Getting the Height Right in Ephesus-Fordham: The Importance of Context

One of the many design failings of the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code is the utter arbitrariness and context-insensitivity of the building height standards. Urban designers emphasize the importance of creating the right proportion between building height and street width. If the height of buildings along a street is too low relative to the street width, the space will evoke only a weak sense of spatial enclosure and will not feel particularly inviting; it may not feel like a distinct “place” at all. On the other hand, if the buildings are too high relative to the street width, it may evoke a canyon-like, claustrophobic feeling.


So what are the ratios that avoid these two undesirable extremes? From my reading, height-to-width ratios ranging from 1:2 to 2:1 seem to be most highly preferred; these ratios produce buildings high enough (relative to street width) to create a clear sense of spatial enclosure and a well-defined street wall without being so high as to create a claustrophobic canyon. For example, in Washington, DC, a very dense urban environment, there has been a law on the books for over 100 years limiting the height of buildings to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. In DC, therefore, the height-to-width ratio rarely exceeds 1:1.

In Toronto, urban designers similarly determined that a 1:1 height-to-width ratio is a good rule of thumb to follow when rezoning to promote higher density redevelopment:

“We analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambience. Again, it just feels right. This realization led us to define a mid-rise building in Toronto as a building (greater than four stories) that can rise up to, but no higher than, the width of the adjacent right-of-way.”

In Ephesus-Fordham we have some very wide streets, such as Fordham Blvd, and some much narrower streets, such as Ephesus Church Rd. and Elliot Rd. To achieve good building height-to-width ratios—and, therefore, appealing streetscapes—throughout the district, one would want to permit taller buildings along Fordham Blvd and lower building heights along Elliot Rd and other secondary thoroughfares. This, in fact, is what the Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan proposed to do.


Unfortunately, however, the Town staff recommended, and the Town Council approved, a code that permits the same 90-ft building heights on both Fordham and on Elliot. Because Fordham is so wide, 90-ft buildings along that corridor may create a ratio that falls within the desirable range. But what about the 90-ft. apartment building East West Partners plan to build on Elliot Rd.? What height-to-width ratio will that produce? Elliot Rd is three lanes wide, and the width of a standard lane is about 10 feet. Therefore Elliot Rd. is probably about 30 feet wide. That means the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments will be around 3:1, well outside the preferred range and likely to create a claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.

Post by David Schwartz

Further reading:

Mid-rise: Density at a human scale

Urban Scale

Why do Our Taxes Keep Going Up? Here’s One Reason.

taxesIn September, a group of Chapel Hill residents submitted a petition to the Town Council calling attention to several instances in which Town Manager Roger Stancil poorly managed public funds, including wasting large sums on consultants. In this letter to the Chapel Hill News, resident Martha Petty, who was not one of the petitioners, provides additional information concerning Stancil’s mismanagement of the consultant contracts for the Central West planning process. This mismanagement resulted in a huge contract cost overrun. Specifically, the original consultant contract for $90,000 was allowed to balloon to $230,000 before the Manager acknowledged the problem many months later and cut off the funds. When public funds are not properly managed, taxes increase, the quality of government services declines, or both. Here is the letter.

Don’t blame citizens group

This is in response to Eric Hyman’s criticism of the petition mentioned in the article “Stancil defends fiscal management” (CHN, regarding the costs of consultants to the Central West Focus Area Steering Committee.

In my 24 years in Chapel Hill, I had not been involved in a planning discussion, but Central West was different because I live fairly close to the area. I had a good opportunity to observe that process.

Mr. Hyman focuses on the increase in the number of committee meetings required to respond to the desire of members of the public to have input in the process, but the petition does not blame Mr. Stancil for increasing the number of committee meetings, but for the arrangement with the consultants.

Mr. Stancil hired the consultants and settled the terms of their employment four months before the committee was seated. It was Mr. Stancil, not the committee, who determined that the consultants would attend additional committee meetings, and it is not at all clear that the consultants contributed much to the process. They offered their own plan without any input from either the committee or the public, and without even walking the property in question. Theirs was not the plan the committee adopted. The committee went with a plan that was quite different from the consultants’ plan, thanks to the input it received from citizens – input it received in great part because of the efforts of the signers of the petition to ensure that citizens’ voices were heard.

In short, the “extra” citizen feedback must have been valuable to the committee, since it relied on that input, and the costs incurred to pay the consultants resulted from agreements made and actions taken by Mr. Stancil without the committee’s participation.


Chapel Hill renews town manager’s contract to 2017

From an October 7 article in the Chapel Hill News:

The Chapel Hill Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to renew Town Manager Roger Stancil’s contract until 2017 and give him a raise.

The vote followed a September petition from a group of 10 residents who questioned Stancil’s management of taxpayer dollars. The group asked the council to consider their concerns and called on Stancil to explain his actions and outline a performance improvement plan.

The residents’ petition asked the council to consider several allegations, including ballooning consultant fees and an averted plan to build a road as part of an East West Partners apartment project on Elliott Road. The petition also said the town manager’s administrative budget had risen 45 percent over five years, while money for repairing streets and replacing aging town vehicles decreased by more than 25 percent, and other departments, including fire, police and public works, saw their share of the budget stagnate or decline.

Ridgefield resident David Schwartz, who signed the petition, said the council’s decision isn’t a surprise.

The petitioners are more interested in seeing a change in how the town’s affairs are managed and its budget priorities, he said. The petition was not meant to accuse Stancil of fraud or recklessness, he and other residents said.

