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Our awful job market, 2015-now

A few years ago, I was at a store and a salesman was helping me. I could see he knew the products well. He was friendly, and intuitive, and knew the products and also how people usually interacted with them. In the end though, I decided not to buy. On my way out the door, I saw the owner smiling. He was glad that man, who was young, probably in his 20s, did not make that sale.

That was probably the worst instance I remember of there being managers and owners who are actually glad when their most talented young workers are not making them money.

So where are workers with skills and talent supposed to go?

The job market and unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story. The official unemployment rates keep going down. North Carolina’s unemployment rate in February was 3.6 percent. The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. For the past year, that figure has stayed below 4 percent. This cannot be true because even in the years before the financial crisis, the unemployment rate was 5-6 percent when there were a lot more job openings and mobility.

The thinking to explain the low unemployment rate has been that as people have been leaving the workplace, they are not counted.

Here’s what Chad Pisaneschi, the co-owner of Dulce Café & Gelato in Durham had to say when I interviewed him in January.

“I would expect the actual unemployment number to be up to 10 percent,” Pisaneschi said. “There are also a lot of people who are underemployed.”

“There are a lot of people blindly clicking on (job) ads, blindly applying,” he added. “In two days, I might get 150 responses. For a manager position recently, I got 200 resumes.”

Pisaneschi and others also have noted how much workers are willing to travel long distances for simple jobs. At Dulce Cafe, they have received applications from out of state for entry-level job positions.

Haven House Services, a nonprofit in Raleigh that helps at-risk youths, at one point received more than 300 applications for a job opening in accounting.

Julianne Kirby, director of Human Services at Haven House, attributed that to the easy way that people can search and apply for jobs online on web sites like Indeed.com.

“The more entry-level direct care positions receive a lot of attention and applications. Some of the candidates are very over-qualified. The more mid-level positions are harder to recruit for,” she said in an e-mail.

From my personal experience looking for jobs and being in various workplaces, is what’s been happening is that people have sought to find jobs that not only grow their skills but also provide a shelter during these years.

People have been looking for emotional and social safety. And for companies in some industries where the needs of the clients are changing, it’s been difficult to find and keep workers.

Other problems in the job market are that many companies have become more inflexible. There isn’t enough support for people with the emotional and social skills to be good workers and to be good managers. In many ways, I think there isn’t even support for people who just have skills and experience.

Every year, it seems there is a push by workers for the job market and the economy to gain momentum.

The job market probably could have opened up was right after the activism of the summer of 2015 ended. Millennials were basically done with our “graduate school” years that had begun in 2012. Young people had been traveling, wandering, studying on our own, taking odd jobs, stepping out of the career ladder for a while, and some of us even went to graduate school. By fall 2015, we were ready to get back to work.

Going back to 2015, the U.S. unemployment rate was 5-6 percent the entire year. North Carolina’s unemployment rate was about the same, and stayed below 6 percent for the year.

But then, the second half of 2015 also shockingly fell off from the activity of the first half of the year.

Various business news articles noted the fall in consumer spending and GDP growth.

The slowdown in the last three months of 2015 is more worrisome. A global economic slowdown appears to be finally weighing heavily on the American economy. Despite a strong job market, other signs point to slowing growth.

American manufacturing, which makes up 10% of the economy, is in a recession and the industry’s key index, ISM, has declined for six straight months. Consumer spending was negative or flat for seven out of 12 months last year.

Other articles theorized about a “mini-recession” in 2016:

There was a sharp slowdown in business investment, caused by an interrelated weakening in emerging markets, a drop in the price of oil and other commodities, and a run-up in the value of the dollar.

The pain was confined mostly to the energy and agricultural sectors and to the portions of the manufacturing economy that supply them with equipment. Overall economic growth slowed but remained in positive territory. The national unemployment rate kept falling. Anyone who didn’t work in energy, agriculture or manufacturing could be forgiven for not noticing it at all.

Actually, the pain was everywhere.

If you look at the social media of businesses in early 2016, that was the first time there was a type of freeze that happened, and that has kept happening, in the years since.

By winter 2017, it seemed like that was the last time national retail was humming along as before and the big companies were making decisions the way they used to.

Winter 2018 was when some kind of collective worker action seemed to be brimming and waiting for support. But again, that did not happen.

But this last winter, in 2019, it seemed like some other collective social contract was broken.

Last fall, around the time Harry Styles’ “Lights Up” was released was when there was another push by young people to get things moving. That was when people were exhausted but still trying to gather up our energy and keep working and keep going.

But just a few months later, he was singing, “Fallin’ again. Fallin’ again.” All of that effort to do our utmost was met with no support at all.

This is awful.

It seems like there’s been a cycle of more and more doom-and-gloom, and nothing being done to give the parts of the economy the boost they need when they need it, and people becoming more and more angry and desperate, then dramatic things along the lines of more doom-and-gloom being done.

What can be done to turn things around?

Blog post: The happiest song, from summer 2017

 

 

 

When The Coronas released this song and video, “Real Feel,” in 2017, as part of their fifth album, “Trust the Wire,” it went mostly unnoticed in the music press.

The Irish Times called it a “solid, if somewhat safe” album, and noted the band’s lack of acclaim but popularity in their home base in Dublin. Other reviews were similarly lukewarm or miss the point completely. This review, for instance, for some reason compares The Coronas to David Bowie, and talks about the album in terms of “indie alienation, disquiet, melancholy… .”

