Rethinking The DOLRT Station at Hamilton Road

Let’s talk about the proposed DOLRT light rail stop at Hamilton road. For the sake of this piece I am going to refrain from discussing the greater debate on whether or not our county should move forward with the system. That is a topic that deserves more time than any one article can provide and as such the rest of this piece will be written under the principle that we are moving forward with the project

Okay now that we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, let us get on to the topic at hand; the alignment of the Hamilton Road Station and the problems it’s current placement represent. To grasps the situation fully, a little bit of background information is required and will be provided below.

The Landscape

The current plan for the system has six stops located within Chapel Hill’s city limits. Out of those stops only 3 have the prospect of true transit oriented development potential. These are Hamilton Road, Gateway, and Woodmont. Out of the three, Hamilton Road is and will remain the stop with the greatest development and potential. As the landscape currently stands, there are three main focal points of development in the area surrounding the stop with an additional two pockets of future growth.

The first pocket of development is the East 54 mixed use community that sits directly adjacent to the alignment of the light rail line. This is the first “built out” development that falls under the domain of Hamilton Road’s station. This is a property comprised of residential (both rental and condo), retail, office, government and lodging.

Next up is the retail center anchored by Fresh Market. While not nearly as dense or multifaceted as East 54, is a major commercial hub and is slated for renovation and redevelopment.

Finally we have the the redevelopment of the Glen Lenox shopping center situated immediately across 54. This development will be similar in scale to that which we see at East 54 and will add a significant residential and commercial capacity to to the area.

This is the landscape as it stands today; already the single densest stop within Chapel Hill’s section of the proposed system ( the terminus at UNC being excluded ) and poised in the near future to take that trend further. While the discussion of this situation in context of the current landscape is superbly important, the real value lies in looking forward at the medium and long term plans for the surrounding area.

Hamilton’s Future

The area surrounding the Hamilton road station is ripe for longer term development activity. Along with the three pockets mentioned above, there are two additional development scenarios to consider.

First is the somewhat inevitable redevelopment of the Glenn Lenox Elementary School. Located immediately adjacent to the light rail line, this school is one of the older schools in the CHCCS system and with annually mounting maintenance costs to keep it operational and the ever increasing property value for the land in which it is situated, it fair to infer that the reuse of this property is more a question of when rather than if.

Teeing up second in the long term development prospects is UNC’s Finely Golf Course. The property accounts for a significant portion of UNC’s holdings located within the Chapel Hill city limits and could be ideal for private/public development in the medium to long term time horizon. This is unlikely to happen with any degree of promptness due to the relatively recent investment in an upgraded irrigation system for the course but the long term prospects certainly seem promising if the conditions are right.

As this background clearly shows, there is huge potential in and around this proposed transit stop. If Chapel Hill is serious about sustainably growing transit oriented communities, this is one of our best shots at making it happen!

The Problem

Sadly though it is here that the fundamental problem enters the picture. Under the plan for the current alignment, the stop is located at the periphery of the future density. In essence, the Hamilton Road station is two football fields away from actually being at hamilton road and the alignment needed for a truly successful implantation

The Glen Lennox Dilemma

Suspend thoughts on potential long term development for a moment and just think of the implications this has for Glen Lennox. In the current station alignment, the entirety of the development falls outside of the 1/4 mile radius required to truly qualify a project as being transit oriented. This is not an insignificant detail, by aligning the station as is, we are in essence stripping an entire project from the tier one benefits that light rail is intended to confer.

It’s not just the distant that plagues the current plan. The simple act of crossing 54, one of the single most trafficked roads in the entire Chapel Hill system is a serious connectivity problem that so far has been wholly neglected in the discussion on this topic. How do we intend to move hundreds if not thousands of people across a major highway on a daily basis? Current crossing infrastructure is certainly not going to cut it. Furthermore, think of the implications of disrupting traffic flow on this scale. The 54 corridor is already one of the most congested in all of Chapel Hill and would venture into gridlock if the new strain is not properly managed. One possible solution to this problem would be exploring the use of a pedestrian overpass that safely segments pedestrian traffic from that on the busy vehicular corridor.

Ultimately though even in a perfect world where the problem of 54 connectivity is solved we are still left with a station that is far from the people it is intend to serve. This is a wholly unacceptable outcome!

Pedestrian Connectivity

Yet another nail in the coffin for the current alignment is the station’s pedestrian connectivity. Under the current plan, the station would be reliant on pedestrian connectivity through East 54. This is quite problematic as the most likely thoroughfare of access from the station is through an area unsuited for pedestrians that is predominantly occupied by outdoor seating and utility units. Hell even if you can get them to the interior of East 54 what then? The complex really has no connectivity to that which is outside the central courtyard of East 54. Want to easily get to Glen Lennox, Fresh Market? Tough luck. In essence we would be passing on the opportunity to build a station the serves and creates a district for one that dumps riders at a single developments parking garage.

A few hundred feet may not seem like a great deal of distance but it is enough to fundamental break the user experience of transit. At times, too much of our planning revolves around an ill conceived notion that people will act rationally to our implemented spaces this project is no different. The reality is, us humans are irrational, emotional beings that make and break decisions for a variety of seemingly sporadic reasons. Those couple hundred odd feet seem far longer when a rider is weighing walking to the train on that rainy spring morning or carrying a large shopping bag or one of a hundred other scenarios where the “small” distance makes all the difference.

If transit is a part of the future we want to pursue, we have a responsibly do it right. Seemingly trivial issues in today’s planning phase lead to intractable problems when we have track laid and trains running to underused stops. Our smart transit future should be one that is defined by effort up front to create truly great systems that people want to use and help our community thrive