Downtown


The following letter does an excellent job summing up my reasons for delaying the July’s abbreviated community review process for the ciritical Estes Drive/MLK, Jr. intersection, the two congested transit corridors and the surrounding area which includes UNC’s Carolina North campus.

The current CH2020 proposal calls for us to plan in haste and repent in crisis.

This intersection is a bulls-eye for development activities and lies at the crossroads of competing goals: creating an appropriate gateway to UNC’s Carolina North, managing a critical transition point between Downtown and North Chapel Hill/Carrboro and East Franklin St., supporting the new transit framework for MLK, Jr. and acting as the template for the ring of development around Horace-Williams Airport.

In many ways, it is one of the most critical areas in Town and deserves a thorough, deliberative and broad-based community evaluation before moving forward.

The following letter asks Council to take the time to “get it right”.

June 23, 2012

Dear Mayor and Town Council,

We are residents of Estes Hills, Huntington-Somerset, Coker Hills, Coker Hills West, Mount Bolus and Coker Woods and would be affected if zoning changes are made to the Town’s land use map in our area.

The Estes Neighbors group strongly recommends that the CH2020 Plan expand the scope of the proposed Estes Corridor study to include all or most of the ‘MLK South future focus area’, and develop a robust, deliberative and broadly inclusive community outreach effort to build a consensus for managing development prudently within that focus area. Two hundred and eight of our neighbors have signed on to that vision.

By definition a small area plan needs to include a larger area than the small strip along Estes Drive. The Estes/MLK,Jr. intersection is a critical element of several overlapping concerns: a gateway to Carolina North, a current traffic bottleneck, and a key transition point between downtown and north Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

We recommended a focus area plan that covers Estes Drive Extension to Seawell School Road and MLK from Homestead south to Hillsborough Street, including Carolina North. Further, the focus effort must answer the following open questions:

(1) What land uses in this MLK South focus area are most compatible with the new Carolina North campus, the biggest change in our Town for decades?
(2) How will future development be effectively integrated with the Carolina North MLK transit plans to ensure continued mobility for residents, commuters, and transit access to Carolina North?
(3) How will the anticipated development affect our neighborhoods?

Summer is not the time for this critical planning effort. Many stakeholders are away on vacations, the Council is not in session, no clear process has been described, and not enough time will have passed for residents to have adequately digested the new CH2020 plan. Fall is a better time to start a robust, inclusive and sustained community process,
ensuring both strong participation and one resulting in broad community support. We anticipate several rounds of discussions and community evaluations of draft proposals extending into 2013.

Our recommendation: We request that the language making the Estes Corridor study a priority be removed. See p.45 of the Implementation Chapter in the June 25th DRAFT Comprehensive Plan.

Not only is this narrow strip of land an insufficient basis for planning, we also don’t know of any instance in the 2020 discussions where such a study emerges as a priority. We think it makes good sense to complete an integrated area plan for the MLK and Estes focus area before any changes are contemplated for Estes Drive.

In addition, we ask the Council that the final Comprehensive Plan contain a detailed process to develop area plans for all future focus areas, including:
(1) participation by citizens;
(2) adequate time to do the job;
(3) enough data to support assumptions and justifications; and finally
(4) how area plan recommendations will be turned into changes on the zoning map.

We ask that the area plan process be built in consultation with the affected neighborhoods, the University, property owners, businesses and interested residents. We envision something much more detailed and rigorous than the 15-501 south discussions, but shorter than the Glen Lennox process for all these areas. Development within each of these areas will impact not only the surrounding neighborhoods but all of Chapel Hill.

Thank you for considering these changes.

Sincerely,

David Ambaras, Mary Andersen, Stephen P. Berg, Kim and MaryEllen Biechele, Jill Blackburn, Watson Bowes M.D., Laurie Cousart, Rose Marie D’Silva, Glen H. Elder Jr, Verla Insko, Patty Krebs, Fred Lampe, Ross and Winsome Leadbetter, Emily Lees, Ronald C. and Sue Link, Julie McClintock, Sarah K. McIntee, John Morris, Priscilla Murphy, Nelson and Diane Price, Sandy Turbeville, Pat Lowry,Will Raymond, David Robinson, Steve Rogers, Gretchen Stroemer, Susan Swafford, Misako Toda, Alan Tom, Barrie Trinkle, and Cathy Walker

In forming the new Comprehensive Plan initiating committee, the Mayor studiously avoided recruiting members of the Sustainability Visioning Task Force who challenged the narrow approach foisted upon that effort by staff.

The concerns raised by those committee members (Sustainability Task Force: The Whole or The Sum of the Parts? ) are unlikely to be addressed by the currently constituted group.

Without those dissenting voices, the Comprehensive Plan Initiating Committee will most likely craft a process that is targeted towards a particular outcome rather than one that will illuminate and resolve the discrepancies and omissions in our current Comprehensive Plan discovered by that task force.

Those gaps have led to development outcomes which our community has found troubling.

December, 2008 the Neighborhoods for Responsible Growth held a forum on development density which highlighted some of the issues which have to be addressed in the new plan to meet the future needs of this community. It’s a long forum but worth reviewing to get a sense of the rising tide of negative community reaction to the current “rah rah growth at any cost” approach which has failed to yield the advertised results.



A couple excellent student driven articles on Northside appeared this week.

