Proposal for apartments, parking deck and retail for busy Estes Drive/MLK intersection

The Community Design Commission will discuss a proposed concept plan for a development on the north east corner of MLK and Estes in the Town Hall Council Chamber this Tues evening (May 23) at 6:30 pm.  The link to the concept plan is here.

The plan calls to construct 327,380 sq ft which is essentially the same size as University Place (previously University Mall) including a 65,000 sq ft hotel, 40,000 sq ft of office, 20,000 sq ft of retail, 20,000 sq ft of commercial space and 175 apartments for a total of 670 parking spots.

The site is presently wooded and is rather narrow, the longest portion along Estes Drive.  Access roads into the project so near a busy intersection will certainly not do anything good for Estes Drive traffic. The developer is proposing an entrance on MLK nearer the intersection with Piney Mountain Rd which looks like it would add to congestion in the area and reduce safety for folks crossing Shadowwood to catch the bus to UNC.

The public is invited to attend the meeting, listen to the developer’s presentation and to offer comment. The project may or may not be compatible with the Central West Small Area Plan — but it must be noted that a large number of area residents were not at all pleased with the CWSAP that the committee approved. The project is also on the Horace Williams  flight path and it’s not clear how it would be safe to put buildings in the flight path with the airport open. This project is likely to add to the storm runoff into Booker Creek.

Listen to the audio of the Community Design meeting here.

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More Apartments for Ephesus-Fordham District

Hillstone. On April 25th, the Community Design Commission (CDC) approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for two new apartment buildings on a 6.5 acre site located at 1736 Fordham Blvd (the former Volvo dealership).

Hillstone is a new development subject to the Ephesus Fordham Form Based Code, a zone which calls for the Town Manager to issue the permit rather than the Town Council. Form based code is a new form of zoning to Chapel Hill and bars opportunities for public input.  Former Mayor Kleinschmidt and the former Council passed the new zoning code in 2014 to “spur economic activity” to an area that was referred to by the Chamber as a blighted area. More later on whether this has yielded a net positive revenue for the town.

Because this project lies in the Ephesus-Fordham (E-F) district, it will be reviewed only by the CDC and by town staff. There is no other opportunity for public input or for review by elected officials. Following review by town staff, Manager Stancil must issue a permit for the project before June 6, 2017. See Town webpage.  

Also troublesome is the fact that modifications to the already generous form based code are also dealt with by the Manager.  It would make sense for Council and the community to weigh in on parameters that go beyond the limits of the code.

Town Manager Stancil reported to the Council in a recent memo that the staff is discussing the number of travel lanes needed for the connector street – a new street between the service road and Legion Road.

Unfortunate consequences

While we think it’s appropriate for technical staff to review the project, it’s a darn shame the public is cut out of this sort of review.  Neighbors living near-by, as well as commuters passing through, are more apt to make sensible suggestions because they will suffer if these plans are not well implemented.

Many of us loved our vintage shopping centers in Eastgate and Village Plaza that housed our favorite retailers.  Higher rents have forced many of them to leave. No one thought Rams Plaza did not need to be improved.

The great irony of this application is that the Volvo site is where the E-F redevelopment district started.  Former Mayor Kleinschmidt was upset that the dealership where he purchased his car had gone out of business and voiced his concern to the Council. An interest in encouraging redevelopment through a new fast track form of zoning was born.  If the area had stayed small it might have succeeded.  Instead the concept grew by leaps and bounds into a 200 acre district that no one loves.

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Commissioners Vote “YES” on the Transit Plan, 5-2

Despite widespread objections to the plan throughout Orange County, the County Commissioners voted 5 – 2 to move forward with the light rail plan.

Those of us in Affordable Transit for All studied the issues and did our homework. Unfortunately for all or us, a Board majority did not address the financial and structural deficiencies that had been raised by their own consultant as well as hundreds of citizens.

Orange County Commissioners Earl McKee and Renee Price deserve our thanks for providing a strong voice for Orange County’s citizens. We are proud of them and believe they will be ultimately proved correct in their assessment that the Commission majority voted for a plan that does not serve the transit needs of Orange County and will cost us dearly.

We are also proud that through our efforts and others, you wrote, listened and spoke out for public transportation, social justice, and a fiscally responsible plan. Our commissioners received hundreds of personal and impassioned letters, and more than 200 people from every corner of Orange County signed the letter from Affordable Transit for All within 12 hours! Here’s the archive of emails to the commissioners – they are inspiring! Read the letter that summarizes the deficiencies in the plan with over 200 signatures.