Actually, “Real Feel” was the most optimistic song to come along in a long time.

“Real Feel” captured the openness of that moment and that early summer’s vibe that year perfectly. (The band had also captured how spring 2017 felt with this song, “We Couldn’t Fake It.”)

May 2017. I was tired of seeing the same types of people and a lack of vibrance and diversity — everywhere, it seemed.

By the time this song came out, I was ready for “real feel people.” And I can’t get over how optimistic that time still felt. I could listen to this song on my front porch and my mind goes to Franklin Street, and I could think of all the activity that was there. It felt open, like maybe we were on the cusp and things were going to finally start happening.

Instead, that summer spiraled down into destructive events like the Las Vegas shooting, and that sense of openness dissolved.

“Real Feel” also should have gotten more attention because it was clearly along the same artistic lines as other bands that had already come before and made an impact in the culture. To date, The Coronas still have not been noticed by the major music publications. (And that’s yet another big problem that’s contributed to the mess we’re in, which is that the media is not working the way it used to.)

“Real Feel” has similar type of artistry and optimism as Feist, but more overtly so. The video brings to mind Feist’s “1 2 3 4,” which most people probably associate nowadays with Apple. That video was about a “let’s dance together/let’s work together” sense of can-do that pervaded that era of iPod Nanos and Apple Air computers.

Feist’s video was perfectly choreographed. The possibilities and joy that can come from working together, was what that video and that era were about.

The Coronas’ video is also choreographed, but more scrappy. It’s more clever and they deliver similar themes as Feist, but they are also more rooted and more about real-world relating. The band throughout their career has drawn from the Dublin music scene, and they are currently getting ready to release a sixth album, “True Love Waits.”

It’s also just a fun video to watch. When I watch it, I still get put back into exactly that moment when there was so much more abundance in the world.

RDU’s “Vision 2040” master plan is absurd

When Raleigh-Durham International Airport embarked on its $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” master plan in 2015, its facilities were actually the newest they had been in decades.

Terminal 2, the main terminal at the airport, had been completed in 2011 at the cost of $570 million. The new 900,000-square-foot terminal featured designs from Fentress Architects and The Freelon Group. It had high undulating ceilings of beams made of Douglas firs, abundant natural light, a layout that was easy to navigate, and connections for travelers with laptops. It was the most modern terminal the airport had had in a long time.

Terminal 1, the old “blue box,” as it was known, also had just finished renovating in 2014.

Far from being dilapidated and spent, the RDU’s facilities in early 2015 were the newest they had been for decades. It was the culmination of the work of the airport’s 1994 master plan.

So the question is: Why did RDU officials insist on doing a new master plan at all when its facilities were mostly new?

Actually, Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” is for a date set so far in the future that it’s absurd.

Planning for the year 2040, from the vantage point of 2015 — 25 years into the future. This does not make sense. Were people in 1975 able to plan for the year 2000 in any meaningful way? Not only that, but the U.S. is currently in such political and economic chaos, that most people can’t even plan past the next presidential election.

From start to finish, RDU’s “Vision 2040” planned during times when people, especially young people, were the least able to provide input. The airport’s facilities were still so new in 2015, that most people would not have even had this on their radar. RDU’s board approved this plan in October 2016, right before the election that year. How many people could have been paying attention? Then, the Federal Aviation Administration approved this plan in December 2017, again, during a politically intense time. Even if people had objections and criticisms, it would have been difficult to speak up.

What’s also most telling about RDU’s approach is the way it went about leasing the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract for use as a quarry. The announcement last March came suddenly and has become a protracted battle in the court system. But, if RDU needs $2.7 billion for its master plan, then $24 million the airport will get from the quarry over 35 years will go little toward meeting its goals. (To put this in perspective, RDU received $53.8 million in capital contributions last year for its master plan.)

But the airport seems completely willing to wreck that natural area forever, for local residents currently and future generations to come.

Over and over, RDU’s plan and its actions show an organization more interested in managing the future than meeting the real, current needs of its customers.

What is the “Vision 2040” master plan?

RDU’s 1,885-page master plan is vague on exactly what it wants to do. Much of it is an inventory of existing conditions at RDU — useful for anyone wondering what the airport needs now that it’s operating with two terminals that are almost brand new.

Instead, RDU has let information about what it wants to do out in a trickle.

It wants to expand Terminal 2, and the details of that remain to be seen. In January, it moved several airlines to Terminal 1 in a bid to expand that terminal, which is estimated to cost $500 million. That move was met with objections by the Umstead Coalition for violating RDU’s own master plan by locating the expanded gates on the side close to Umstead Park. A year ago, in January 2019, RDU announced that it wants to build a 11,500-foot runway, which would cost $350 million. In August 2019, the announcement was that the airport wants to build a new rental car facility, again for $500 million. When the airport has butted heads with Umstead Coalition and local residents, it has pointed to the need to put up “No Trespassing” signs to protect property it wants to use for its master plan.

Landguth

Michael Landguth, president and CEO of RDU

But nothing about RDU’s “Vision 2040” makes sense when you look at it on the whole. There seems to be no specific vision.

For instance, RDU wants a massive $500 million consolidated rental car facility. (To put that into perspective, it cost $570 million to raze an old terminal and build the new Terminal 2.) At the same time, RDU wants 10,000 new parking spaces.