Carrboro Commons’ Megan Gassaway published this article which reviews the history of the Northside community through long time resident Ms. Keith Edwards eyes.

Too often local media focuses narrowly on the business of carving up the community rather than providing a broader context – injecting the human dimension into the story – which better informs the wider community on why folks living in Northside mourn its passing.

Courtesy ReeseNews

Reese News,UNC School of Journalism & Mass Communication’s Digital Newsroom, leverages the power of the multimedia ‘net to give voice to 10 community members’ concerns in their story The struggle for a neighborhood.

It’s no secret that Northside isn’t the neighborhood it used to be.

The change is visible in the increased diversity of its residents and the ten-story high-end condominiums that tower across from the traditionally working class neighborhood, where massive duplexes are replacing single-family homes. Change is also evident in  the growing tension and frustration of residents in a neighborhood plagued by the effects of gentrification.

The pressure for development is taking its toll on the historically black neighborhood, and the town is struggling to balance the need to grow with the needs of neighborhoods like Northside.

Since 2010, the town has been working with the Raleigh-based consultant KlingStubbins to develop a Downtown Framework and Action Plan, which could revise and redevelop parts of downtown Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas.

The downtown proposal could have significant effects on Northside. In its current draft, the framework suggests building new road connections and parking decks in areas where homes currently stand. It also underscores certain areas of Northside as prime for redevelopment.

Well done folks!

Want a bit of additional perspective on the development pressures facing Northside?

IndyWeek reporter (and former Daily Tar Heel editor) Joe Schwartz put together another excellent overview last June (2010): Greenbridge: A new chapter in a tense history .

Greenbridge, as reported by the Chapel Hill News, faces its first foreclosure hearing next Tuesday. This Sunday they promise a further exploration of not only Greenbridge’s problems but other Downtown developments putting pressure on Northside, Cameron Ave. and Pine Knolls neighborhoods.

Change is going to happen. The question is how the whole of our community can benefit from that change. Articles like these help create a broader perspective, one that has been missing so far, in the discussions over development policy Downtown.

It is critical that the nearby neighborhoods play a vital role in determining their own fates. Until their voices are heard and their neighborhoods are treated like living, breathing communities rather than convenient parcels of land for future development, our development policy is as broken as Greenbridge’s financing.

Today is the final meeting in a several week series of outreach sessions seeking community input to help formulate a new Affordable Housing Strategy for Chapel Hill. Staff sought advice from a broad range of local residents – from current affordable housing residents to professionals managing a wide variety of community programs.

Council, after a bit of prodding and plans spinning awry, wisely recognized there are some structural problems with our current affordable housing approach. Beyond acknowledging the need to rebalance our selection of affordable housing options, Council, on the heels of Greenbridge’s financial difficulties, has finally started to understand some of the inherent risks with their current policy (issues they were made aware of prior to their approval of Greenbridge, East54 and West140 luxury condo projects).

BACKGROUND The Town Council has directed staff to develop an Affordable Housing Strategy. In order to develop a strategy that is inclusive and reflective of the community’s concerns, staff has been conducting focus group sessions with affordable housing stakeholders as well as groups who may not be traditionally associated with the topic.

PURPOSE The purpose of this meeting is to obtain feedback from the community about affordable housing in Chapel Hill. This focus group session is being held for anyone in the community who would like to offer their input about the topic of affordable housing. For more information about this effort, please visit to the following website: http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=1657

I’ll be attending today’s meeting in order to get a sense of what lessons the Affordable Housing Technical Advisory committee has learned from our community over the last month.

Looks like the rumors I’ve been hearing for the last few months are true, the much touted Greenbridge project is in deep financial trouble. The high-density development (which has saved Downtown according to the local Chamber of Commerce director Aaron Nelson) hasn’t been able to sell units and pay its construction bills according to today’s N&O.

Most of the “successful” sales have been the moderately priced affordable units. Those are the same units Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward wanted a report from staff on to verify that they were serving the broader community instead of housing well connected community members or graduate students. Most of the current sitting Council enthusiastically endorsed Greenbridge, creating a new Downtown zoning district and then granting variances on density and height above and beyond the new zones limits, because they bought into this new model of development.

With the Town’s similar joint project with RAM Development (West140) just underway, now would be a good time to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from Greenbridge’s difficulties.

Once again an item with significant budget implications appeared on the consent agenda. This evening’s dealt with buying 40 more pay stations to finish covering Downtown’s on-street spots and increasing the cost of parking %25 to $1.25 an hour.

The discussion has been rather disturbing because two efforts have been conflated: the staff led Downtown Parking study which was done with a consultancy and the efforts of the Downtown Parking Task Force (which I and Councilmember Jim Ward were members of).

The Task Force most certainly did not recommend raising rates, as the Town Manager, Finance head and Downtown Partnership director suggested, while the study and staff led effort did.

The other confusion was the duration the meters run. The Mayor thought they had been shortened Downtown when they actually have been extended to 8pm.

The memo (here) was also light on the same kind of analysis the Downtown Parking Task Force did.

For instance, while suggesting that higher on-street costs will drive parking to cheaper off-street locations, there was no supporting analysis of that contention. The DPTF reviewed studies that show that increased rates can be effective in encouraging off-street utilization in highly urban environments (like Downtown San Francisco!). It appears that a more likely scenario for Downtown Chapel Hill would end up with driving some folks away while increasing off-street utilization during off-peak hours (can’t park in some lots at peak times).