The most immediate price for this ill-advised decision is that both Chapel Hill and Orange County taxpayers spend more of their budgets on bus service not provided by the transit tax. The two drivers in this increased burden for the taxpayer are: (1) the minimal support for additional bus service specified in the agreements just approved by the County Commission, and (2) the diminishing federal support for local transit. We need look no further that the Town budget just presented by Chapel Hill Town Manager Stancil to the Town Council which will require more tax payer support for Chapel Hill Transit. Read news article here.

What’s next? 

  • The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) will receive and evaluate the Durham-Orange Light Rail proposal over the next 30-60 days. During that time, the FTA will decide whether or not GoTriangle can proceed with spending $70 million of local funds for the engineering phase of the project.
  • In 2018, the project might or might not receive up to 10% of state funding. According to Assistant County Manager Travis Myren, the light rail project plan would be difficult to implement lacking state support.
  • The FTA will not decide whether to fund the project until 2020. If they fail to do so, Orange and Durham Counties are out the $100 million spent. That  federal decision could be influenced by many factors including the ones reported in this article. Here’s that report.

We anticipate many more discussions about the future of transit as the process unfolds. Affordable Transit for All is committed to continue to advocate for a rational transit plan for our county residents and businesses.

Thank you for your support!

Chapel Hill News Article


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The Consequences of Adopting a Risky Plan

If Moody’s more pessimistic  assumptions are used, Orange County will not have enough transit tax revenue to cover commitments.

The updated Orange County Transit Plan adds nearly $2 billion for the light rail project between UNC and Durham but does not add needed funds for bus service or bus rapid transit. As a result, bus hours have been cut by over 20% and the planned Bus Rapid Transit system from Eubanks to Southern Village along MLK, Columbia and 15-501 is not adequately funded and may not get built. The current transit plan adds nearly a billion dollars in debt and over $900 million in interest to build the project, and most recently additional debt was added for maintenance after being omitted.

If the Commissioners were to adopt the current proposal, they would assume that Orange County’s sales taxes will grow compounded and uninterrupted by recession at 3-6% every year for the next 45 years. Yet the county’s consultant told the commissioners on April 4th that the plan is very, very risky for Orange County.

If there’s an overage due to construction costs or interest rates, or if there’s a funding shortfall in sales tax, then the county will need to make up the difference, most likely via the general fund (which is used for schools and essential services). The current estimated portion of project cost for Orange County is about $300 million. No amount of County Board reassurance on this point has helped because the scenarios of increasing revenues every year with no recessions is unrealistic and foolish. We know the County budgets or property tax will take the hit for the revenue shortfalls.

April 20th County Board work session. No public comment allowed. To our surprise county staff and Davenport did not present the requested realistic scenario (intentionally labeled) “Moodys Pessimistic” that they had requested on April 4th. The graph above illustrates this scenario  and shows what will happen to Orange County cash reserves using these more realistic assumptions. This is not good news for Orange County because even the Moodys Pessimistic forecast is well above Orange County’s historical sales tax growth rate from 1996 to 2016.

It’s discouraging to observe that in the well attended April 4th public session the Commissioners expressed great concern about the risky revenue assumptions. None of this concern was evident at the April 20th work session and no one asked what would happen if the sales taxes don’t grow as expected.  It is also discouraging that Commissioners Mark Dorosin, Mia Burroughs, Mark Marcoplos, and Penny Rich found the more favorable and unrealistic scenarios presented at the work session “workable”.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs made an impassioned call for fiscal responsibility and for the Board to sign an agreement that will protect the County from undue risk.  That’s a position the entire Board needs to take.  So far only Commissioner Earl Mckee and Renee Price have found this plan to be fiscally irresponsible.

Consequences of a Risky Plan.  In addition to the revenue and cost risks, knowledgeable government officials are saying that the chances of federal and state monies needed to fund the project are diminished.

  • In 2019 the NC legislature will decide whether to fund any portion of the project (not more than 10%). Without any state support the total local share will go to x %.  The shortfall is likely to be financed through additional loans.
  • In 2020, Orange County will learn if the project is funded.  If it is not funded, the County will lose the entire 100M + investment.
  • On April 20th Assistant Orange County Manager Travis Myren said that the project will be impossible to build without Federal funds and difficult without state funds.
The Trump administration just rejected an overhaul of a major transit line in California where thousands of riders are moved each day.
Additional information:
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What’s Next for American Legion Property?