So, is RDU officials’ thinking that in the future, people will want to rent cars to get to their destinations, and will have such an urgent need that they will want immediate access from Terminal 2 into a six-story-tall garage only for rental cars? Or is it forecasting that people will want to drive themselves?

And, why is RDU ignoring the popularity of Ubers in recent years, as well as local taxi companies? And why is RDU forgetting that people in North Carolina have more of a habit of relying on family and friends to drop them off? Rental cars are probably the least urgent need among local residents.

 

Urgent needs for the airport?

RDU officials have sold the narrative that the changes outlined in the “Vision 2040” master plan are urgent or desirable needs for the airport. They are not.

“Our rapid growth is driving new construction projects throughout campus to meet customer demands and build for the future,” said Michael Landguth, president of RDU, on its web site in January, touting new construction.

That announcement by Landguth came shortly after the airport came under fire by the Umstead Coalition, the nonprofit that preserves Umstead Park, for wanting to build a 8-foot-tall barbed wire fence that would cut through state park trails.

RDU officials and others also cite the increase in the passenger numbers as the key reason for the urgent need for build-outs at the airport.

But when RDU embarked on “Vision 2040” in 2015, the number of passengers who went through the airport that year was still below 2000 and 2007, and about the same as in 1992.

According to the FAA, in 2015, the number of passengers at RDU was 9,943,331. In 1992, it was 9,925,364.

Since then, the number of passengers has made a fast climb, to 14.2 million in 2019.

But is that growth that the airport can absorb with existing facilities? Although RDU experienced a boom in the 1980s, when passenger totals increased from 2.7 million to 9.2 million, the master plan during that time was not done until 1994.

And is the growth RDU has had in recent years even, well — real?

This past fall, RDU lost two direct flights to the West Coast, which indicates that the growth the airport is experiencing is not based on business, but more leisure. Some of RDU’s growth has come from the popularity of flights by Frontier, the Denver-based low-budget airline. A round-trip ticket to Los Angeles? Just $93.

But even Frontier pulled its direct flight from RDU to San Diego last fall.

When RDU has wanted to tout its plans, it has pointed to growth from China. RDU’s plans for a new runway, to attract nonstop flights to China, was picked up by The News & Observer in January 2019 for a flashy headline touting a “10,000 foot runway.” (Actually, the new runway would be 11,500 feet. The existing main runway is already 10,000 feet.)

Speaking with The Duke Chronicle in February 2019, Landguth said,”China wants to travel,” he said. “By 2040, they will be traveling four times more than the United States.”

But common sense and knowledge of human nature says that Chinese citizens, like everyone else, do not know what they want by the year 2040.

Wait, RDU needs $4 billion?

In January, Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce that advocates for companies on transportation issues, under the leadership of CEO Joe Milazzo released a paper that states RDU has high growth based on passenger levels in recent years. Therefore, the airport will need $4 billion for its master plan, instead of the originally projected $2.7 billion.

Joe Milazzo RTA

Milazzo

The papers for those findings are titled, amazingly, “Our sky could fall.” A tone of urgency runs throughout.

“There is no single ‘magic’ answer,” RTA states, “and we have a limited and shrinking period of time for all stakeholders – including, but not limited to, the four government owners, the airlines serving RDU, and business and leisure air travelers – to come up with a way to ensure the long term viability of RDU.”

However, the fact that RDU lost flights to the West Coast last fall, along with the expected drop in passenger levels because of the coronavirus, indicate that the growth the airport is experiencing is not sustainable, nor does it need such a massive fundraising rollout.

RDU also still has debt on its books for the two new terminals, which cost $638 million in total.

According to its financial statements for fiscal year 2018-2019, the airport still owed $508.6 million in bonds it took out. During that year, it paid $22.7 million toward that debt. The total interest on those bonds was $9.5 million.

RDU posted $44.6 million in income that year, and $53.8 million in capital contributions, mainly from federal and state funds related to its master plan.

Maybe instead of doing a $2.7 billion master plan – or a $4 billion master plan – RDU could pay back more of its debt first.

The profits from these temporary, inflated “boom” years of high passenger numbers could have been put toward that. Instead, RDU has been busy planning for a vision that makes no sense, ignoring the real needs of its customers, as well as fighting with local residents — its own customers — over a quarry that would pay little toward what the airport says it needs. Worst of all, this plan could lock down generations of young people to RDU’s “vision” for most of our adult lives.

If this master plan is implemented fully, generations of people, and especially the younger generations, will have to live with the mistaken vision of people in 2017. By 2040, the board and leadership will be retired. The oldest Millennials will be about 60 years old in 2040, close to retirement age. So for all of Millennials’ prime adult years, because of the poor timing and the way RDU went about this master plan, we will have no say whatsoever in one of the biggest infrastructure uses and needs of this community.

And for Centennials, the generation after Millennials, they will grow up to do only the work that was laid out for them in 2017, when they were teens.

By the time this master plan is fully executed, the people who came up with it will be retired and they will not be liable for the mistakes they make. Meanwhile, the younger generations will be saddled with a plan that will not suit our needs, and we will also have to pay the bill.

It’s too nice to call RDU’s master plan “absurd.” This plan should have never happened at all.

Blog post: It’s March! It’s springtime… Isn’t it? Here are two music videos that remind me of spring.

Anyone ready for spring? March to me is a transitional month between February and April. I’m very aware of February. I’m happy and excited for April. March is that month where I’m a bit in a daze and often feel like, Um, is it winter still? Is it spring? I don’t know. Should I still cook some stew? Is it watermelon season yet? I’m so confused!