A wash so to speak.

Considering that studies show underground lots have lower utilization rates than above-ground or ground-llevel lots, I’m not sure how the extra $70,000 in revenue is derived with the new Lot #5 moneypit mixed in. Unfortunately, that analysis was also missing.

Laurin Easthom did a good job trying to get behind the reasoning for increasing the rates now – including deferring the expected costs of dealing with Lot #5′s closure. Matt Cz. highlighted one of the recommendations of the DPTF, making parking fare free during the holidays and other periods of time when utilization is very low (think Christmas).

As far as the new meters, they are kind of neat but I’ve found their uptime a bit questionable (Chapel Hill Watch has a post on it here).

One positive of the units not emphasized by tonight’s presenters is that spaces tend to yield more revenue per space because folks can’t tell how much more time is on the meter so two parkers pay for the same space during the same time period twice.

Luckily the public will have an opportunity to weigh in again during budget season.

Council has been quite patient with their development partner RAM Development.

The Lot $$$5 project has seen delay after delay, the basic tenets under which is was justified shifted substantially over that time. For instance, developers apparently didn’t need the Lot $$$5 project to whet their appetite for Downtown projects as three are on-going.

Even though Council has had opportunity after opportunity to cancel the project because of RAM’s contractual breaches, they have continued to support the fiscally imprudent project – a project which neglects the changing realities Downtown.

It is a shame that our Town’s leadership didn’t take the time to rework the project – fix its many policy and practical problems – during the long hiatus. Looks like it might be too late as, according to the Town’s PR flack, the clock has started ticking again:

Town gives 140 West go-ahead
Posted Date: 11/22/2010

The Town of Chapel Hill issued a zoning compliance permit on Friday, Nov. 19, for the 140 West project consisting of condominiums, retail and parking on Town-owned Parking Lot 5 at the intersections of Franklin, Church and Rosemary streets in downtown Chapel Hill.

This is the regulatory action that is required for the project to start work.

“Our primary interest in our review of the developer’s submitted plans was safety for all users of the public rights of way, as well as the possible impact on nearby residents and businesses and the safety of the workers on the site,” said Town Manager Roger L. Stancil.

As part of the permit review, Town staff reviewed information submitted by the developer and additional information provided by residents and business owners who were interested in the project. A public meeting was held in July to solicit comments and concerns.

The project includes 140 homes (18 of which are in a trust for affordable housing), 26,000 square feet of ground-level retail space and 337 parking spaces. Ram Development Co. is the project developer, and the general contractor is John Moriarty & Associates Inc. Completion is projected in about two years.

The 140 West Franklin building will stand four stories tall along the street and steps back to eight stories tall at the center. The project includes 140 homes (18 of which will be dedicated to the Community Home Trust), 26,000 square feet of ground-level retail space and 337 parking spaces. There will be a two-level parking deck including a dedicated public parking level which will be owned and operated by the Town of
Chapel Hill. The project also will feature a large outdoor public plaza with art by landscape artist Mikyoung Kim.

The municipal parking lot at the site is expected to close on Jan. 16, 2011. The Town has anticipated a need for replacement spaces downtown and developed a plan to replace all hourly spaces being temporarily
lost due to construction. Please see attached map map.

Parking in Downtown Chapel Hill includes the following:

On-street parking spaces on West Franklin Street: The Town negotiated with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to provide 14 new on-street parking spaces on West Franklin Street.

West Rosemary Street: The West Rosemary Street Lot (formerly Lot 4) is located west of Old Town Hall. The Town has paved and striped the lot, and has installed hourly meters for 17 spaces in that lot.

West Franklin-Basnight Lot: The Town has leased 66 spaces for hourly parking in the West End behind the old University Chrysler building. (These spaces are currently being used as monthly parking. We plan to
convert them to hourly parking as need dictates.)

415 West Franklin Street: The Town has converted 8 leased spaces in this lot to hourly parking.

The developer initially proposed closing Church Street for the duration of the project, or about 24 months. They also proposed closing the sidewalk along the Franklin Street frontage of the project and installing a mid-block crosswalk on Franklin to redirect pedestrian traffic. The SUP stipulations dictated additional sidewalks for the north side of Rosemary Street and the west side of Church Street along the limits of the project. The approved SUP also includes plans that show Church Street being closed during construction.

The approved construction plan anticipates closing Church Street for about 12 to 15 months, including closing the street later and opening one lane of the street earlier than originally proposed. In addition,
the dimensions of the closed area were modified to preserve better visibility of the businesses at the corner of Franklin and Church Streets and we will provide a new, temporary loading area in front of that same building by relocating a bus stop farther west on Franklin Street.

The Franklin Street sidewalk will remain closed to allow trucks entering the site to be segregated from both vehicles and pedestrians along the street. The sidewalk on Church Street will remain open during construction so access to the offices that front on Church Street can be maintained.

The Town has created a new dedicated web page for construction information and timelines at www.townofchapelhill.org/140west

For more information, please contact:

Jon Keener, Ram Development Manager, 919-942-3381 or 888-310-1409
Jay Gibson or Mike Taylor, Town of Chapel Hill Engineering: 919-968-2833
Catherine Lazorko, Town of Chapel Hill Public Information: 919-969-5055

E-mail: 140west@townofchapelhill.org

Last month I took my concerns about the proposed recreation fee structure amendments to Council (Parks Impact Fee: How Many (More) Goodies Do High Density Developers Need?).

