by North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), which leases a still-active rail bridge on the same stretch of road to the freight and transportation corporation Norfolk Southern. 

A gash of dirt stands where a rail bridge once spanned West Chapel Hill Street between West Pettigrew and Great Jones streets. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The destroyed span had not been in use since two of Durham’s five freight rail line junctions were abandoned many years ago, said Megen Hoenk, director of corporate communications at NCRR. 

Not only was it not needed, the rail line bridge was becoming a safety liability, said Tom Haning, a contractor working on the project with W. M. Brode Company. Norfolk Southern proposed removing it and North Carolina Railroad approved and provided funding for the $1.5 million project, Hoenk said. 

The obsolete bridge wasn’t the nicest to look at, and its removal is the first step of many to be taken to clean up and improve the West Chapel Hill Street corridor near Durham Station. Revitalization is important because pedestrians and vehicles flow through there every day. 

A private corporation with 100% of its stock owned by the state of North Carolina, North Carolina Railroad owns and manages a 317-mile rail line that stretches from Charlotte to the Port of Morehead City, making its way through the center of Durham along the way. 

While Durham officials did not propose the bridge removal, city staff and community members support the project because it helps clean up a congested area downtown. “It was an unused railroad track that had been out of commission for I don’t know how long,” said Bill Bell, former Durham mayor and NCRR board member.

As Durham city planners work to accommodate a growing population and increased traffic congestion downtown, giving West Chapel Hill Street a facelift is a key step in the right direction, Bell said. 

The bridge demolition project disrupted car traffic on West Chapel Hill Street starting in August and redirected foot traffic as recently as last week. Photo by Cameron Beach

Those working on this project, however, plan to go beyond basic structural fixes, which include painting and repair of the underpass walls and improvements to the nearby bridge still carrying trains. Durham City General Services and nonprofit Downtown Durham Inc. are also planning a public art installation at the West Chapel Hill Street underpass, once construction is complete. 

What that will look like hasn’t been decided. But Durham City General Services staff plan to apply for funding during the next budget cycle, said Stacey Poston of City General Services.

Wexler, director of special projects at Downtown Durham, Inc., said that the underpass has been an area of interest for some time. 

“It’s definitely been an interest of ours to try and beautify that street and make that gateway more of a pleasant experience for people. And the taking down of that second bridge has been the impetus to bring that project to the forefront,” she said.

Poston said she is excited about the new space for public art that the removal of the bridge has created. 

“If you walk through there now, it’s so nice and light. Before it was so dark, and now there’s basically a big gallery wall that we could do something great on,” she said.“The bridge had to come out before you can put the art in.” 

Photo at top: Where two railroad bridges long stood, now there is one. North Carolina Railroad Company recently demolished an unused span over West Chapel Hill Street, opening a tight stretch of road to more light and design possibilities. Photo by Cameron Beach

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