In March 2018, I was commuting and working a lot and barely experienced the outdoors and the weather. Last year, I was more local at a job but I felt like I was in a cave, and again, barely went outside.

This year, because of the coronavirus, there’s an air of fear and disgust everywhere. What to do about this? If I go on a hike, should I wear a mask — because, you know, fresh air might infect you? Just kidding. But this is how people are feeling and behaving, isn’t it? Like some random fresh air will infect you. The panic over the coronavirus has been crazy.

A few years ago, I decided that March was the month for spring cleaning and for exercise. (Interesting how panic over the coronavirus is overriding the normal instinct and desire for exercise.)

And recently, I found out that the first week of March was designated “North Carolina State Parks Week” in 2015, on the centennial of the founding of the first state park at Mount Mitchell.

Isn’t that the most perfect timing? First week of March, time to get yourself out to a state park and enjoy the first flowers, the new leaves, and the sunshine.

So there might be a killer virus going around, but I’m going outside anyway.

Here are a couple music videos that reminds me of spring. Enjoy!

Feist – “Mushaboom”

 

Florence + The Machine – “Dog Days Are Over (Live at Glastonbury 2010)”

 

That spring vibe when you want to fly out the window. Wheeee!

No, the light rail was not a good idea. Part 2: The obvious questions and other objections

Duke University rejected plans for the $2.5 billion, 17.7-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project last February, on which GoTriangle wanted to start construction this year. A month later, GoTriangle, the organization in charge of public transit in the greater Triangle area, announced it would abandon the project.

A year on now, there are two major questions about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, that was re-proposed in 2012 and then sporadically discussed in the media until late 2018, when it exploded into a toxic issue and the light rail was misleadingly cast as a must-have for Durham.

The questions: We’ve been going through a chaotic time. Why was GoTriangle so intent on pushing through a huge project instead of simply maintaining existing services and waiting to see where new demand in the population would be?

And where did the $159 million spent on the light rail go?

The obvious questions

The easiest way for a new transportation linking Northeast-Central Durham with Duke and UNC would have been to go through U.S. 15-501. The space to install a new rail line is already there on an eight-lane highway.

But if GoTriangle had presented a map for this obvious route, then it would have been easy to ask questions like: Can we not just have more buses?

And let’s say the light rail debate and the toxic rhetoric around it didn’t happen in 2018. Let’s say this happened in 2008 when civic discourse was more abundant and open. This project would have never passed muster and would have immediately raised these obvious questions:

Why can’t the congestion be solved with more buses? Why that route? Why not be more sensitive to the neighborhoods it runs through? We have been more interested in bicycling. Why is that not being discussed? We’ve also had talk of “aging in place” communities. Why are they not being discussed? If more buses went from UNC to South Durham, it would cut the traffic down substantially. Why is that not being discussed? Should those be UNC buses or should they be public buses? Maybe we should talk to UNC about that. The culture of the South is one that prefers driving in your own car. So can a light rail work here at all? There are also political and cultural events that are causing traffic congestion and increased population, and they are temporary. We are in a politically tumultuous time. People are divided and scared. Shouldn’t we consider that maybe there is less carpooling and there is less mindfulness of driving habits? People probably head out only when they feel safe, period. People are also driving long distances for their jobs, because again, a lot of people are looking for places where they can be hunkered down and safe. People are exhausted, scared, and confused right now. The general public doesn’t have the mindset, the time, or the energy to think about a project of this size. Why is this being pushed through? Shouldn’t we delay? GoTriangle can simply maintain the transit system we do have. Why is that not simply being done?

These are questions that would have been raised at city council meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings and downtown planning meetings.

The light rail was proposed to be $2.5 billion, but estimated to be much more than that with interest added — $3.3 billion.

Why were these questions not raised? What happened in 2018?

Other objections

No, the light rail was never under serious discussion until very recently. The argument that it had been since the ‘90s was outright false.

The discussion for a good decade leading up to 2012 in Durham was downtown road improvements and fixing potholes. The renewed access to the train station was exciting. The new bus station designed by the late Phil Freelon was exciting. People liked bike lanes, and there was talk of “aging in place” communities.

The light rail had been under discussion, as anyone can see from old news articles from the ’90s. But it was never under such serious discussion that it floated to the top of the general public’s awareness. It was never a top news item and issue of concern for Durham residents like downtown revitalization and downtown street improvements were, or even potholes. In Chapel Hill, there was a continual exploration of the bus system and bicycles.

By the late 2000s, the light rail actually fell completely off the radar. The fact that a transit tax was passed for it in 2011 and 2012 was a surprising thing to have happen. GoTriangle bringing the light rail back to the general public halfway through 2012 was another surprise.

The light rail was the worst example of a culture that lost all sight of what “innovation” and “progress” really mean.

Why do we want self-driving cars? They are innovative. Why are they innovative? Because they are self-driving cars.

Why do we want Google Fiber? It’s innovative. Why is it innovative? Because it’s Google.

Why do we want 5G? It’s innovative. Why is it innovative? Because…

This is mind-numbing.

True progress and innovation rise out of culture and context.

In this area, in 2011, the interest was in buses. People were bicycling and then taking a bus to work.

