A Parable for Our Time

A Parable for our Time  —  With apologies to Garrett Hardin

Once upon a time, a community of shepherds grazed their flocks on a lush meadow—a “common”— just outside the quaint village where they lived. The shepherds had no formal schooling, but they understood that there was a limit to how many sheep the meadow could support—that it had a finite carrying capacity. Because the shepherds wanted to remain on the land where their ancestors were buried and where they, their children, and their grandchildren had been born and raised, they were careful not to let their flocks get too large. As a result, the sheep’s grazing never exceeded the meadow’s ability to regenerate itself year after year. This required some fairly sophisticated planning and coordination, but it worked.

sheep-on-meadow-katarina-stefanovic
It came to pass, however, that an entrepreneurial shepherd had an innovative idea: He realized that while he alone would reap the full benefit of adding an additional sheep to his flock, the cost that the additional ewe would impose on the meadow would be shared by the entire community. He reasoned that, because his own personal benefit from adding a sheep exceeded his own personal cost of doing so, it was only rational for him to enlarge his flock, which he therefore proceeded to do.

The other shepherds, seeing the innovator grow rich and fat, and finding the logic of his argument unassailable, began to follow suit. Before long, the once spacious meadow grew congested with sheep, especially at peak grazing times. The meadow’s soil, trampled on by so many hooves, became compacted and could no longer absorb the rainfall, so that when the heavy rains came, great torrents eroded the landscape and flooded the homes of those shepherds unlucky enough to be living at lower elevations of the village.

A few of the older shepherds, alarmed at the deterioration of the meadow, suggested that maybe the new, more intensive grazing practice wasn’t such a good idea. Perhaps, they said, the community ought to sit down together, as in olden days, and come up with a plan for how to prevent the meadow on which they all depended from turning into a barren muddy wasteland.
But the shepherds who owned the largest flocks, and therefore benefited most from high-density grazing, mocked the elders and their old-fashioned ways. Intoxicated by their newfound wealth and a sense of limitless possibility, they stood up before the village council and said, “High density grazing benefits us all. Have we not, through our industry, filled the public coffers with new tax revenues?” Yet when the people actually went and inspected the coffers, they found them bare.

Sensing a shift in the public mood, the high-density grazing boosters met in a chamber behind closed doors and plotted how to grow support for more intensive land use. With increasing desperation, they exhorted the villagers to pay no heed to what they called the “small vocal minority.” But the other shepherds found that what the elders said made sense, a wiser and more sociable kind of sense than the innovator’s narrow economic calculus.

So they planned and coordinated. They revived the old ways and respected the land and its limits. Slowly but surely, the barren patches in the meadow grew lush again, the soil stabilized, and the earth soaked up the rain.  The sheep, though fewer in number, grew healthier and more productive. And the shepherds looked at the meadow and the village and at all that they had restored, and said that it was good.

Post by David Schwartz

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Obey Creek: Negotiations Begin, Questions Remain

At a November 5th work session, Council voted to enter into negotiations for a development agreement with Obey Creek Ventures. As currently proposed, the development would create a 1.5-million-square-foot mixed use center on the forested land across Highway 15-501 from Southern Village.
Obeycreek

Amy Ryan, vice-chair of the Town’s Planning Commission, told the Town Council: “As envisioned, Obey Creek would have a dramatic and transformative impact on this part of town, adding square footage equal to that of Patterson Place, plus New Hope Commons, plus two Greenbridges – and that doesn’t include the massive parking garages that will be built. All to be fit into a quiet forested part of town, home to schools, single-family suburban developments, a mixed-use village, and natural preserved land along Morgan Creek and in Merritt’s Meadow.”

Ryan specified three goals required to make the Obey Creek project a net benefit to the town and residents of the southern area: Connectivity to surrounding areas, sufficient workforce housing, and protection for the quality of life and character of the surrounding area. {See Ryan’s Obey Creek editorial from the Chapel Hill News.}

A committee of Chapel Hill residents proposed that the Town consider redeveloping the Southern Village Park and Ride lot into a commercial “bridge” between Market Street in Southern Village and the new development at Obey Creek. Preliminary calculations show that this could provide significant revenue to the town, and improve the connectivity and success of both developments. It would also encourage the Town Council to look at transportation capacity as a limited resource and plan for how to allocate it to different projects to prevent gridlock.

