Citizens Rate Central West Process

The Town of Chapel Hill has just released the results of a survey on the Central West Small Area Planning Process. You can read the results here.

It is to the credit of the Town Management that participants are asked to rate their experiences. But does the Town learn from the survey results?

These comments were typical of comments from citizens.

“I believe the outcome of the Central West area plan was pre-determined at the outset. The group process was a sham. Clearly town staff wanted high density development and most committee members where selected to promote that outcome. Land owners want the densest development so as to net highest land values, town staff “spun” information in a manner that kept denying dissenters and the perspectives of dissenters from having equal consideration. The whole consultant involvement was a joke – they were obviously given instructions to create 3 high density designs and those instructions came from town staff not from the Central West group. I have never been so obviously “managed” by the facilitators who were “allowing” me to have my say but were dismissive, patronizing and sometimes contemptuous.

Lack of a neutral facilitator meant that ideas that were agreeable to the facilitator were promoted and advanced, ideas that ran counter to the facilitator (and town) goals were ignored.”

“Taxpayers should not have to commit this amount of time and effort to keep the future of our community/neighborhoods safe and sustainable. We are not against growth, but Chapel Hill is a special community and we need to agree that urban high rise, street front buildings may work for other areas of the country like Boston and Atlanta but this is not Chapel Hill. Many neighbors felt the town was not listening to them and did not respect their thoughts and opinions and the importance of sustaining quality of life neighborhoods. A neighborhood is the first link to having an enriched town.”

And this from a Town Staff member:

“The amount of money that was spent on this project is hard to swallow.”

Share Button

A Second Delay on the Elliott Rd. Tower

Proposed Village PlazaDecember 4, 2014
Chapel Hill News Article

East West Partners has asked for a second extension of the town’s deadline for approving its mixed-use project in the Ephesus-Fordham planning district to Dec. 17.

Lee Perry, development director for East West Partners, asked the town last month to extend the deadline for the Village Plaza apartments project to Dec. 3. Perry emailed the town Wednesday morning to ask for another extension.

The South Elliott Road project, if approved, would bring 265 apartments and 15,600 square feet of ground-floor retail space to the district. It also includes a 463-space attached parking deck.

The Booker Creek Greenway, which crosses the site, would be moved to within 100 feet of the creek and six to 10 feet off a new street behind the building. The developer also would build a private road connecting Elliott Road to the new street.

The three-acre site is the former location of the Plaza Theater, which was demolished in 2003. East West Partners is working with Trammell Crow Residential, a Texas-based multifamily real estate company.

Town Manager Roger Stancil initially had a Nov. 12 deadline for approving or denying the project. Town staff and the town’s Community Design Commission have up to 60 days to award or deny a permit for projects submitted under the town’s new form-based code rules.

The commission approved the project’s certificate of appropriateness in October.

Perry previously said East West Partners was seeking a delay to make time for a few last-minute adjustments and to ensure the project meets the form-based code requirements. He declined to be more specific but said the changes are minor. If the project is approved, construction could start right away.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

Share Button

Free Wheeling? Chapel Hill Cyclists Need Safer Streets Now

Chapel Hill leaders have talked a lot about bike safety and put up a fair number of signs marking bike routes, and The League of American Bicyclists even considered us a Bronze-level “Bicycle Friendly Community.” But Chapel Hill bicyclists are keenly aware of how dangerous it is to bike in our town, and fatal bike accidents recently bear that out. Read more on Chapel Hill Watch, “Ghost Bikes”.
Ghost BikeDr. John Pucher, a UNC graduate and professor of urban planning at Rutgers University, says American towns can learn from cities in Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, where cities got serious about safe bicycling and made major policy changes. Before the 1970s, bike accidents and fatalities increased as more and more cars competed with cyclists for space on the road. Then those cities invested heavily in making cycling safer and more convenient. They instituted traffic calming measures for neighborhood streets and built separate, protected bike lanes on major arteries to increase safety. As a result, it’s not just macho guys in spandex who are biking everywhere. In Denmark, 55 percent of all bike trips are made by women, and people over age 70 make 15 percent of their trips by bike.
Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany

In contrast, Chapel Hill has made few physical investments in safe biking. The oldest efforts are the white stripe along the shoulder of Cameron Avenue, and the pink cement bicycle lane built in the early 1980s along a stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard. For decades, the Biking Pedestrian Advisory Board advised Town leaders that separate lanes for cyclists were not needed and that bicycles and autos could mix safely. Consequently, the Town missed valuable opportunities to build lanes when roads were repaved, whereas Carrboro‘s tenacious public officials and staff convinced DOT to incorporate bike lanes on North Greensboro Street instead of building more auto lanes. Four years ago, our Town Council adopted a “Complete Street” policy that calls for adding bike lanes whenever a street is widened. Chapel Hill succeeded in getting bike lanes on Weaver Dairy Road and South Columbia when those streets were widened recently last year.

In 2009, at the behest of a few biking advocates, the Carolina North Development Agreement added plans for a bicycle connector, a mostly flat 3.7-mile route that would be relatively inexpensive to build, located entirely on public property (Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and DOT). From downtown and campus, cyclists would travel along a railroad right-of-way between Carrboro and Northside to reach Estes Drive Extension. Carolina North is on hold, but this important north-south connector was made part of the Regional Transportation Plan and could still be built for a modest price because Chapel Hill owns much of the land.  A bicyclist coming from campus would travel along this route northward to Estes Drive. UNC has committed to providing sidewalks or a multipurpose path along Estes Drive to Carolina North.

UNC completed a new bikeway this year from the future Carolina North campus to Homestead Road that runs on top of a utility lines bringing methane from the old landfill.  As a consequence of an identified need in the Comprehensive Plan, Chapel Hill hired Toole Design Group, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading planning, engineering and landscape architecture firm specializing in multi-modal transportation,” to develop a bike plan. A Toole Design team came to town last year and rode bikes all over town to begin their assessment. The completed Chapel Hill Bike Plan can be found here.

It will cost millions of dollars and require strong leadership from our elected officials to implement this Bike Plan. But if the Town is really serious about making Chapel Hill less dangerous for cyclists, it should fund and build safe bike routes on or near all major thoroughfares. John Pucher’s book City Cycling proves it can be done. He calls older women “the canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to bike safety. He says that until women over 50 feel safe and comfortable biking around Chapel Hill, we are not yet a truly bike-friendly town.

Read Adam Searing’s Editorial in the Chapel Hill News,
Cycling Plan Too Little, Too Late“.
Want to learn more about biking in Chapel Hill?
Bike Chapel Hill: A new advocacy group
If you have safety concerns: Contact Police Chief Chris Blue at

Share Button

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.

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

Share Button

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.

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.

Share Button

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:

Share Button

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?

Post by David Schwartz

Share Button

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

Share Button

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}.

Share Button

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 (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.


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.

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:


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.  

Post by David Schwartz

Further reading:

Mid-rise: Density at a human scale

Urban Scale

Share Button