Why they’re important:
One of the most distinctive features of Durham’s historic residential neighborhoods is also one of the most overlooked historic resources: the streetscape. The granite curbs and the canopy of large oak trees lining the streets lend as much to the historic character of our early twentieth-century neighborhoods as the housing stock itself. Unfortunately, due to the necessity for updates to the underground infrastructure and the need to keep overhead power lines clear of branches, our historic streetscapes are being gradually eroded.
Why they’re imperiled:
In the spring of 2014, the Durham Historic Preservation Commission heard a case for the removal of several sections of granite curb in the Trinity Heights Local Historic District. The first request of its kind, the review of the project was triggered by the specific mention of the granite curbs in the Trinity Heights Preservation Plan. The removal of the curbs was granted with the condition that the city first make all efforts to save and re-install the curbs. Similarly, in early 2014, a section of granite curb on Glendale Avenue in the North Durham-Duke Park National Register Historic District was planned for removal as part of a water main replacement. The threat of removal was met with resistance by the adjacent property owners and the Old North Durham Neighborhood Association, and the scope of the project ultimately allowed the curbs to remain in place by concentrating work near the center of the street instead.
Equally distinctive and even more noticeable, the trees that line the streets of our historic neighborhoods are also threatened by a number of factors. The first is that the trees, many of them over one hundred years old, are nearing the end of their natural life cycle. The second is that many of the trees have been aggressively pruned by private power companies in order to ensure the necessary clearance for the power lines and to prevent downed power lines due to fallen branches. The City of Durham has policies in place to replace street trees that are removed as part of public project, as well as programs through which neighborhood associations and other groups can obtain new street. However, the new trees that are planted are specifically chosen to remain small so as not to interfere with the power lines and thus do not create (or maintain in the long term) the tree canopy that is so distinctive to our historic neighborhoods.
Throughout North Carolina, residents have resisted aggressive pruning and other measures by the power companies. In 2013, Greensboro residents and elected officials developed a Utility Vegetation Management Ordinance aimed at blocking excessive pruning, but despite participation from Duke Energy, the ordinance failed to obtain support from the State Utility Commission. In Charlotte, recent public outcry has temporarily halted Duke Energy’s injection of chemicals into the ground that stunt the growth of street trees, a program that was slated for implementation in Greensboro and Durham as well. While it is certainly important to balance the desire for street trees with the need for safe and reliable electricity, policies must be developed that protect and ensure the survival of the tree canopy in our historic residential neighborhoods.
The City of Durham Public Works Department has expressed an interest in working with Preservation Durham to evaluate the life cycle costs and sustainability implications of removing granite curbs and replacing them with concrete. Private grant funds will hopefully be secured in the near future to fund a study that will consider these issues and how they dovetail with the Department’s annual maintenance budget and policies.