Commuters and residents all over town depend on a smoothly flowing 15-501 and Fordham Blvd. The biggest single challenge to Town planners remains the traffic the Obey Creek development would bring. How much worse traffic congestion would be is directly proportional to the size of the project approved. Preliminary analyses of the proposed development’s effects on traffic and on the local environment have provided some new information. For example, right now there are 22,000 vehicles per day at this intersection and Obey Creek development would almost double it by adding 17,855 vehicle trips per day passing through the intersection of Market Street and 15-501.

Obey Creek development will nearly double traffic in the local area, without addressing major planned increases to traffic on 15-501 brought by already approved zoning changes in Glen Lennox and Ephesus Fordham.

Traffic issues still to be resolved include: (1) the feasibility of a proposal to rework the intersection of Highways 54/15-501, which is necessary to maintain adequate traffic flow; (2) how to calculate the traffic capacity of the area and then allocate capacity between Obey Creek and other area sites; and (3) how to balance the goals of improving traffic flow and maintaining safe bike and pedestrian connections. While Bus transit planning for the area is underway, the Town does not presently have the means to pay for the increased service the Obey Creek area will require when developed. Town leaders are well aware that state and Federal support for Chapel Transit has been reduced, and taxpayers are paying more each year to make up the difference.

An environmental study concluded that concentrating development on the 35 acres adjacent to Highway 15-501 and placing the remaining 80 acres on the east side of the creek into permanent conservation would benefit the natural environment more than spreading low-density residential throughout the site. However, the town has still not seen any analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed high-density development or any evaluation of the stormwater mitigations planned for the site. A recent suggestion to add a school site in the conservation area would be harmful to the environment and water quality.

At its November 13th meeting, the Town Council met with the developer to discuss affordable housing goals and design issues. They decided to hire an urban and traffic design consultant to expedite the process will attend a January meeting.

The Town’s Obey Creek website page contains additional information.

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Elliott Road Project Update

Proposed Village Plaza

Is there anything one can do to stop or improve Perry’s Village Plaza Apartments?

No, because the Council gave away its review authority when they approved the Form Based Code for the Ephesus Fordham District in May, 2014.  Therefore strong public concerns and comment will make no difference at all to the final product.  The Community Design Commission met several times to review this first project under the Form Based Code District.  Design Commission members were cautioned by  Town staff to comment only on design elements.  However, Citizen Tom Henkel wrote to the Town Attorney and pointed out to the Commissioners that state law gives them the authority to regulate height. {See his letter to the Chapel Hill News here.}  While the Manager extended the deadline for approval until December 3, the application will be approved by the Manager, and construction will begin as early as January.

On Nov 24, the Council decided to proceed with a public hearing to rezone 4 parcels on the south side of Elliott Rd. These parcels were removed from the Ephesus Fordham District at the last minute when the District was approved by the Town Council. It makes little sense for the Town to create separate standards for these parcels on Elliott Rd. because incentives work best when they apply to a large area, not to a small subset of an area. Why not apply the same standards to the entire district as citizens encouraged the Council to do during the EF public hearings? Better still why is the Town not requiring developers to do sustainable, green building as a matter of course?

The existing Form based Code is highly deficient and badly needs to be fixed. The most sensible course of action is for the Council to acknowledge the problems in the Code and overhaul it.  Why spend Town resources and staff time to fix only a small portion of the District? The February public hearing should encompass the Form Based Code for the entire District of nearly 200 acres so that the Town employs a comprehensive strategy for affordable housing and the many other elements that this Form Based Code lacks!

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:

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Welcome to the Growth Machine

A local realtor writes yet another editorial calling on us to make it easier for new real estate projects to get approved. A Town Council member returns from a trip sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and encourages us to build more meeting spaces.  The Town Manager recommends that the taxpayers subsidize road construction for a large new apartment building on Elliot Road. A local real estate developer asserts that adding 1000 new residents to the Town’s population at Obey Creek will not cause our taxes to increase, when it almost certainly will. What’s going on here?

Here’s one way to think about it: The distinguished NYU sociologist Harvey Molotch long ago introduced the idea that, in America, local political power often rests with those who profit from intensifying land uses, including large property owners, developers, realtors, mortgage lenders and local media. The most typical way of intensifying land use is through growth, and this growth usually takes the form of constantly increasing population in a given area. Sociologists therefore refer to the local commercial and political actors who promote growth as a growth coalition, and to the local governmental activities that facilitate and encourage growth, such as rezoning for higher density or building new road and sewer infrastructure, as a growth machine.

