Changes Sought in Ephesus-Fordham District

The following article is from the Chapel Hill News, April 22, 2015

There’s still time to chart a better course for the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment area, residents told the Town Council during Monday’s review of the year-old form-based code zoning district.

Form-based code ( gives developers a checklist of construction requirements and focuses on how buildings relate to their surroundings. The Ephesus-Fordham district, from Elliott Road to Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road, allows up to 90-foot buildings in some places.

The code has not delivered on town promises to fix congested roads and gaps in pedestrian, bike and bus amenities, about a dozen residents said. It has not addressed stormwater and flooding, or provided affordable housing, green spaces or neighborhood vibrancy, they said.

“The traffic is insane, and it is going to get more insane,” Esther Miller said. “There is a place for common sense. If you do not have a foundation, and if you do not do what you tell people you are going to do, then the whole thing falls apart.”

Residents also don’t agree with some council members that the district is “blighted,” Diane Willis added.

“What we would agree with is that some improvements could definitely help create fewer flooding problems, improve public transportation and reduce traffic congestion, increase walkability, and add some people-friendly green spaces and pleasant shopping and living opportunities,” she said.

The town has approved one form-based code project since last May – the 266-unit Village Plaza apartments – which is under construction on Elliott Road. Two smaller, one-story projects have been submitted for the Ram’s Plaza shopping center on Ephesus Church Road.

Town staff recommended making 87 changes to the form-based code that John Richardson, the town’s sustainability planning manager, said would make it more clear and predictable. More than two-thirds of the changes relate to how individual elements, such as street frontages, are described. Others include allowing the commission to consider all sides of a building, instead of just those that face a street, and extending the town’s timeline for permitting decisions.

Residents also provided the council again Monday with nine pages of suggested improvements to the code.

Minor changes won’t fix the flaws, Briarcliff resident Bruce Henschel said.

“The first major EF project Village Plaza apartments shows what you’re likely to get with the current approach: a 90-foot tower, not human scale, in the middle of a parking lot with zero publicly accessible green space and absolutely no improvement of connectivity between the four superblocks,” Henschel said.

The council did hear what residents were saying, Councilwoman Donna Bell said, but some things, such as human scale and walkability, mean different things to different people.

“It’s not that we don’t think about or hear about our citizens who are living in the floodplain that were sold houses that are going to flood and will continue to flood until something else happens,” Bell said.

“We have committed to looking at the development at the upper end, we have committed to having some control over the end quantity and quality of water in the Ephesus-Fordham development district,” she said. “So it’s not that folks weren’t listened to. I think that the outcome, what it looked like, wasn’t exactly what folks were expecting.”

Village Plaza apartments did miss one opportunity, Councilwoman Sally Greene said, by not doing more with the side of the building that faces the Booker Creek Greenway.

“I think that’s a phenomenal missed opportunity,” she said. “I think it would be great to see a revision for those sides that face a public amenity, such as that linear park, that the side that faces the park be required on the bottom floor to have retail space or something that’s going to give us the ability to activate that space.”

Council member Jim Ward, who opposed rezoning the district, said he also remains concerned by flooding and the lack of public green space and affordable housing.

“We’re going through this process now because we wanted to take a look at it shortly after we had some experience,” he said. “So other than that, should I take it then that the town manager thinks everything is fine, except for these areas of clarification and the smaller number (of changes)?”

The proposed changes are only the highlights of what town staff saw from the first projects, Town Manager Roger Stancil said.

“My belief is that we intended that we would constantly learn from the ordinance and make recommendations to you,” he said. “This is not the only recommendation you would ever receive.”

The council will receive more information and continue the public hearing in September.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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A Big Box for Chapel Hill?

Recently a student reporter asked this question of CHALT: “Right now, all the big box stores in the area are outside of town limits. Would any of the leaders of CHALT be in favor of Chapel Hill getting a big box store like Target?” Here is our answer:

Dear Clayton,

The Chapel Hill Town Budget is under considerable pressure from expenses resulting from previous population growth that was not matched by commercial growth.

CHALT supports the general idea of increasing revenues without increasing property taxes. To do this, there must be growth in the retail, office or light industrial tax base or some combination.