Tonight, Council revisits the proposal for possibly the last time.

Unfortunately, the issues I raised Oct. 18th were ignored by staff.

The reason I petition Council at their meetings is too make it more difficult to push problems with policy out of sight. I know that there are not that many folks watching but a public plea is harder to reject directly. It is easier, though,to blithely claim that the issues brought forth were dealt with in a memo – few folks beyond Council really read through the agendas supporting documentation – fewer spend the time to analyze the claims.

I expect that Town Manager Roger Stancil will make some generic statement this evening to the effect that “there’s nothing to worry about, move the ordinance forward” even though his staff has not addressed the concerns I raised.

I won’t be able to make this evening’s meeting so I submitted the following to Council via email (another easy to ignore avenue for public access, when are we going to get a Town sponsored ‘blog?).

Mayor and Town Council,

I’m concerned that the staff did not address some of the comments I made Oct. 18th on the proposed amendment to Section 5.5 (Recreation) of the LUMO.

I raised several broad issues and made three specific critiques, none of which were directly addressed in the staff memo before you.

From a broad perspective, I argued that the new proposed formula would not be equitable, that the majority of cost that should be borne by a developer are shifted onto the community and that delaying implementation for some zones means the Town will miss the best opportunities for equalizing funding of services between the developers and the community.

The staff memo doesn’t directly address these broad concerns.

You might recall that I asked that two contentions, that developers would not pay the fee at parity or that the delay was necessary, be supported by factual detail. A month later, staff has still offered NO SUPPORTING EVIDENCE that a higher fee – say %75 – or immediate implementation will impact proposed or ongoing projects.

This really bothers me. I hope you share my concern and, considering that the recommendations staff has made are based on these key assertions, will ask for documentation supporting their belief.

As far as an equitable allocation of costs for services, I suggest you look at the proposed fee schedule in light of the %1 Arts fee and the requests for %15 affordable housing.

At %80, the Lot #5 project would yield roughly the same amount as the %1 Arts requirement. If we use RAM Development’s figures for the costs of affordable housing (including parking), even at %100, the recreation fee is a fraction of the affordable housing cost.

Council must recognize that the cost of providing recreational opportunities in the TC zones is substantially higher than providing them elsewhere. Council has pledged to increase the number of residents Downtown and has even created the new TC-3 zone to promote higher density development to accommodate those new residents. Beyond creating a new zone, Council continues to be quite generous in stretching existing and new zones to accommodate developers and increase their profit margins, East54 and Greenbridge both being notable examples.

Unless the Council plans to siphon off funds from these zones to subsidize services elsewhere, leaving those new residents high-and-dry, the fees collected from the developers should match to some degree the costs of providing these services within Downtown. Shifting those costs off onto residents, some who are still waiting for new recreational opportunities, is not fair.

Again, there has been no direct evidence – no documented conversations, etc. – that asking developers to pay at a rate comparable to the Arts fee is a show stopper.

As far as delaying the implementation for a select few projects, the Town will miss an opportunity, as with the fee reduction, to equalize funding of needed services between the developers and the community. Projects like the University Square redevelopment are rare. There has to be a firm, factual justification for delay.

Please wait to make a final decision on this amendment until: one, staff documents their underlying assertions; two, a comparison is made between other fees/requirements Council levies on developers and a higher recreation fee allocation; three, an analysis is made to show how much revenue is lost by delaying implementation of the ordinances for projects in the pipeline.

Thank you.

In listing the roll of important events this coming week, I accidentally left out one that promises to be quite interesting.

Cousins Properties Inc., which is leading the redevelopment of University Square for Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings Inc., will host a public meeting Wednesday, Aug. 18, to discuss the long-term vision for the site and the proposed initial phase of the project. Representatives of Elkus Manfredi Architects of Boston will provide an in-depth presentation of the development plans, shaped in part by a previous public meeting on Oct. 15, 2009. The presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Suite 133-G of University Square, next to Ken’s Quickie Mart.

More information here.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend this or most of the other events I’ve highlighted and will be relying heavily on our local media and hyper-local media (‘blogs) for updates.

The list as it now stands:

Local chef and stalwart activist Vimala Rajendran (Indy profile) opened her new Curryblossom Cafe today.

Though Ellie, Elijah and I were her 13th customers, our luck was far from bad. Not a big surprise for anyone who has tasted Vimala’s take-home menu.

By 5:30pm the small restaurant was bustling with activity. The kitchen was full, the dining room was full – folks were spilling out into the courtyard.

I had the BBQ with plantains and both Ellie and Elijah had the Chicken Thali. All around an excellent meal.

Vimala’s is located at the Courtyard [MAP] in the old SandWhich location.

Congratulations Vimala!

Just got back from another presentation/planning charrette covering the Town’s new Downtown Development Action Plan and Framework.

The plan, created with input from UNC, the Downtown Partnership, Downtown businesses and local citizens, is supposed to look at economic, cultural and social development opportunities over the next 5 to 8 years and layout a fairly structured framework for encouraging change that meets both these goals and those encapsulated in the Town’s 2000 Downtown Small-Area Plan, Comprehensive Plan and other relevant guidelines created over the last decade.