CHALT campaigned tirelessly along with many community members for ensuring that at least a portion of this beautiful 36 acre tract of land would be a park.  See CHALT petition from Sept 2016. The Council approved the purchase of the land in a December 5th, 2016 resolution.

Members of the Chapel Hill community are invited to a charrette – a public design and planning activity — on Saturday, April 8, to share their ideas about the future use of the American Legion Post 6 property. The charrette will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Legion Hut at 1714 Legion Road. A report-out will be held at 3:30 p.m. to provide a recap of the day. The April 8 charrette is a first step in community dialogue about future land use for the property.

AMERICAN LEGION PROPERTY

The charrette is the first step in a public engagement process initiated by the Chapel Hill Town Council, following its December 2016 decision to purchase the 36-acre American Legion property. Coulter Jewell Thames has been engaged as a consultant to gather public input, identify common themes, and create conceptual options for programming the site. These options will be further explored by a task force made up of Town Council, advisory board, and community representatives. A community report is expected in May, followed by a report to the Town Council later that month. Read more here.

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Energetic Discussions at Transit Forum

A crowd of about 125 people attended the Learn, Discuss, Take Action Forum at Extraordinary Ventures on March 14th.

See helpful transportation links here.

In Part I, Craig Benedict (Orange County Planning and Inspections Director) reviewed County demographics and transit needs, and Theo Letman (Orange County Transit Director) shared present and future routes for transit in the county, followed by a number of clarifying questions.

In Part II, Alex Cabanes (Smart Transit Future) and Bonnie Hauser  (Orange County Voice) compared the light rail, bus rapid transit and feeder bus service,  discussing costs, implementation, and ridership. In Part III,  Sheila Creth moderated a lively discussion. The video segments are in three sections following this program agenda. 

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Learn, Discuss, Take Action on Transit!

Important note:  Learn, Discuss, Take Action on Transit will be held at Extraordinary Ventures at 5:15 pm on Elliott Road opposite Whole Foods, (not the Town library as previously announced.)

When C.H.A.L.T. learned about the new 2.5 billion dollar pricetag for the light rail portion of GoTriangle’s transit plan, we decided it was time to dig in to the finances and reevaluate if the Orange County Bus Rail Investment Plan would reduce congestion and provide for our future needs. Public transportation is critical for our region and we need the best value from our investment!

This is the time to get informed. Join us on Tuesday, 5:30 pm, March 14th, at Extraordinary Ventures on Elliott Road.  Come early at 5:15 pm to see the exhibits and enjoy the refreshments. Orange County experts will explain our current transportation plans and citizen experts will evaluate our options. Because GoTriangle did not get plans and financial details to Orange County in time for a considered public review, major capital decisions are rushed and must be made by the end of April.

Get prepared to tell the Commissioners what you think at a public hearing to be held 7:00 pm, April 18th at the Richard Whitted Building on Tryon Street in Hillsborough.

This is why  your voice matters now! Learn about our transit options at this meeting.
March 14, 2017 • 5:15 pm – 7:30 pm   Exhibits open at 5:15 pm

Extraordinary Ventures, 200 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill

Why Orange County’s Transportation Plan is a Pressing Issue for Orange County Taxpayers
Since January we’ve found out that state funding cut backs have raised our local share for the Light Rail project from 25% to 40%.  We are exposed to several big risks that would drive our local costs higher.  At the March 8th County Commisison meeting, we learned that a large part of the borrowing required to fund the local cost share had not been disclosed by GoTriangle, driving the total project cost of the Light Rail alone to $3 billion or more. (See and hear video of Earl McKee’s questions below under transit links.)
What is Bus Rapid Transit?
A cost effective technology is available and Chapel Hill has proactively planned for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the MLK corridor between Eubanks Rd near I-40 and Southern Village.  At a recent Chamber of Commerce event, Brian Litchfield, Director of Chapel Hill Transit, showed in this video how this BRT system would work in Chapel Hill.  Check it out. Joe Milazo of the Regional Transit Alliance pointed out that BRT could be installed on many corridors, such as 15-501 and 54, at a fraction of the cost of light rail. Learn what BRT on our major corridors could do for our transportation efficiency.
Links About Proposed Transit Plans

How to Contact the County Commissioners

After you’ve become informed, we encourage you to write letters to the County Commissioners and the local newspapers.