The growth coalition employs a well-crafted set of rationales to justify their actions to the general public. They will typically claim that growth brings community benefits, such as higher tax revenues, increased employment and shopping opportunities, or affordable housing. Sometimes these benefits materialize; often they do not. But growth usually does lower the quality of life for existing residents, by increasing congestion, degrading the local environment and causing taxes to increase.

Because growth produces these undesirable effects, the natural adversaries of the growth machine are neighborhood residents who seek to preserve the quality of life they currently enjoy, environmentalists who seek to protect the ecological health and scenic beauty of the local landscape, and social justice advocates who object to policies that take from the many to benefit the few.

The growth coalition, which is well organized and well funded, is usually able to overcome efforts to either slow growth or redirect it in more beneficial ways, but not always. Sometimes, those who advocate stability manage to prevail, at least for a while. In fact, progressive university towns, such as Santa Cruz, Madison, and Ann Arbor, are among the communities that have been most successful at obtaining community benefits in exchange for allowing growth, such as affordable housing, parks, and support for schools.

Chapel Hill used to be one of them, which is why our Town still remains such a nice place to live and visit.  But all that now feels at risk. The local growth machine is on full throttle, and our elected officials, instead of balancing the broader community’s wishes against those of the growth coalition, seem to have embraced the pro-growth agenda, and to have lowered their standards for what kind of community benefits we should expect new development to deliver. The town residents are beginning to wake up to what is happening, and are starting to question whether the frenetic pace of new real estate development in Chapel Hill is beneficial or desirable. Will they be able to rein in the local growth machine before it’s too late?
bulldozer

Post by David Schwartz

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Fallen Values: If values fall in an empty council chamber, do they make a sound?

by Nancy E. Oates, Reprinted from the Chapel Hill News, Nov 2, 2014

Robert Dowling, the Community Home Trust’s executive director, arrived at the Oct. 20 Town Council meeting after the public comment period technically had closed. As part of amending the Land Use Management Ordinance and Zoning Atlas, the council had taken up the topic of crafting incentives to entice developers to build affordable housing in the Ephesus-Fordham district ruled by form-based code. Dowling had come to share his expertise. He had taken his time getting there that evening because he expected dozens of others would be lined up to have their say.

But only one other person had come to speak.

A similar scenario played out the following week. The council held a work session on the staff review of Village Plaza Apartments, the first project going up under form-based code regulations (and I use that word loosely) in Ephesus-Fordham. Only three people signed up to speak, and one went home before the work session started around 10:30 p.m.

The empty seats were in stark contrast to community participation during the public hearings to shape form-based code. Then, so many people signed up to speak that they had to wait in overflow rooms and watch the proceedings on a TV with barely audible volume. Some community members with expertise in stormwater management, green building and affordable housing devoted considerable time to making presentations, often using can’t-escape-’em PowerPoint slides, to educate council members and staff about what to pay attention to and how to ameliorate potential problems with the proposed code. Hundreds of others sent emails or signed petitions. All to no avail. In the end, six council members, constituting a majority, voted to follow staff recommendations only, which catered to developers.

I did a quick survey last week of people who care about development issues. I learned they still care. But to a one they feel reaching out to the council again would be wasted effort. Continue reading

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Stop hating on NIMBYs. They’re saving communities.

There’s nothing wrong with standing up for our own neighborhoods.  This Washington Post article appeared on October 23, 2014 and was written by Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the history of science at Harvard.  The full article can be reached at this link.

The term NIMBY – “not in my back yard”– has long been used to criticize people who oppose commercial or industrial development in their communities. Invariably pejorative, it casts citizens as selfish individualists who care only for themselves, hypocrites who want the benefits of modernity without paying its costs.

Communities and individuals who oppose fracking, nuclear power, high voltage power lines, and diverse other forms of development have all been accused of NIMBYism. It’s time to rethink this term.

A recent example close to my home is the Northern Pass power development, a proposal to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to consumers in southern New England via a high-voltage power line that would trace the spine of New Hampshire. Its sponsors tout it as an investment in New Hampshire’s future, stressing the tax revenues and jobs that the project will bring, characterizing hydropower as a clean and renewable energy source, and arguing that the project will help to address an emerging energy crisis in New England.  {Read more here}.

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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.

HWP2

So what are the ratios that avoid these two undesirable extremes? From my reading, height-to-width ratios ranging from 1:2 (i.e., building height equal to half the street width) to 1:1 (i.e., building height equal to street width) 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.

HWP1

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 approximately 40 feet wide. That means the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments will be around 2.3:1, well outside the preferred range and likely to create a claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.