Today was the first opportunity the public has had to review Kling-Stubbins’, a Raleigh planning consultancy, realization of that input into an initial proposal.

First reaction? Wow!

Back in April I attended both public input sessions to lobby for my vision of Downtown. I made a number of practical and visionary suggestions (as CitizenWill readers might expect) of how we could improve Downtown including using ongoing development initiatives like the University Square project to catalyze action. Today I saw quite a few of my and other folks suggestions captured and integrated into the proposed framework. Very encouraging.

The framework sketches out a series of evolutions that go far beyond a 5 to 8 year horizon: a new grid of east-west/north-south roads, linear parks stretching along Pritchard and Roberson creating several north-south axes through Town, creation of smaller human-scale city blocks to encourage greater pedestrian access, a multi-model transit station along a corridor running on the east margin of Parking Lot #5 (folks might remember my lobbying for such a corridor and its rejection by Council and RAM Development), an emphasis on work-force/mixed income housing OVER luxury condos, more parking especially along the margins to build up capacity, along with a slew of transformative elements to make Downtown physically and psychologically more productive.

On the planning side, Kling-Stubbins recognized that the overlapping jurisdictions between Downtown’s TC-2 zone and the Northside NCD (neighborhood conservation district) presented some serious challenges both for the neighborhoods and managing controlled growth along the Rosemary St. corridor (principally to the north). Addressing the incompatibility between the currently approved Downtown development projects and the maintenance of Northside, Cameron and Pine Knoll neighborhoods’ integrity is a key issue facing our Town. The framework presented this afternoon didn’t shy away from this issue but, instead, made solving the clash of competing objectives a priority.

In the “everything old is new again”, a few elements, like recreating the informal alley that ran through Fowler’s parking lot to connect Rosemary St. and Franklin St. to offload some traffic and add additional intersection corners (which attract and support high rent business), were rolled out. When I asked the consultants why they resurrected historical components of Downtown that I thought had worked, they admitted they were not aware of the history but had derived these proposed changes from first principles.

Another encouraging aspect of today’s presentation was how data-driven the process Kling-Stubbins used.

Analysis showed that, in spite of Council’s rhetoric in selling the ridiculous Lot #5 project, there are actually quite a few “eyes on the street”. Peak pedestrian traffic at Columbia and Franklin was over 10,000 folks. Consultants remarked that the high pedestrian counts throughout Downtown indicated quite healthy and enviable conditions especially in comparison to other benchmark college towns (Athens, Austin, State College).

Market evaluations show a need for Downtown work-force housing in lieu of more luxury condos. Again, contrary to recent Council policy.

For all my glee there are some sticking points – including incorporating wider public input, making Downtown neighborhoods partners and using TIFs (tax incremental financing, a problematic form of tax transfer payments) to pay for required infrastructure.

The Downtown Partnership will be posting the slide presentation, backing analysis and other materials used today on their website tomorrow (DownTownChapelHill.com).

I plan to whinge on more about the positives and negatives once those materials are available.

So, executive summary: framework is shaping up, has integrated public input, presents a revolutionary vision of Downtown the implementation of which will take decades.

Went to this afternoon’s Council committee meeting to see how Orange County’s Commissioners would respond to Chapel Hill’s demands to increase Library operational funding NOW rather than later.

A few general observations/comments before my notes.

First, an apology to my loyal readers. I have spent much more time accumulating content than presenting it.

For instance, I went on the recent Town sponsored walk through Northside, led by Empowerment’s Delores Bailey (whose mother lived along the route), to review various NCD (neighborhood conservation district) violations and missteps (which generated these Council concerns the following Monday). Took lots of pictures, made lots of notes, hope to turn it into a post “sometime soon”. Given the huge backlog of content, I’ll try to pick up the pace over the next month.

As far as the Library funding issue, it’s clear that Chapel Hill has been subsidizing access to the %41 of County residents who hold library cards for too long.

The portion of that expense, calculated simplistically as a straight ratio, totes up to almost $7 million over the last decade. Given that there is a huge gap between the level of service our community has demanded and paid for those last 10 years – at a yearly cost now of $3 million dollars – and the level of service offered county residents – funded to the tune of $1 million – one could argue – as Orange County’s Manager Frank Clifton did – that the putative subsidy’s scope is distorted by Chapel Hill’s historical level of extraordinary support. While I agree with Council member Gene Pease, that the whole of the county deserves to have a library system more akin to that of Chapel Hill’s, I also agree with Frank’s analysis – comparing Chapel Hill’s caviar diet to the more modest appetite of County residents is an apples to oranges comparison.

As I’ve noted before (Library or Lot #5?), even though Chapel Hill has been unfairly subsidizing service for years, the demand for more operational funds NOW is being driven by the majority of this Council’s stated desire to imprudently issue $20.1M worth of bonds in June rather than addressing a fundamentally inequitable situation.

Given that the Council will not shed the ridiculous Lot #5/West 140 financial liability in order to deal more effectively with the fiscal strain a Library expansion will place on the budget, their demand to the Board of Commissioners, especially given the deep hole ($6M+) Orange County finds itself in, rings hollow.

Why the emphasis on increasing operational funds then?

To make the case for doing the expansion now irrespective of foreseeable economic conditions arguing otherwise.
(more…)

As some readers might recall, I was appointed to serve on Chapel Hill’s Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force early last year.