CHALT_Header

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Chapel Hill as a Technology Center?

Chapel Hill is home to one of the nation’s leading research universities, but has not, previously, been successful at retaining UNC start-ups or attracting light industrial companies.   We note two forward steps taken by the Town this week toward creating a climate that will attract technology jobs to Chapel Hill.  

First,  on the night of Monday Feb. 20, 2017, the Council considered a new light industrial zone — a first step in attracting technology, wet lab or light manufacturing firms, a goal for which we have long advocated.

Why does Chapel Hill need this zone?  UNC has spun out approximately 300 start-up companies over the last several decades. However, once these companies begin to prosper and emerge from on-campus ‘incubators’ they are forced to leave town because no suitable facilities are available. Until recently, there has been little coordination between the university and the local government.

We are pleased to see that Council is taking this step. Joan Guilkey representing CHALT shared observations about the scope and the likely technology business the zone is apt to attract, and those it would not attract. She made a number of suggestions on our behalf to improve the regulation and make it more straight forward. See CHALT recommendations.

The second noteworthy step this week is that Mayor Hemminger convened an Innovation Summit Breakfast on February 23rd attended by fifty Chapel Hill innovators and entrepreneurs, including UNC scientists and a number of young entrepreneurs who had successfully  ‘graduated’ from the UNC LAUNCH facility, real estate people, and a number of Town and University staff.

The main purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm about a proposed ‘Innovation Council’ to help support start-ups and growing companies in Chapel Hill.  Many agreed with the Mayor’s assessment the most successful models for fostering stronger innovation economies are led by the private sector as opposed to the local government or university. While UNC and the Town could be helpful, it is really the business community that needs to lead this effort, as happened in Ann Arbor, Boulder and in Durham at the highly successful American Underground.

Additional reading:

June 7th, 216,  High Tech Forum sponsored by C.H.A.L.T.
Is Chapel Hill Missing the Boat on High Tech?  This story explains why a new zone is needed.

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A New Concept for Transit

TransitPresentationGraphic

A better public transit concept for Orange County would replace expensive 2.5B current light rail with lower cost Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines (plus commuter rail through Hillsborough) with a network of frequent bus and ride-sharing services.

On February 13, CHALT and SMART TRANSIT presented to the Town Council a concept for serving our transit needs through a network of transit service that could cost half as much and serves a much wider population of county residents.

Please view the presentation here: Transit Plan Presentation (PDF)

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Packed Town Council Agenda Features Transit

County Bus and Rail Investment Plan.

Last December, GoTriangle planners asked the Orange County Commissioners for additional funds to cover a 40 million dollar shortfall. Then several weeks later, Gotriangle announced funds were not needed afterall, explaining that they will issue $935 million in new debt which will be paid using the 1/2 sales tax for another 50 years until 2062!  GoTriangle has made it clear that local counties will pay cost overruns. That could limit the growth of  bus service capacity to serve our growing county.

dolrrouteMap of proposed light rail project that serves only a tiny corner of Orange County. The developable  land served by the light rail line is almost all in Durham County. Light Rail will steer investment away from Orange County, hurting our tax base and

At the December County Commission meeting, GoTriangle promised Commissioners an up or down vote in April on the light rail portion of the plan whose total cost has escalated from 1.3 to 2.5 billion dollars. We wonder what happened to that promise. Given the new price tag and questions about the plan, we think citizens are due a public discussion and transparent decision in April as promised.  The more we study the GoTriangle Plan, the less there is to recommend it for Orange County residents trying to get around by public transit.

Also on the agenda is a GoTransit announcement for  upcoming design workshops on the station areas in Orange County. Those  Orange County station stops are:  UNC Hospitals, Mason Farm, Hamilton Road, and the Friday Center.  Two station stops in Durham County are Woodmont and Leigh Village.

Let’s think realistically about the prospects for economic growth and or affordable housing at each of these stops? UNC Hospitals, Mason Farm, and Friday Center proposed stations are all located on University land which limits taxable growth and are not located close to residential housing.  Hamilton Road offers little redevelopment potential as it was recently redeveloped.  Where are the much touted economic benefits?

Other key agenda items include:
– Report on OWASA water outage
– Transportation and Energy Efficiency Petitions
Announcement of Design Workshops for Light Rail project
Update on Orange County Bus and Rail Investment Plan
Retirement Residences, Estes Drive

Here is the entire Council agenda. (click on link)

It’s Time to Stop, Look and Listen on Light Rail Project

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