Let’s Avoid the Mistakes of Houston

By Julie McClintock

In the wake of the calamity in Houston, we are learning – yet again – how dangerous and harmful flooding can be. What happened in Houston can happen here. We, too, are overbuilding and allowing construction in low-lying areas just as Houston did.

With seeming indifference to the constraints posed by Chapel Hill’s geography, the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2014 endorsed and encouraged an intensification of development in the Booker Creek flood plain, an area already prone to flooding. Because “paved-over swamp” doesn’t quite convey the image of hip urbanity necessary to entice affluent twenty-somethings to the district’s shopping centers, the town spent $24,000 in public funds to hire a branding consultant, who, with no trace of irony, recently rechristened the low-lying area “Blue Hill.”

Branding exercises and other efforts to shape public perception cannot obscure the substantive, ongoing problems with the redevelopment that is occurring in the district formerly known as Ephesus-Fordham. To produce a better outcome than we are currently getting, the town needs to rewrite the underlying zoning code or start over.

The town would be well served to first affirm the overall vision for the district that the community supported years ago. That means reducing maximum building size to more human-scale dimensions and providing shared parking, reasonably priced housing and pleasant places to hang out or stroll.

The main problems that need to be fixed include:

  • The current zoning disregards the community-endorsed plan. In 2010, the town invited residents to participate in a public planning process to devise a redevelopment plan for the area. The council approved this community consensus plan in 2011. However, the code adopted in 2014 deviates markedly from the residents’ vision. It is instead a land speculator’s dream: few standards, no public hearings and a quick approval process.
  • Benefits all accrue to the developer, not the community. The adopted code threw out all the things that Chapel Hill residents value: public input in development review, attractive, human-scale buildings, trees and wide sidewalks, storm water volume control, modestly priced housing, improved bus service, and public parks.

To produce a better outcome than we are currently getting, the town needs to rewrite the underlying zoning code or start over.

  • Commercial gentrification is driving out valued local retail and services. The small businesses we want and need are disappearing fast due to escalating rents and are being replaced by chain stores, expensive restaurants and unneeded luxury apartments. Gone or going soon are the dry cleaners, the yarn store, the copy shop, the barber shop – the kind of services we depend on for everyday living.
  • Lowered building standards have encouraged real estate speculation and the rapid flipping of properties. The Alexan recently sold for $72 million but many units are still vacant.
  • The area is not walkable. The first project approved under the new zone is the “beached cruise ship” sitting awkwardly on Elliott Road. The building and its attached parking deck make it more difficult to reach other businesses in the same shopping center. Each large new building will supply its own parking, thus discouraging people from walking to other locations within the district.
  • We are losing our town’s character. Tree-lined streets are being replaced with pavement and concrete that take up every square inch of property, just as in Houston and large cities everywhere. As a result of this poorly devised new building code, the town’s investment of taxpayer funds is sadly harming the very qualities that make our town livable and is changing the look and feel of our college town for the worse.

But the most severe adverse impact caused by fast-tracked development in the “Blue Hill” district will be more flooding, as more buildings are approved within an already overbuilt floodplain. The town has several watershed studies underway that will recommend expensive remedies, but as the devastation in Houston has shown us, it’s far more prudent to prevent problems by not constructing pavement and buildings on what little absorptive natural surface remains in the district.

This article printed on line in the Durham Herald Sun on September 1, 2017.

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