Before we got started there were a few issues to address involving recruitment of a diverse membership to reflect both the concerns of the business community and the community as a whole. After settling on over 20 members, we began to work on a fairly ambitious task – to create a framework for making reasonable decisions on beneficial growth over the next 10 years.

The last few months the SCVTF worked diligently to create a set of principles that will inform our final work product. In the last few weeks, though, concerns about how to address issues raised as long ago as last Spring, once again surfaced.

Four members, Amy Ryan, Del Snow, Madeline Jefferson and myself, submitted the following letter to the committee as a whole this evening outlining not only our concerns but some proposals to more effectively, efficiently and energetically move forward with the task at hand.

Kudos to Amy for doing a fantastic job of word-smithing:

March 8, 2010

Members of the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force,

When the task force was convened last summer, we were united in one thing: our willingness to commit a significant amount of time and energy to the task of ensuring that the future development of Chapel Hill would proceed in a positive and equitable manner. We all see the importance of providing citizen guidance to town staff, review boards, and local developers for managing the successful growth of our town.

As was made evident at the last meeting, there is a group of task force members who are concerned with the direction our work has taken and feel that our mission is being compromised. We would therefore like to take this opportunity to state our concerns in detail and propose an alternative to the process currently under way.

Our concerns with the current process fall into four specific areas:

1. No opportunity to look at the big picture

By focusing first on individual key areas in town that are likely to develop, we will not be looking at the town as a whole, as we were charged to do, and will not be able to see the cumulative impacts of our recommendations.

Unless we spend many meetings looking at every key area (which the task force seems disinclined to do) and then assessing the cumulative impact of all of them together, under the current plan we will have no way of determining whether our recommendations are reasonable, equitable, or practical for the town as a whole.

2.No specificity

The current Comprehensive Plan does an admirable job of providing general guidance for the development of Chapel Hill, but many of its provisions and recommendations are vague enough that they can be used to justify a broad range of development options, some less desirable than others. The task force’s set of guiding principles, while useful as a general statement of our vision, do not make any progress toward offering more specific, concrete guidelines for the town and local developers.

We agree that it is not the SCVTF’s job to create detailed small area plans, nor do we feel that such exercises are a particularly effective way of guiding real world development. Rather, beginning with the principles’ general vision for the town’s development, it should be the task force’s goal to provide leadership in guiding the town to begin developing specific, context-based guidelines for future development.

3.No acknowledgment of constraints

As the process is currently constituted, there is no mechanism for the task force to acknowledge and plan for factors that will limit the town’s development. The school district has confirmed that we are running out of sites in town for building new schools; the resources of our local watershed are finite; we can add only so many more cars to current roads before quality of life deteriorates; like all communities we have a responsibility to work toward sustainable resource use.

Phil’s “Where Do We Go from Here” memo of 3/9/10 (PDF) states that our charge is “recommending what kinds of growth and where growth can occur if it does occur, not whether growth should occur, or how much or how little.” While none of us are in a position to predict the future, we also can offer no meaningful guidance to growth without accepting and working with at least some general parameters of how much growth is expected, responsible, and desirable. We were charged by Mayor Foy to “challenge all assumptions,” not to work without any assumptions whatsoever.

4. No plan for iterative community input

In our discussions at the beginning of our tenure, the group was strongly in favor of obtaining community input that would provide feedback on our work along the way.

Until Phil’s 3/9 memo, the task force had not been informed of any plans for eliciting community opinion on our recommendations before our report goes to council. If the goal of a May report to council still holds, we question whether there is time for steps 3 and 4 of Phil’s plan to be implemented and incorporated into our report.

For our work to succeed, it must be “owned” not just by us, but by the community as a whole. Adequate time for public input on the guiding principles, hierarchy of trade-offs, and vision for all key development areas is crucial to making this happen.

Given these concerns, we would like to propose modifications to the plan of the task force’s work as we carry forward:

1. Spend one or two meetings on a Reality Check exercise

Given high and low estimates of population changes anticipated in Chapel Hill, along with accepted formulas for calculating expected demand for schools, commercial space, water, etc., it should be possible to form rough estimates of how many square feet of new residential, commercial, and civic space the town will require and can support. The task force could then spend one meeting in small groups deciding how this growth could be logically allocated throughout town; another meeting would allow reconciliation of the groups’ visions into a single task force plan, which town staff could review for conflicts or other problems.

This step would allow us to address big picture issues while avoiding hours of extra meting time looking at each small area in detail in order to build a picture of the cumulative development effects. It would also allow us to work within our development “budget,” accommodating constraints and planning for the town’s future needs. The resulting map would also provide a clear object for testing against the task force’s guiding principles.

2.Conduct character-based small-area development studies of one or two key neighborhoods

Using the information obtained from the Reality Check exercise, the task force could take the development allocated to one or two specific areas and take a close look at how best it could be accommodated.

The product of such a study would be a clear statement of the current neighborhood character, identification of opportunities for development and important elements to preserve, guidance for reconciling expected conflicts and making trade-offs, and specific examples for developers and town staff and boards on what kind of development would be appropriate.

Ideally, this exercise would be a quick example of a more in-depth process that the town would ultimately conduct in each neighborhood in town where significant development is likely to occur.