Update 1: Former Chapel Hill Planning Director Roger Waldon contributed the following comment:

I am writing to correct a miscalculation offered yesterday to our Yahoo Group regarding the proposed Village Plaza Apartments and urban design principles.

 David Schwartz wrote to Chapelhillmatters yesterday about the proposed Village Plaza Apartments development on Elliott Road, alleging that a proposed 90 ft. height limit for the building (as permitted) will likely create a “claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.”  He bases his claim on his reading of preferred height-to-width ratios, a measure relating building height to street width, stating that ratios ranging from 1:2 to 2:1 are most highly preferred, creating a clear sense of spatial enclosure and a well-defined street wall.  He offers a link to an excellent document from St. Louis describing design principles for great streets.

     http://www.greatstreets-stl.org/content/view/417/400/

He goes on to claim that the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments “will be around 3:1, well outside the preferred range.”

The design principle he refers to is a good one.  But his calculations in trying to apply the principle are inaccurate and off the mark.  If you look at the website he offers, you will see that the definition of street width is “from street wall to street wall (building face to building face).”  For this Village Plaza Apartment calculation:  The right-of-way width of Elliott Road is approximately 60 feet, and the proposed building is set back 16 feet from the right-of way.  Applying that same setback to the other side of the street results in a street width, for purposes of this ratio calculation, of 92 feet.  That means that the height-to-width ratio for Village Plaza Apartments will be 1:1, right in the middle of the highly preferred range that David Schwartz suggests.

Update 2: David Schwartz contributed the following reply to Roger Waldon’s comment:

Roger,

Thank you for pointing out that, according to the site plan for the proposed Village Plaza Apartments, the horizontal distance between building facades on opposite sides of Elliot Rd will be 92 feet. If we measure width from “streetwall to streetwall,” the proposed 90-ft Village Plaza Apartments will produce a height-to-width ratio (HWR) of around 1:1, which is within the range that urban designers recommend for producing adequate spatial closure without creating a canyon-like claustrophobic setting. While the website I referenced in my original post measures the width component of the ratio from building facade to building facade, others measure the width differently.

For example, when urban designers in Toronto considered what building height to allow in an area that they were rezoning to promote higher density, they limited height to a 1:1 HWR, with width defined as the width of the adjacent right-of-way. Similarly, the Building Height law in DC defines the width component as “the width of the street, avenue, or highway” that fronts a building. The Elliot Road right-of-way, which includes the sidewalk, is 60 feet, while the roadway itself is under 40 feet. Thus, it seems that neither DC nor Toronto would permit the proposed Village Plaza Apartments to be built on a street the size of Elliot Rd.

Metrics such as HWR are one way to try to get the height right in Ephesus-Fordham, but it’s not the only way or necessarily the best way. Another way is to ask the town residents what building height they consider most appropriate or desirable. When the Town staff and consultants put this question to the residents in a community survey as part of the Ephesus-Fordham small area planning process, the residents said they considered 2-3 stories the most appropriate height and density for the district.

In addition to asking the residents what they want, one can hire urban design professionals to recommend building heights. In the fall of 2013, Chapel Hill hired the urban design firm Placemakers to produce a form-based code guide for the Ephesus-Fordham district. They recommended that the central, highest density part of the district have a 50-ft hight limit and that the more peripheral areas, such as Elliot Rd., have a 35-ft height limit. These recommendations accord quite well with the building heights envisioned in the adopted Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan (i.e., “1-3 story buildings along the fringes and 3-5 story buildings in the center”).

Because of this clear guidance from the community and detailed recommendations from urban design professionals, it’s still unclear to me, and to many residents, who decided that the height limitation in most of the District should be 7 stories, or 90′, and why this height is appropriate.  It is clear, however, that neither the community nor urban design professionals felt 7 stories or 90’ would be appropriate.  Do you, Roger, consider 90 ft building heights appropriate or desirable for Elliot Road?

I’d also appreciate your thoughts on the other aspects of the Ephesus-Fordham Plan, and whether or not you feel the Plan (and associated form-based code) will prove beneficial to the community.  From my perspective, and I believe that of many others in the community, the plan is deeply flawed.  In essence, the plan entitled a few property owners to a huge increase in allowable density without requiring many of the same standards that we require everywhere else in Town.