But the historical models of growth, which are still supported by local government, are no longer acceptable. Today CHALT believes that development or redevelopment must be at least 3/4’s non-residential and be both energy efficient, including natural light and solar panels, and environmentally responsible, by providing permeable parking lots and water retention tanks to support zero water runoff so that flooding does not increase and water quality improves.

We believe that selective retail growth is part of the solution. However, retail solutions must be well planned to deal with actual situations — not just the arbitrary “bring it on” approach of any chain store anywhere they want to go and any big box anywhere it will fit as the current Council majority has been supporting.

For example, north Chapel Hill’s “Edge” development provides an ideal location for a specialty big box retailer, such as Ikea, because of easy access to I40 and the surrounding universities which have large numbers of students furnishing rooms. (Nearest Ikea is in Charlotte)

Similarly the Obey Creek area which will be close to the new enormous Chatham Park development is an appropriate location for a “wholesale” big box, such as Costco, which pays well compared to conventional big box retailers Target and Walmart.

As to generic chain retail stores and restaurants, these are not in the best interest of Chapel Hill because they convert our unique Town into “Anytown, USA” and thus significantly reduce the interest of people to visit and stay after “the game”. Reduced tourism revenues always result from the conversion of a “special place” to “anyplace”.

Finally, it must be observed that Chapel Hill is missing the third leg of the financial stability stool. We have no industry with the corresponding tax base. Apple recently built an large data center in Maiden, NC with an assessed value of around a Billion Dollars. Google is building one in Cary. Durham is bidding on a large FaceBook data center now. One of these size facilities could easily fit in the Ephesus Fordham redevelopment area. Why isn’t Chapel Hill economic development vying for this business?

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Council to Evaluate Ephesus Fordham FBC District

On April 20 at 7 pm the Council will hold a public hearing to evaluate and consider changes to the now famous (or infamous) Form Based Code (FBC) district which was adopted last May for a large area including Eastgate, Rams Plaza, and Village Plaza and environs.

The Perry Plaza apartment project on Elliott Road is but the first of many possible redevelopment projects under the new FBC district. Nothing can be done to fix the approved Perry project,  (see picture below) but the Council could choose to make major fixes to the district zone, or merely make minor tweaks as the Manager’s memo suggests.

Proposed Village PlazaBeginning in 2009, the Town invested in a participatory process that resulted in a plan for the Ephesus Fordham area which was adopted by Council in 2011 and contained some of the citizens’ vision for the area, including building heights and transit, but lacked vision for green space and amenities. A year later the Town hired a Consultant, Lee Eisnwieiller,  to write a Form Based Code for the area.  However, the Consultant ignored its own Planning Board and the citizen concensus, and failed to include in the FBC missing elements such as public green space and park amenities, energy efficient building, affordable housing units, and buildings height commensurate with those shown in the small area plan.  Listen to this April 15 WCHL commentary by David Schwartz about what went wrong.

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David Shreve on Economic Growth

“The Myths that Shape Economic Growth Policy” … or Does Growth Really Pay for Itself 

David Shreve, former Professor of Economic History, University of Virginia, discusses the myths that shape local economic development policy, including the widely held myth that growth pays for itself and benefits the entire community.

Dr. Shreve will speak at the Chapel Hill Public Library on Wednesday, April 29th, 6:00 – 7:30 pm.

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Michael Nicklas Addresses Climate Change Through Building Design


Want to save money and save the planet, too? Mike Nicklas shared his insights on Sustainable Building design on Tuesday, April 14, 2015  at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The event was sponsored by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT). See Daily Tarheel Article.

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Two Great Upcoming Events

Join us for these two great community events:

Everyone is invited to an informational Open House sponsored by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) on Sunday, April 12, 2015 from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm, at the Larkspur Community Center in Chapel Hill. Worried about this region’s rapid growth, taxes, traffic? Come share your concerns! Interactive exhibits, refreshments, childcare. Information:

Want to save money and save the planet, too? Come hear a free talk by solar building expert Mike Nicklas on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 from 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm, Chapel Hill Public Library, Room B. Refreshments served. Sponsored by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT). Details:

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Transportation Concerns at Obey Creek

This speech was made by a CHALT supporter at the March 16th Council Public Hearing. Martin Feinstein speaks on the trasportation challenges presented by the Obey Creek proposal. See this great graphic from Whatsupwithobeycreek to see the traffic challenges ahead if Obey Creek agreement is approved.