Why were people interested in buses in 2011? Because we were so busy working, and our work days were so full – and our schedules were so rigid – that riding the bus still felt like it was a progressive, good thing to do. It took effort to plan your workday taking the bus schedule into account, and riding the bus also meant you were environmentally conscious. It was forward-thinking. But that waned because a lot of our culture is in flux and has been for a while now. Workplace culture has changed and there isn’t the same level of activity to sustain the kind of discussion and interest we had in buses in 2011. Can workplace culture get back to that abundance? Now, that is something that people have clamored for and people do want.

And why have people been riding Uber so much? It’s because there is so much fear and chaos in the country right now, and workplaces have become stressful in the most unimaginable ways, that people aren’t carpooling. People are going to the grocery store at odd times and not with any regularity. People are only venturing out when they feel safe, which means a lack of emotional diversity and traffic congestion. Everyone gets the same motivation at the same time.

We’ve actually been going through a time when people are very unable to take public transportation. There just isn’t the space in our lives to make that a priority.

Why did GoTriangle want to push through the light rail at any cost?

Tunneling under Blackwell Street. Spot rezoning for an industrial rail yard in a residential area. Raising the train at Duke Hospital.

While GoTriangle was making these moves to ensure the light rail would be passed, everything was so precarious in the working world every day in late 2018 and early 2019, that there was no space or energy at all to think, let alone take action on such a project.

Not even college students were as able to handle discussion around this issue as they would have been during practically any other year. What was college campus life like in late 2018? At the beginning of the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, wakes up and coughs. That moment was relevant for a reason to young people, themselves wandering around campuses and workplaces with a growing ubiquity of Emergen-C tablets.

Here’s another example of how winter 2018 felt. Watch the Maroon 5 Superbowl halftime show, a creepy, malevolent-looking halftime show that’s out of character for the pop-rock band, and in an uncontrollable way. It was as if the band just could not put on a happy, normal show.


That was exactly how it felt in the world. It was a very dark, malevolent time. And in the midst of that, Go Triangle was doing everything they could to push this through. Why?

February 2019 was when the fight over the light rail became the most desperate. On Jan. 31, residents off Leigh Farm Road filed a lawsuit to block the rezoning for a maintenance rail yard in their neighborhood. On Feb. 7, a rally was held at the Durham bus station to urge Duke to give approval to the light rail.

The day after the rally, Durham and GoTriangle officials met with Duke administrators to discuss Duke’s ongoing concerns about the Erwin Road stop.

And GoTriangle further ramped up the pressure. The organization gave The N&O and The Herald-Sun a report detailing that meeting and others it had with Duke.

A day after that story ran, Duke sent a letter to GoTriangle rejecting the light rail project.

The backlash was overwhelming.

Durham City Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton immediately recommended in an op-ed in The Independent Weekly that Durham and GoTriangle should just exercise eminent domain and take land from Duke.

What I find strange is what I have not heard. Why hasn’t the specter of using eminent domain to obtain the land needed from Duke been publicly raised? If light rail is truly all it is billed to be, then how can we allow it not to happen?

A few weeks ago, I cast an affirmative vote to rezone land in close proximity to an age-specific community for a Rail Maintenance Operations Facility in service to a project that seemed to drip with promise and inevitability. Parcels of the land I voted to rezone were acquired through eminent domain from private landowners.

What makes Duke University so different?

What a highly incendiary and irresponsible thing to propose in early 2019. This would be alarming at any time to have a city councilman propose something so drastic so easily, overriding not only Duke’s decision but also Durham residents who also had objections and concerns about the light rail that were obviously not being heard.

But proposing to do this in early 2019 was the most destabilizing, dangerous thing.

Because during that time, this is what was happening:

That was in April. In Durham and Chapel Hill, in the Triangle, construction and roadwork were happening everywhere, at the most random times, and in ways that were potentially dangerous for residents. It wasn’t until this horrible accident at that those constructions eased up.

In this context, the city exercising eminent domain during that politically intense time and against Duke, would have given carte blanche to any number of people who could have opened a gas main, planted the wrong flag, failed to inspect an electrical line properly. And that could have been done against any regular business or homeowner they didn’t like.

GoTriangle, being in transit and being a public organization, must have known that these kinds of abuses were happening all the time, and are still happening. Did not one of their buses get held up by construction on N.C. 54? On the Durham Freeway? On Interstate 85?

Meanwhile, news reports leaned into the darkness of the time instead of doing anything to stabilize what was going on as journalists are supposed to do. In March, The Indy actually ran this horrible headline:

Indy headline wow

Duke wasn’t saying that to GoTriangle. But that message was definitely received by the Indy’s readers.

“Drop dead,” the Indy said. What a headline.

What happened in 2012?

GoTriangle brought the light rail back to the forefront of its initiatives in April 2012.

That’s interesting timing considering 2012 was when Millennials had begun our adventurous, exploratory years. That was when people were in California, Texas, graduate school. That was when this country’s new wave of political awakening was beginning. 2012 was the year of Barack Obama’s re-election. The Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, which both began in 2011, were still ongoing in 2012. That year was also marred by the Trayvon Martin and Sandy Hook shootings.

In many ways, the transit taxes that were passed had overestimated how much people would want to use public transportation because they had not anticipated that there would be so much political upheaval in the coming years.

There was nothing going on in this area or in the country that said, “We need a light rail system.” Because young people were going through a lot of exploring and thinking and we didn’t know what our needs would be yet. There was no regularity to what young people were doing during that exploratory time. People were leaving jobs and getting into new jobs, thinking about going to school, exploring different options. If GoTriangle had maintained its existing services and emphasized them, they would have drawn a steady ridership.