For example, the Plan does not provide any incentives or requirements for affordable housing and only weak incentives for energy efficiency. It lacks an overall urban design vision, requirements for public open space, or any interface with Booker Creek. The Plan is silent with respect to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connectivity between the District and other parts of Town, and it fails to address the current flooding issues that are occurring within and downstream of the District. These are just a handful of the problems I see with the Plan.

I’d appreciate, therefore, hearing your perspective on the EF plan in general and, in particular, on whether the proposed Village Plaza Apartments is an appropriate scale for its urban context.

Update 3: Roger Waldon replied to David Schwartz’s comments above:

Hello David – -

I read your post from Friday, October 24, in which you ask me some specific questions regarding my opinions about Chapel Hill’s new Ephesus/Fordham Form District, and about the proposed Village Plaza Apartments on Elliott Road.  Here are some thoughts in response.

First, you ask if I consider 90 ft building heights appropriate or desirable for Elliott Road.  I have been following the community dialogue about this issue as best I can.  I hear the concern that you and others have expressed about the proposed building heights – the buildings will be much taller than the structures that exist in the vicinity now.  I think that the Town Council made a good decision in concluding that the present conditions along Elliott Road are less than desirable – old shopping centers and vacant property.  My understanding is that the Town Council has envisioned an overhaul of the wider area, and that the intention is for this Village Plaza Apartments building to fit with the future character of the area.    I think the Town Council was wise to prepare and adopt a Form District that sets parameters for the larger, full redevelopment area.  I think that the parameters that were specified in the district that was adopted are reasonable.

Next you ask me about the Ephesus-Fordham Plan in general and the associated Form Based District, and whether or not I feel these efforts will prove beneficial to the community.  Again, I hear the concerns that you and others have expressed.  This plan and this district represent a new way of doing things in Chapel Hill, and are accompanied by processes not used in this community before (although they have been implemented successfully in other places).  It seems to me that these changes have been well thought-out by the Town Council; and, looking at the future of the community, decisions have been made (starting with policies in the 2020 Comprehensive Plan) that this approach to redevelopment of the Ephesus-Fordham area holds significant promise for a successful future.   So yes, I believe that these planning initiatives will overall and into the future prove beneficial to the community.

I appreciate your interest in these planning issues.

Regards, Roger.

Update 4: Terri Buckner contributed the following comment:

For those whose eyes are crossing over these measurements, you can walk down Rosemary by Greenbridge to get a sense of the proposed height. The difference will be that Greenbridge is stepped back away from the street and from what I can tell, Village Plaza won’t be; the full height will border the sidewalk.

One thing I learned last year (as a daily pedestrian) on that stretch of Rosemary by Greenbridge is that the building height blocks out the sun, so snow and ice don’t melt naturally. That whole section of sidewalk was dangerous for weeks last year and the development management refused to provide any sidewalk clearance. The town only clears roads, not sidewalks.

Pedestrians crossing the road are also less visible to vehicles make right hand turns. So as part of this conversation, I hope Council members will consider what kind of daily use patterns will be impacted by significantly changing the landscape of EF and act in advance to ensure those daily use patterns are not negatively impacted.

Update 5: Del Snow contributed this comment:
Hi Roger,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the new FBC for E/F.
 
In my close to 20 years as a member of Task Forces, Boards, committees, and activist groups, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many developers, like yourself, and have heard one unifying thread amongst them:  “Have the Town tell us what they want and we will build it.”
 
So far, so good – and I certainly agree with some of the aspects of streamlining the process.  In those nearly 20 years, I witnessed the Council asking for concessions in return for approvals.  As former councilman Pease once said, applicants generally came in with applications that took those concessions into account.  Yet, the principle that those who would profit greatly from the opportunity to build in Chapel Hill would have to return something to the community remained intact.
 
There is nothing inherently wrong with FBC.  Properly used, it can be an efficient vehicle for development and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way.  I hope that you have actually sat down and read the FBC approved by the Council as I and many others have.  If you did, I’d be curious to find out if you think that:
 
a) not including incentives for affordable housing was in the spirit of the alleged Town values?
b) not including energy efficiency standards that reflect the need for action in the face of global climate change was wise?
c) not adhering to Smart Growth principles by increasing density without any increase (actually, a decrease) in green space had the community in mind?
 
When a community and its elected leaders find a huge gulf of mutual distrust, the community suffers.  
 
Thanks,
Del

Post by David Schwartz

Further reading:

Mid-rise: Density at a human scale

Urban Scale

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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,bit.ly/1rm9VQa) 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.

MARTHA PETTY

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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.”

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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.

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