3.Plan for community input

It is vital to provide enough time for citizens to review and comment on the task force’s work as it progresses. Key elements for review would include (1) our refined list of guiding principles (after we have tested them in one or two small areas); (2) our map showing general allocation of development across the town from the Reality Check exercise; and (3) our recommendations for the select key areas we study.

When the town moved forward to develop in-depth neighborhood plans, it would obviously be crucial to get citizen input about how they see the neighborhood, what is lacking, what development works, and what doesn’t. This information would be the basis for the work of whatever group was charged with carrying this work forward.

While all members of the SCVTF may not have the exact same vision for Chapel Hill, we are united in our concern for the town and its future. It is time for us to be united in framing and agreeing to the process that will carry us forward. At the end of our tenure, we should all agree that we have produced a product that will identify the principles we hold in common, help us preserve what we value and improve what is falling short, and provide useful guidance for the town as it grows and develops. The process we have outlined above can be accomplished efficiently, will produce more useful guidance for the town, and will provide the basis for developing the specific development vision and guidelines the town so urgently needs.

Signed,

Amy Ryan
Del Snow
Madeline Jefferson
Will Raymond

cc: Garrett Davis
Phil Boyle
Mayor Kleinschmidt
SCVTF mailing list

Ron Stutts and WCHL 1360 invited me to do a commentary on a Chapel Hill issue.

I chose to speak out on the fiscally imprudent idea that we can “have our cake and eat it too”.

Run this and the following four year’s budget numbers, look at anticipated impacts – funding Town retirees’ health-care, fixing Police Headquarters, meeting our clean water responsibilities under the Lake Jordan compact, the doubling in demand on our social services, etc. – and it becomes clear – we can walk away now from the discretionary Lot #5 project – at little additional cost to the taxpayer – or do the Library expansion next year.

We can’t do both.

Thanks to Ron and crew for somehow squeezing 10 pounds of commentary [MP3] into a 5 pound bag. Amazing!

Jan. 25th the Council considered two projects with major financial impacts – the Library expansion and the problematic Lot #5 private/public development project.

After discussing their options at length, they decided to postpone approval of the Library expansion pending a more thorough review of the Town’s spending priorities during the Town’s normal budget process which, by the way, kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 3rd.

This was a reasonable and prudent course of action given the serious fiscal condition of the Town, the weakened economy, continued expectations of poor revenues and Council’s touted commitment to public participation.

Unfortunately, the Lot #5 project didn’t get the same level of concern.

The Town’s debt has doubled to $55M over the last 5 years. It’s been used to fund necessary and discretionary capital improvements like the construction of the new Aquatics Center – which at about $7M was almost on budget – and the Town Operations Center – which at $52M went roughly $10M over-budget.

Supporters claim the typical household will ONLY pay $40 more a year but that $40 only covers the increased cost of operating the Library and not the cost of discharging the $16M bond debt.

The Town Manager says that as we payoff existing obligations we can issue new bonds without increasing taxes. This might be true through 2011, but as the Town’s finance director pointed out, from 2012 on the construction debt pushes our overall debt very close – maybe even exceeding – the level necessary to keep our Town’s AAA bond rating.

At that point a tax increase is certain.

The Town Manager’s analysis is also rather one dimensional – challenges like the Town’s rapidly growing unfunded retirement obligations – projected to be as much as $56M or replacing Police headquarters – $10M if Council had purchased Dawson Hall – were not considered.

So what about Lot #5? Lot #5 requires 8 to 12M taxpayer dollars and represents the Town’s greatest, riskiest discretionary fiscal liability.

Part of the sales pitch for Lot #5 was the supposed need to stimulate development Downtown.

With Greenbridge nearly built and other Downtown projects on the way it’s clear that we didn’t need a stimulus. In fact, directly across Franklin St. the University at University Square is already putting forward a much more interesting, integrative proposal which better fulfills the goals of the Lot #5 project – and at little cost or risk to our taxpayers.

Given that the cost reductions that allowed RAM Development to lower their gold-plated condo prices haven’t been passed on to the taxpayer, that the number of pre-sold units hasn’t grown in-line with those price reductions, and that the Town still doesn’t know how it plans to borrow that $8 to 12M – now is the time to drop Lot #5.

Three years out – three contract extensions granted – no significant improvement in proposal.

What does this have to do with the Library?

We can have a Library expansion – hopefully starting next year – or we can have Lot #5 – we can’t handle both.

Contact Council – ask them to pull the plug on the Lot #5 project now so that we can take on projects that are more central to Council’s charter.

More information on my website, CitizenWill.org.

Here is what I meant to say at this evening’s Council meeting.

Like a lot of my remarks, I find myself editing on the fly, so what I managed to get out in less than 3 minutes wasn’t quite what follows but I believe I made the points I needed.

The simple summary?

We can’t do the Lot #5 (140 West) project and the Library expansion together. Lot #5 hasn’t met its goals, the cost/benefit ratio is decidedly out-of-whack, the necessity quite clearly not there anymore.

Further, the Library expansion project needs to be delayed until taxpayers can bear the total cost. Beyond that, we need to request an extension from the North Carolina Local Government Commission to allow issuing bonds beyond the current deadline so when it is fiscally prudent we can move expeditiously.

Finally, public participation, once again, is barely considered.