“We don’t know what was discussed during the performance evaluation, and state law prevents us from knowing,” Schwartz said Tuesday, “but we hope that the Town Council members directed Mr. Stancil to ensure more prudent management of our tax dollars, better management of the town’s growth and development, and greater attention to problems such as traffic congestion and watershed protection.

“If we see no improvement in these areas over the coming year, then the town residents will have yet another reason to elect a new mayor and new council members in 2015.”

Will the Elliot Rd. Tower help Jersey Mike sell more subs? A reply to Charles Farris.

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.

Elliott Road Project

Proposed Village Plaza

What we learned during the September 22 “walk about”:

  • There will be 266 rental units costing $1200 – $1600 for one-bedroom, 900 sq ft units, and $1600-$2000 for two-bedroom units.
  • The project provides 463 parking spaces, including a parking deck and on-street parking.  However, 70 of the 463 spaces will be reserved for workers at Whole Foods, leaving just 393 for Village Plaza residents, retail workers, and retail customers.
  • The project will cover the asphalt parking lot between the old Red, Hot and Blue restaurant and the ABC liquor store, and will cover the grassy area behind the chain linked fence.
  • The massive 87-foot building will be pulled up to Elliott Rd., similar to the East 54 development, and all existing street trees will be removed.
  • The Red Hot and Blue building will be removed and used for temporary parking, and a new building will replace it.
  • A new road at the rear of the property will require the Town’s Booker Creek Greenway to be relocated toward Booker Creek; the Greenway trees will  be removed to accommodate the new road,  marring the ambiance of this recreational amenity that was planned and paid for by the Town of Chapel Hill.

More details about the project here.

Background on this project. In May 2014, the Chapel Hill Town Council rezoned 190 acres in the Ephesus- Fordham district to a new zone. At the same time, they adopted a form-based code for the district that eliminates almost all public review of new development applications for this area. The Town Council approved the zone with 3 dissenting council members: Matt Czajkowski, Jim Ward, and Ed Harrison. Despite hundreds of letters and constructive recommendations from the public, the Council made few improvements to the code. Everyone agrees that the outcome of this project will reveal much about the strengths and weaknesses of the new code. Construction starts in January.

Below are links with lots more information:

The Elliott Road Tower

The September 23 Community Design Commission (CDC) meeting was the only opportunity for the public to comment on the Elliott Road project proposed by East-West Partners prior to the project receiving a permit. The town residents who attended the meeting learned that the Commission can not consider many of the comments offered.  The weak form-based code that our Town Council approved only allows the CDC to suggest changes to the exterior appearance of the building (e.g., the building’s color, or placement of windows). It cannot require any change to the height, interior design, amount of open space, or where the parking structure is located.  The CDC also can not address issues such as setbacks, green space, over-all size and impact on traffic.  Read more about what CDC members learned during the “walk about” of the property.

The Proposal. East West Partners has submitted a proposal to Town planners to build a massive 90-ft. tall building on South Elliott Road. The project will include 266 apartments, 15,600 sq. ft. of retail and an attached parking deck. Manager Roger Stancil has only 45 days to determine whether the proposal satisfies the new form-based code checklist adopted by Town Council in May. This new code enacted for the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment district permits and encourages the creation of highly dense living conditions in a suburban part of town that lacks the public open space and mass transit infrastructure needed to comfortably support such a large number of people residing in so small an area.

Proposed Village Plaza

It didn’t have to be this way. If Town Council had adopted the well-researched recommendations that citizens and advisory boards proposed, the developer’s plans for Elliott Road might look very different—in fact, they might look more like this imaginary streetscape that Town staff used to promote adoption of the new code.

Staff photo from EF public hearing

The streetscape above is more appealing than the building East West Partners has proposed, in part because it is built to human scale (i.e., no more than five stories high) and each part fits in well with its surroundings. By contrast, the proposed new apartment building will dwarf all those who interact with it, and it will stick out like a sore thumb in an area of low-rise, 1-2 story buildings. These, however, are just the most obvious ways in which the proposed apartment block and the new zoning code that gave rise to it fail to live up to our aspirations for sustainable and enlightened development.

Continue reading

Welcome to the World of Closed Door Meetings

In the August 20th Chapel Hill News in the Roses and Raspberries section of the Opinion page, editor Mark Schultz chastises the Mayors Innovation Project for barring the local media from attending the conference being held this week in Chapel Hill. He also criticizes the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce, who, under its current leader Aaron Nelson, has introduced the practice of closed-door meetings.

An excerpt:  “It wasn’t long ago, under former chamber leader Joel Harper, that reporters from the local newspapers and radio station frequently attended the chamber of commerce’s board meetings, which are now off limits as well.”

“The closed door nature of these meetings flies in the face of the Chapel Hill community’s tradition of robust, transparent debate. When the media and the general public are shut out it only raises suspicion about what is being said, and even more, left unsaid. We thought this community was better than that.”

How do we get Chapel Hill back on track and reassert the values of transparency and openness in our public affairs? As editor Mark Schultz says, our town is better, and deserves better, than what we are seeing.

Our Town is maintained by volunteers from Chapel Hill neighborhoods and is dedicated to the Chapel Hill values that drew us to live in this community:  our tree lined neighborhoods, locally owned businesses, lively musical and arts scene, and our history as the home one of the oldest universities in the nation.