Last week Charlie Farris, the owner of Jersey Mike’s Subs in Village Plaza, wrote a letter to the Chapel Hill News saying how excited he is to see the first project proposal come through under the new Ephesus-Fordham zoning rules. He explained, “The addition of residents in the heart of an otherwise commercial district will bring more customers into the businesses in the area and add a vibrancy that is lacking in the district’s current form.” He laments that we’ve had to live with empty parking lots a long time and that “the new rules will transform the district into a more pedestrian-friendly shopping and entertainment area that people will enjoy and actually spend time in as opposed to driving in and out for a single purpose.”
We hope Mr. Farris will indeed sell more subs when the massive new apartment building is constructed. However, his conclusion that it will bring vibrancy and pedestrian activity is about to be tested, as Roger Stancil is poised to approve a 7-story, 321,000 square foot building with 266 rental units. This is the first of several “mixed use” urban high-rises slated for this area. Unfortunately, the poorly crafted form-based code that our elected leaders adopted for Ephesus-Fordham is not likely to produce the vibrant, pedestrian-friendly shopping and entertainment area Mr. Farris imagines it will.
One need only look at our community’s most vibrant public space, Weaver Street Market, to see what draws people to a place and encourages them to stay awhile and spend money. The park-like open space with mature trees and seating in close proximity to food retailers is the magnet. We could have created something wonderful like this in Ephesus-Fordham, leveraging the presence of Booker Creek. Sadly, our elected leaders did not require any provision for new parkland in the code. And if is not required, it won’t happen.
Furthermore, as our Community Design Commission have pointed out, while the building’s design may conform to the new code, it is not pedestrian-friendly. In fact, the developer plans to build a parking deck and an access road right on top of an existing Town greenway!
It’s not too late to achieve the vibrant public realm that Mr. Farris hopes the Elliot Rd. Tower will deliver. If we want the community benefits that Mr. Farris describes, then the Town Council needs to amend the code to require them as conditions of project approval. And if the Town Council won’t fix the code, we need to elect new Council members who will.