Tonight’s remarks:

In 2010 you will be making several key budgetary decisions whose impacts will span the next decade – the Lot #5 (West 140) and Library expansion – two examples.

Lot #5 represents the greatest and riskiest fiscal liability going forward that can be safely dispensed with.

Part of the sales pitch made by some on this Council is we needed this project to kick-start development Downtown.

With Greenbridge nearly built, University Square poised for redevelopment, approval of Grove Park – which will displace the affordable Townhouse Apts. on Hillsborough St. with luxury condos – and other Downtown projects on the way it’s clear that we don’t need that supposed stimulus Lot #5 brings anymore.

It’s time to reconsider this troubled project especially given that:

1) the cost reductions that allowed RAM to lower prices haven’t been significantly passed on to the taxpayer,

2) the number of units pre-sold hasn’t grown in-line with price reductions (33 units pre-sold so far, down from the reported 2008 commitment of 35).

3) the open-ended nature of the cost of the environmental cleanup is still being underplayed,

4) the University at University Square has already put forward a much more sound, interesting and integrative proposal (123 West Franklin) for that stretch of Franklin St. than the expensive – at least to the Chapel Hill taxpayer – Lot #5,

5) still up in the air how we will borrow the money – COPs, TIFs, etc. In any case, however we borrow the $9-10M or more it will limit the Town’s ability to prudently respond in funding core needs,

6) and from what I can see in RAM’s recent missive ( RAM Dec. 22nd, 2009 letter [PDF]) no effort has been made to involve the nearby business and residential community in discussing mitigation of the type of construction-related problems that have plagued Greenbridge or even apprise their future neighbors of current developments (let alone present a coherent and consistent story to the local press).

Three years out and no significant improvement in the proposal. Three extensions to the contract granted by Council. Lot #5 should be shelved now so that the Town can take projects that are more central to its charter.

What does this have to do with the Library?

I want to see the Library expanded but now is not the time.

The memos before you [here] paint a fairly rosy picture of the borrowing in terms of adopting new debt but they don’t do a very good job in putting that increased debt in context of our already astonishing – at least by historical Chapel Hill standards – debt load.

Memo #A, in fact, disingenuously characterizes the increase to homeowners using examples of property valuations well below ($200K) the Chapel Hill baseline.

Look at the chart in Memo #A. The rate of increase in the debt load – that rapidly increasing impact on the Town’s flexibility in borrowing – running our debt right up to the debt ceiling for our AAA bond rating – starts in late 2012 and zooms steeply from there.

Of course, besides adding new debt that and anticipated G.O. additions will account for roughly several cents on the current tax rate while the real kicker is the growth in cost of Library operations – which appears to be even more significant.

Worse, the continued structural instability and weakness of our economy gets short shrift.

Now is not the time to take on a large forward liability.

Making a decision based on these figures tonight will be guaranteeing a tax increase or steep cuts or just ignoring basic obligations two years hence.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Shelve Lot #5. We can have a Library expansion – hopefully starting next year – or we can have Lot #5 – we can’t handle both.

2) The Library borrowing should be delayed until prevailing economic conditions show signs of improvement – strengthened sales tax revenues, stable fund markets which will lend money at a more favorable rate – say less than %100 of the 20 year Treasury bond ratio.

3) Have staff prepare a request to NC Local Government Commission to extend Chapel Hill’s time limit for issuing these bonds so the Council and community have adequate time to plan.

4) Use the established public budget process which kicks off next week [2/3/2010 7:00 PM Council Chambers Townhall) to discuss the Library in light of all our Town's needs – competitive staff wages, affordable housing reserve funds, the growing retirement fund deficit (Unfunded Liabilities: Pay As You Go Not Sustainable) among many others.

Last Fall many of many on Council obligingly participated in a special “emergency” meeting to acquire Dawson Hall for police and other key Town services. That urgent need hasn't gone away – the police department's facility still needs attention - why isn't that part of the rosy projections?

Our citizens deserve a diligent evaluation of the cost of the Library expansion and operations within the context of our total budget and foreseeable needs - not wants.

They also deserve to participate - not just get an agenda item 3 days before a decision is scheduled.

5) Finally, postponing tonight will give you the opportunity to carefully consider this proposal in light of all your priorities, give you time to evaluate the rosy picture drawn by these memos against your own understanding of the economy and think about how to engage the community during this weekend's Council retreat.

In addition, it buys needed time for the public to review the current proposal, attend the budget sessions, ask their questions, get their answers and finally weigh in in a thoughtful manner.

Thank you.

[UPDATE: Council Postpones Consideration]

From tonight’s Council flash report:

Consideration of Proceeding with the Library Expansion Project: The Council considered the project schedule and associated costs for expansion of the Chapel Hill Public Library. The Council delayed action and indicated its desire to discuss the expansion costs in greater detail and in the context of the entire Town budget. The Council stated it wants to know what level of funding Orange County will provide toward Library services.

Orange County provides no capital support toward the Town’s Library expenses; this includes all past and present Library construction costs, debt service for same, equipment or special project costs. County support toward Library operating expenses has remained at $250,000 since 1995 and represents 11 percent of this year’s Library operating budget. About 12,000 of the Library’s patrons live in Orange County outside Chapel Hill limits. The number of materials borrowed by these patrons was 386,000 items last year. This represents approximately 40 percent of the Library’s annual circulation.

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