This article was first published in the CHALT newsletter, October 2014
East West Partners has submitted a proposal to Town Planners to build a massive 90-ft. tall building on South Elliott Road. The project will include 266 apartments, 15,600 sq. ft. of retail and an attached parking deck. Manager Roger Stancil has only 45 days to determine whether the proposal satisfies the new form-based code checklist adopted by Town Council in May. This new code enacted for the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment district permits and encourages the creation of highly dense living conditions in a suburban part of town that lacks the public open space and mass transit infrastructure needed to comfortably support such a large number of people residing in so small an area.
It didn’t have to be this way. If Town Council had adopted the well-researched recommendations that citizens and advisory boards proposed, the developer’s plans for Elliott Road might look very different—in fact, they might look more like this imaginary streetscape that Town staff used to promote adoption of the new code.
The streetscape above is more appealing than the building East West Partners has proposed, in part because it is built to human scale (i.e., no more than five stories high) and each part fits in well with its surroundings. By contrast, the proposed new apartment building will dwarf all those who interact with it, and it will stick out like a sore thumb in an area of low-rise, 1-2 story buildings. These, however, are just the most obvious ways in which the proposed apartment block and the new zoning code that gave rise to it fail to live up to our aspirations for sustainable and enlightened development.
Specifically, in addition to producing good urban design, new development in Chapel Hill should provide:
Fiscal benefits. This proposed project is expected to generate new tax revenues. However, because it is 95% residential—and thus will add hundreds of new residents to the town’s population—it also will impose considerable new costs associated with providing government services such as schools, police, fire, etc. It is doubtful that the proposed development will generate any net fiscal benefit to the Town for many years to come, according to the Town’s own analysis, but it will place additional strains on the town’s already precarious budget and school district finances.
Protection of our urban streams and downstream properties. Initially, Town staff promised to provide improvements to reduce existing flooding problems in the Ephesus-Fordham district. Yet the proposed apartment complex will increase impervious ground surface, i.e., ground that cannot absorb water because it is paved or built on, and so may well worsen our flooding problems. Additionally, the Booker Creek Linear Park and its surrounding impaired creek habitat lies adjacent to the site of the proposed development and may come under threat from planned road construction associated with the project.
Mitigation of traffic congestion. Elliott is a narrow, curving road that connects two major thoroughfares, Franklin Street and Fordham Boulevard. It already carries a high volume of traffic, and 270+ additional cars will add to the congestion. A weakness of the adopted form-based code is that it does not require the Town or the developer to address traffic impacts that result from new construction.
Affordable housing: Despite the public’s request that developers be required to provide affordable housing in exchange for building greater densities, Town Council declined to adopt that requirement for most of the Ephesus-Fordham district. As a result, East West Partners will not be required to provide a single unit of affordable housing in this development, and does not intend to provide any. In fact, the greater E-F plan displaces several hundred low-income households.
Public Amenities: When Council members adopted the form-based code for Ephesus-Fordham, they also declined to require developers to provide any public green space or other publicly available recreational amenities. As a result, the proposed Elliott Road development will not provide any. This development presented a great opportunity to connect new public green space to the adjacent Booker Creek Linear Park, an opportunity that now will be lost. This omission violates the Smart Growth principle that increased height and density should be balanced with additional open green areas.
Town citizens who will be affected by proposed new developments and who literally will have to pay the price of any fiscal costs that are incurred, should be afforded an opportunity to participate in the review of development proposals. Citizens asked Council to retain the public’s right to participate in the review of proposed new developments in Ephesus-Fordham, but Council voted to surrender all decision-making authority to the Town Manager. Chapel Hill residents thus will have no opportunity to review potential adverse impacts, such as increased traffic congestion and flooding, that the enormous proposed new building complex may impose on adjacent Chapel Hill neighborhoods, including Coker Hills, Briarcliff and Colony Woods.
Chapel Hill was once a pioneer and paragon of progressive urban planning, and we can be again. We know how to grow our town in ways that produce not only an attractive, vibrant public realm, but also fiscal, environmental and quality-of-life benefits. We just need to summon the will to do it. Because if we do not, the massive apartment block that will soon loom over Elliot Road may be the harbinger of much worse to come.
Town website. bit.ly/1pJ7uX7.