Mayor and Council, I am Martin Feinstein, and I speak to you tonight as a resident of the Westwood neighborhood and member of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town.

The Obey Creek project you are engineering will have large town-wide transportation impacts, on driving, biking or traveling by bus. If the Town does not ensure that all the transportation components fit together, we could end up with seniors who will avoid walking for fear of being hit by vehicles, bicyclists that can’t commute to work, and drivers using cars just get across the highway.

As things now stand, the parts do not fit together. For example:

  • The land required for the necessary new entrance ramp to southbound 15/501 from Fordham is currently tied up in a SUP in process for a development on the NW corner of the intersection.
  • No attempt has been made to provide bicycle or pedestrian connectivity between Obey Creek and Glenn Lennox and Ephesus-Fordham.DOT has recently widened South Columbia Rd after years of careful negotiation. Now the Town is looking at creating dedicated lanes for the MLK corridor all the way to the James Taylor bridge. Any change to this new road would be costly.
  • The Obey Creek traffic study shows a 90% vehicle increase on 15/501, with rosy assumptions about how many people will take the bus or bicycle. Traffic on 15-501 is bad now at peak travel times. What is the long range plan to mitigate congestion on 15-501? How will we pay for it?
  • The Obey Creek trip generation numbers used in the study are too low, because they don’t include traffic from anticipated new development in Ephesus Fordham, Glen Lennox, and the Edge, which together will produce at least three times as much new traffic as will Obey Creek itself.
  • CH Transit is underfunded. Transit will require at least 3 new buses by 2022 just for Obey Creek. You know already that we will be forced to provide significant tax subsidies just to maintain bus service at current levels.

We desperately need you to determine the total traffic impact that will result from the massive amount of new development you have approved, and that means conducting a Town-wide traffic impact study, something the Town promised to do more than a year ago.

With careful planning that insures all modes of transportation mesh properly and that the solutions are funded and constructed in the proper sequence, Obey Creek can be successfully integrated into the town’s existing urban fabric. Without such planning, you may well end up creating a traffic nightmare that degrades the quality of life for many thousands of present and future town residents.

The data in the following table is sourced from Town Financial Analysis documents, Traffic Impact Analysis or SUP documents.New Vehicle Trips are from the Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) studies or projected(*) from these references. Thus it can be seen that the total new traffic from EF, GL and TE is at least 3 times greater than Obey Creek projections.
ItemDescription ObeyCreek EphesusFordham GlenLennox TheEdge
Build OutSq Ft 1.48 Million 2.13 Million 1.7 Million net new 1.6 Million
ResidentialSq Ft 797,000 1.22 Million 1.0 Millionnet new 700,000
RetailSq Ft 327,000 460,000 130,000net new 140,000
Vehicle Trips 15,858 20,000* 16,557 16,000*

Note: sq ft for residential and retail do not sum to the total build out sq ft because there are various office and hotel components not listed.

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Expected Impacts Obey Creek

Expected Impacts Obey CreekThere’s a new blog in town,  Check it out.

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Elliott Road Project Update

Proposed Village Plaza

March 31, Update: Construction has begun on the Perry Towers, the first project in the Town Council experiment into form based code.

The Town Manager approved the application in January 2015, and work has begun.  Large construction trucks are removing the asphalt parking lot between the ABC Store and the Whole Foods Shopping Center. Soon the sizable willow oaks along Elliot Rd will be gone making way for a 90 foot building pulled all the way out to the street.

At the back of the property, construction trucks have also removed the  Federally funded Greenway path previously built by the Town as part of the Booker Creek Linear Park.  The developer will reconstruct it later, further down the hill nearer the creek.  Instead of the previous pleasant walk, the new path will skirt a parking deck.

Construction workers hit a water main which sent OWASA water 80 feet into the air for several hours before it was capped.

Contractor hit water main

Nov 12 Update:  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!

September Update: 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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What’s Up With Obey Creek?

There’s a new blog in town,  Check it out.

What's Up Obey Creek

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