But instead, GoTriangle made the light rail the top of their agendas for the remainder of the decade.

According to GoTriangle, Duke officials “rarely attended planning meetings after 2015.”

2015 was when Millennials’ exploratory years ended. Summer 2015, young people were jubilant when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. After that, people were ready to get back to work.

Perhaps Duke had accurately assessed that the energy spent on the light rail should start to be spent on people who were about to come back to the workforce, come back to the community. And, three years is a good amount of time for a project that was a surprise to begin with to be discussed seriously.

And in 1999, Duke had said the light rail would wreck the character of the area in front of the hospital. That argument was true, and the university left it at that.

By 2018 and 2019, Duke should have been able to do the same. The problem was that it could not, and no one could say the simple, true thing.

March 30, 2019

The weekend after GoTriangle announced they would abandon the light rail project was a very happy weekend.

That’s not an exaggeration.

I had felt completely powerless to say anything. I could only breathe a sigh of relief when the project failed. That weekend, I went out hiking everywhere with my dog for the first time in a while and it felt like everyone had the same thought, in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, everywhere. I still remember. People were all so happy and friendly.

Things had been wrecked in ways that I guess we never imagined. But people, basic relating, kindness, memories, having a nice time outside – that was all still there. People still floated above it.

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Photo taken on a day spent outdoors, March 30, 2019.

More recently, I was driving on N.C. 54 and realized that for the first time in what feels like a long time, I can just drive and let my mind wander, and think. Think about people, think about stories. And not just think but feel my way through everything. I can just be a little bit. It’s very wrong that that’s been so hard to have, just the space to be. And it’s terrifying to think that that openness could have been wrecked and actually overridden and exploited — for years, and maybe forever for young people, if construction on the light rail was ever allowed to go forward.

We could have lost so much because people cared about abstractions instead of reality and actual people.

In the end, Duke was the only entity with the power and the grounding to say, “No.” Durham is very lucky it did.

Let’s talk about the redevelopment of the CVS building on Franklin Street

On Feb. 20, the Chapel Hill Town Council heard the first plans for the CVS building on Franklin Street from Cary-based Grubb Properties. The developer wants to completely revamp the look and feel of the building, located at 136 E. Franklin St. and 137 E. Rosemary St., that used to be known as the Bank of America Center.

According to Grubb Properties’ marketing materials, it wants to put in a new façade, a new lobby in 136 Rosemary St., 16 new restrooms, new roof, new LED lighting, and it says, demolition of all interior walls.

The developer also owns the parking deck at 125 E. Rosemary St., which it wants to demolish and replace with a new parking deck. Additionally, Grubb Properties wants to demolish the existing Wallace parking deck on Rosemary Street and replace it with 200,000 square feet of office and “wet lab space,” according to the N&O.

Grubb had bought these properties last April for $23.5 million.

The redevelopment plan also calls for new “public green spaces,” behind the Chapel Hill Post Office, at part of the parking lot on Rosemary and Columbia streets, and wider sidewalks and bike lanes at 125 Rosemary St., according to the N&O.

 

From the plans provided in news articles of the past week, and renderings of smooth, big sidewalks, glass facades, and green spaces, this project does not sound like it suits the character of Franklin Street or downtown Chapel Hill.

They actually sound like they would pave over and sanitize the very things that people like about Franklin Street.

And wet labs on Franklin Street or anywhere in downtown Chapel Hill? That does not sound right.

There is also nothing currently going on in the world, in Chapel Hill, or on Franklin Street that feels like the demand for such a development even exists. That movement in the economy is just not there, and there is no impetus on Franklin Street for it either. This project is very out-of-the-blue.

But Chapel Hill town leaders are already expressing excitement about the project, which is dubbed the “East Rosemary Downtown Redevelopment Project.” Mayor Pam Hemminger in this N&O article said it’s exciting because fewer UNC students are eating at downtown restaurants, and that’s why Chapel Hill needs more people to live and work downtown, and that way, it can also bring back UNC startups.

Hmm. OK, let’s dissect this.

First of all, the claim that UNC students are not eating at downtown restaurants is not true. Ever go to Hops before it closed? Or Al’s Burger Shack? Or Carolina Coffee Shop, across from the CVS building? Ever drive through Franklin Street on a Friday night?

UNC students are on Franklin Street constantly. There is definitely foot traffic and a desire to walk around with friends, go to the shops and restaurants, maybe catch a movie at the Varsity Theater. The demand for Franklin Street itself, both among students and among townspeople, has not changed.

But what has been happening is political tumult and an atmosphere of fear and anger, and constant stress on people and businesses.

Going back to Fall 2018. The atmosphere around UNC and Chapel Hill fell apart immediately with the Silent Sam protests. There were police cars on Franklin Street around the post office area, and students looked down and stressed. Who would have been going to stores and restaurants around that time? What townspeople would have been strolling through Franklin Street?

Or take Black Friday 2018. Late 2018 was a very dark time, and that Black Friday was a gloomy, cloudy day. Varsity Theater had been showing “A Star is Born,” but pulled the movie just a few days before. Bandido’s Mexican Cafe was closed. Fedora Boutique was closed. So even if someone wanted to support local businesses, there wasn’t much opportunity to do so.

