March 11, 2019|By Steve Schewel and David Proper| Cities

David Proper: How do you think that Durham’s past, present, and future have impacted the plans for the downtown Belt Line project?

Mayor Schewel: Historically, Durham was a tobacco and textile town. When those industries faded, the downtown became filled with empty buildings. Our city’s revival has been centered in part on universities and healthcare institutions. In comparison with many other cities on the East Coast, Durham remains relatively affordable. People are coming to Durham to start a business or work in a tech firm because they can afford living here and they love the quality of life. This intense growth puts pressure on the city to plan for the future. The Durham Belt Line project is a part of our planning for the future and an investment in the preservation of the quality of life here. 

When I joined the Durham Open Space and Trails Committee six or seven years ago, everybody was talking about converting the rail corridor into a beautiful public greenspace and trail right in the heart of the city. We knew that it would be a real gem, but the question was how to make it happen, considering there had already been a lot of failed attempts to purchase the land. The big challenge was that it belonged to Norfolk Southern Railway, and they didn’t show much interest in parting with it at a price we thought was reasonable. 

3 11 19 BELTLINE EXHIBIT 2017 08 01 MedQDurham Belt Line Overview Map. The Durham Belt Line is envisioned to be a trail and linear park that has the potential to fuel the next stage of transformation in downtown Durham and serve as a crown jewel of the City’s parks and greenway system. The final adopted Durham Belt Line Master Plan provides a wealth of information about the project. 


David: In your opinion, what was the turning point that helped move this project forward?

Mayor Schewel: One major turning point was when you and Bill Holman, The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina State Director, got involved. You brought with you important experience and trusted relationships—especially with the railroad—and knew the steps that we needed to take to get to “yes.” You went through a whole new round of appraisals and brought your negotiating skills to the table. The involvement of City Manager Thomas Bonfield and a number of key staff was also critically important to the success of the project.

I think preserving land in rural areas is fantastic. We all want that. But to be able to preserve land in an urban area where it’s scarcer is an amazing gift. 


David: That goal is what brought me to the Fund. To me, the most rewarding projects are the ones closest to the population centers, as well as the ones that make you feel like you are making a real impact in somebody’s life by protecting green spaces and allowing people to enjoy getting outdoors again. 

Mayor Schewel: Another advantage for us is the speed with which you were able to get the deal done. Once you negotiated the price, the Fund purchased the property quickly, which gave the city of Durham the opportunity to acquire federal funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation and local matching funds. This allowed the City to purchase the property from The Conservation Fund on a timeline that worked for us. And now that the City has become the property owner, we are excited about beginning the work to convert it into a great public space. 


David: What are some the challenges the Belt Line project faces moving forward? 

Mayor Schewel: All of the physical work to create a great trail and the design work is one challenge. It’s a big task to engineer and design this type of trail, build it, and then to create wonderful greenspaces around it. 

An equally big challenge is to have the trail serve people in Durham equitably. We need to make sure that every neighborhood is well served by the Belt Line. Part of our equitable outreach plan is to go door-to-door in some of the neighborhoods that the trail will be traversing and really try to find out what the needs are and how we can help meet them. We need to be asking how we can preserve stability in all types of neighborhoods. We would like the planning and development of this trail to be a model for other work that we do in Durham. 

The City of Durham was one of nine cities to win the 2019 Bloomberg Philanthropies U.S. Mayors Challenge, which awarded our city $1 million to begin implementation on potentially breakthrough solutions to get people to come downtown in ways other than in cars. The Belt Line trail will help us meet that challenge. For people like me who enjoy getting outside to ride bikes and run, it’s going to be fun recreationally. And for a lot of people, it will provide a new way to get downtown to shop, eat, or commute to work.

3 11 19 Robin McKinney Duke 2332The existing conditions along the planned Belt Line Trail present opportunities and challenges. Certain areas are more passable than others at this point. Photo by Robin McKinney.

How do you see it adding to the quality of life?

Mayor Schewel: We have to make sure that we are providing people with places—trails and parks where they can play, where they can exercise, where they can enjoy themselves, and everybody has access. The Durham Belt Line project, right in the heart of the City, is going to accomplish that. People who work downtown will be able to take a walk on this trail during lunch. In terms of the quality of life for people living and working downtown, I think it’s going to be a tremendous asset.

The Belt Line itself is a great trail, but it’s also going to be a key link to other neighborhoods, trails, and the whole park system. The vision is that someday it will be part of a series of trails that will go all the way around downtown. 

: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from this project so far?

Mayor Schewel: There are several lessons that I will take away. I think one is that having partnerships is critical. I would tell other cities trying to accomplish similar work to try to work with a partner like we had in The Conservation Fund. We could not have done it without our partners. 

The process also reinforced in my mind the importance of equitable engagement, and the need to ensure that everybody shares in our city’s prosperity. We can accomplish this through jobs, housing, and access to the kinds of things that the trail provides. This project could potentially serve as a model for addressing some of Durham’s gentrification and affordable housing issues.

3 11 19 DurhamBull RobinMcKinneyAs one of the oldest buildings remaining in downtown Durham, the Old Bull building remains an impressive structure after 130+ years. The American Tobacco Historic District is filled with housing, sports and arts venues, restaurants and bars—and will be only steps from the southern terminus of the Durham Beltline. Photo by Robin McKinney.


David: What are some of your hopes for the future of this project and downtown Durham in general?

Mayor Schewel: We need to have a community and a downtown that are not dominated by cars. If you think about what would choke off the amazing quality of life we have in our region, it’s over dependence on cars. We estimate 1 million more people will be living in this region in 30 years, and 150,000 more in Durham alone. If we are serious about our quality of life and preserving it, we need public transit and people need to be able to walk and bike to their workplace and recreation spaces. And that’s why the Belt Line is so crucial. It’s such a fantastic connector from neighborhoods to downtown, and then potentially to a future light rail system—one that could serve as a connector to other parts of the North Carolina Triangle area, including Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and the Research Triangle Park. That’s how I see it fitting into the bigger picture and the kind of region we want to live in. 

Find Out More

The Durham Belt Line is taking inspiration from the Atlanta BeltLine, a former railway corridor in Atlanta, Georgia under development as a multi-use trail. Find out more about the Fund’s work on the Atlanta BeltLine:

The Atlanta BeltLine—An Urban Trail That's Worth Smiling About by Stacy Funderburke

Written By

Steve Schewel and David Proper

David Proper (left) is the Urban Program Director for The Conservation Fund, where he works with local units of government and other conservation partners across North Carolina. The Urban Program provides real estate expertise and financial assistance to a variety of communities with the conservation of their most important urban landscapes in order to protect water supplies, preserve environmentally sensitive landscapes and create new parks and greenways. David’s private and public work experience provides him with a valuable insight into today’s urban conservation arena.

Steve Schewel (right) has served as mayor of the City of Durham, NC since 2017. Prior to that, he served as Durham City Councilmember from 2011-2017. He founded The Independent (now Indyweek) as president and publisher in 1983, and published it for 30 years until selling the company in 2012. He also taught about social movements and political change as a visiting assistant professor of public policy at the Sanford School at Duke University from 2000-2017.