By the time a customer, themselves working in stressful jobs, finds the energy and desire to come out to a business, that business itself is exhausted and decides to close. So the two do not meet.

Is there anything the town can do smooth this out, or to maintain the vibrancy of Franklin Street when people and businesses on their own cannot? Should the town do something about this or support businesses in some way? Maybe those are questions the town’s leaders could be thinking about.

Back to Hemminger’s remarks about startups and the need for people to live and work in downtown. Would ongoing construction on a major redevelopment, that will reduce foot traffic and force out long-time businesses, lead to more people wanting to live and work in downtown, or lead to more startups wanting to be there?

If the developer actually proceeds with plans to demolish the Wallace parking deck and construct a new office building there, the area with Bandido’s, the old space of The Rathzkeller, and at ground-level, the Sutton’s Drug Store — will all be stressed beyond belief.

Is this really the right way to bring people downtown?

There are other red flags and other things about this project that do not make sense.

According to the N&O, the town would kick in $28.1 milion, or with interest, it would be $39.5 million, for Grubb Properties to demolish the parking deck at 125 E. Rosemary St. and replace it with a new parking deck. The new parking deck would have ground-floor retail. But is nearly $40 million really a good investment for mostly just parking?

Also, Grubb wants to use the capital gains tax credit available through the federal “Opportunity Zone” program, which is for 10-year investments in economically disadvantaged areas. Downtown Chapel Hill going down East Franklin Street to the Estes Drive area is Orange County’s “Opportunity Zone.” But, how is any part of that area economically disadvantaged?

And Hemminger has said she is against climate change. In that case then, should the mayor not be for preserving an existing property instead of wasting resources on a needless, massive redevelopment?

 

Finally, there is another aspect of this proposal that’s very off-putting, which is the timing of it.

This has already happened with Porthole Alley. In summer 2017, construction on the alleyway, which many UNC students take to get from campus to Franklin Street, went on for months. And that began right as young people — and the job market and work culture was more full for young people in downtown at that time — might have wanted to explore and walk around Franklin Street and the UNC campus the most.

Since then, UNC keeps wanting to make changes to Porthole Alley, including plans to change the character of that area completely with new buildings, possibly leading to the closure of Carolina Coffee Shop.

This happened again with the plans for this CVS building, which were announced right as parts of the arts community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro had just stabilized. But without giving people any time to take a breath, suddenly there were these plans for a major redevelopment looming. The businesses in that are also seem like they are just rebounding, and now suddenly, they might be faced with years of construction around them.

The CVS/Bank of America building, the Wallace parking deck, Porthole Alley, these are places that have a lot of history, and emotional and artistic potential. And since this development wants to completely remake the parking deck on Rosemary Street, maybe that also applies to that parking deck.

Maybe instead of forcing a needless redevelopment on these properties, turning them into something unrecognizable and actually stripping Franklin Street of its character, Chapel Hill’s leaders can just — well, leave them alone and let people decide for themselves how they should be used. And the town wouldn’t even have to spend $40 million for that.

No, the light rail was not a good idea. Part 1: Going through the route in detail.

It has been nearly a year since Duke University rejected plans for the controversial Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit, leading to GoTriangle ending the project, and questions surrounding it still abound.

To sum up, the light rail was planned to be a 17.7-mile train with 19 stops, and estimated to cost $2.5 billion. Construction was supposed to begin this year and last until 2028. The train had been proposed back in the ‘90s, then fallen out of the political conversation for some time, and GoTriangle, the organization in charge of transit in the greater Triangle area, brought this project back to the table again halfway through 2012.

In 2014, analysts told GoTriangle there was room for growth in the bus system and the light rail, or DOLRT, was not needed. In 2015, Duke University told GoTriangle it was not on board. But by late 2018, GoTriangle put the light rail at the forefront again and that’s when this light rail became a politically charged, toxic and explosive issue.

First of all, even in 2012, this project was too out-of-the-blue for residents of this area and made no sense. A light rail line going from East Durham and N.C. Central University to Duke and UNC hospitals, with no access to the airport, or Research Triangle Park, or Raleigh. Why?

So that’s still the question for this $2.5 billion train? Whom was it supposed to serve? Was this train for meeting the needs of residents or for developers, or who was it for? In this first story, I take a look at the route on the interactive map on GoTriangle’s web site to get some basic facts.

 

 

The light rail’s first stop begins at N.C. Central University at 1208 S. Alston Ave., not far from the O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on a street lined with residential homes. This first stop is actually near several bus stops. It goes up Alston Avenue toward the Durham Freeway, where it has its own bridge over the highway, and designates several large properties as parking areas.

This first stop already raises many questions. Why start in a residential area instead of the more commercial Fayetteville Street just a couple blocks over? Why have it in the midst of what looks like eight bus stops, according to Google Maps?

By the time the train gets to the Durham bus station on Pettigrew Street, it will have passed by some dozen bus stops.

As you keep going on the route, it becomes more and more apparent that its stops are mostly nonsensical. The proposed 19th stop that would have tunneled under Blackwell Street at American Tobacco Campus — Why? — the “Buchanan Boulevard” stop, northwest of Brightleaf Square far from street traffic, but where condos in the $300,000 to $1 million range have been built. The “Ninth Street” stop is not quite on Ninth Street. It’s on Erwin Road across from the site of the former Sam’s Quik Shop, where a seven-story apartment building is under construction.

From there, it would have continued on Erwin Road to Duke University Hospital and VA Medical Center, and then passed the existing more affordable apartments and lower income neighborhoods on Erwin Road. This is where students of Duke, employees of Duke and the VA and area young professionals live and have lived for decades. The light rail would have ruined the character of the area in front of Duke Hospital, disturbed the neighborhoods and businesses and stressed them with ongoing construction until 2028.

From Erwin Road, it gets on to U.S. 15-501, then meanders down to the University Tower area and connects with 15-501 Business in a way that’s not quite clear. After that, instead of continuing on 15-501 to the front of the Target, it actually gets on to Shannon Road where it plans to have parking facilities overtaking a stretch of businesses including the Cook Out restaurant.

So, did the general public look at the route map and decide the proposal to take a commercial stretch with a popular restaurant is no big deal? Or is this a sign that the light rail was so off-putting, that most people did not even look at it at all?

The light rail’s ridiculous route does not end there.

The train goes up University Drive and has a stop at the At Home shopping center, goes up University Drive some more, then suddenly cuts between two apartment complexes, Mission University Pines and Springfield apartments – takes a route through the woods – and cuts through another shopping center so it can get back on to 15-501 Business.

On 15-501 Business, it does not have a stop at the busy Oak Creek Village shopping center. Then, it stays on 15-501 for just a little bit before suddenly swerving into the woods – again! — but not toward the always crowded New Hope Commons shopping center with Wal-Mart, but toward Patterson Place, with Kohl’s and Home Depot. And the train actually gets on to the streets of the shopping center itself, so that light rail passengers can look out the window at Panera Bread and the T-Mobile store.

From Patterson Place, it cuts between the cluster of restaurants with Outback Steakhouse and Kanki instead of simply getting back on 15-501. And instead of taking the existing bridge over Interstate 40, the light rail proposed to get its own bridge, leading it into a light residential, wooded area, where it planned to have another stop along with a swath of land for parking.

So, thus far, if a student had gotten on the train at NCCU, they would have sailed past dozens of bus stops by now, seen the train they ride on wreck the feel of the American Tobacco area, gone to stops conveniently located right at pricey condos, gone past people not living in pricey condos, gone past shopping centers where they would want to buy goods and necessities, not been able to get burgers and milkshakes at Cook Out, and gotten some interesting views of the woods. I don’t know, would this light rail have gone over a waterfall at some point? Was this a ride at Disney Land only for rich people or was this a public transportation system?

This mind-boggling route of the light rail does not get better. Going down I-40, it does not take the highway exit to N.C. 54. No, that would be too convenient.

It takes a swerve – again, into the woods – toward what turns out to be a railway maintenance yard right in the middle of residential areas. This is the spot rezoning done by Durham City Council that neighbors filed a lawsuit against in December 2018. And then the route spits the train out onto N.C. 54 at the barely two-lane, very rural and quiet George King Road.

That road is much lower than N.C. 54, so would there have to be a bridge built for the train?

On N.C. 54, this train has a stop at “Woodmont.” It’s not the subdivisions of Woodcroft or Meadowmont, but “Woodmont,” which is not the name of any actual, currently existing development in Durham.

Light rail 5

The “Woodmont” stop on the light rail, far from any existing residential development. Source: GoTriangle

Then it has a stop at the Friday Center. Finally, a relevant stop! Too bad the train didn’t pick up any passengers from major subdivisions that would have liked the convenience.

After that, onward to East 54, but not the front of East 54 where shops are and where Glen Lennox residents can cross the street and easily catch a ride. The train makes a swerve – into the woods, but briefly this time – so it can go to the back of East 54, closer to the golf course.

Then, another swerve into the woods later, it gets back on to U.S. 15-501, where instead of taking the four-lane Manning Drive straight up to UNC Hospitals where it can have a stop at student dorms and the Dean Dome, it instead goes into the two-lane Mason Farm Road, again with residential homes

The light rail’s final stop is in the midst of the student housing and back of the parking decks, not the front of UNC Hospitals where patients, families of patients, hospital employees and others actually need transportation.

In conclusion, this train was a nightmare.

To not even have a stop at New Hope Commons, the shopping center with Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Barnes & Noble — Did the planners think about the route at all? Have they ever lived in or ever visited Durham? Have they ever looked at a map of Durham?

How many trees was this light rail planning to cut down? How many residential areas would this have wrecked? If Duke had not turned it down last year, would we be seeing construction for bridges over the Durham Freeway and I-40 for the light rail now, and elevated tracks for a train bursting out of an empty rural road?

And in the seven years of news coverage between 2012 and 2019, did no one look at the map? Did no one look into the bus stops people weren’t using that were already on the path of the light rail?

Here’s the map from 2012.

Light rail map 2012

Light rail map 2012. Source: GoTriangle

According to WRAL’s reporting, the DOLRT project will have spent up to $159 million of taxpayer money through 2020, $5 million of which will still be spent this year. After $159 million, this meandering route that would not have served the needs of people who already live in Durham and Chapel Hill, was the basis for the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.

In 2017, the Federal Transit Administration somehow said it would give GoTriangle $1 billion to match state and local contributions toward this $2.5 billion project that would not have gone to two of the busiest shopping centers in Durham, disturbed and stressed out the very people who were working and paying taxes for this to be built. And it would not have even served needs of UNC Hospital patients in any normal way.

But on GoTriangle’s glossy web site, there is a detailed “Transit-Oriented Development Guidebook.”