Twisting the Zoning Pretzel

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Tonight I asked the Council, once again, to reconsider cutting corners in the zoning process to push their “dense” development agenda.

Just as in this Spring’s approval of the new TC-3 zoning district (A Matter of Process: Greenbridge and Council’s Devolving Standard of Public Review), the Council is trying to slide through a far-reaching zoning modification to favor another RAM Development project.

RAM Development is the Council’s development partner in the ill-fated Lot $5 public/private partnership (a partnership where the public literally gets the shaft and RAM gets all the gold [Downtown Initiative: $500,000 here, $7.3 Million there, pretty soon we’re talking real money…]).

TC-3, which doubled the allowable density and increased the height limits by %50 of projects built Downtown was tagged to the popular Greenbridge projects approval but its real raison d’etre was to get Lot $5 over a SUP (special use permit) hurdle. What was clear, then, especially if you review secret negotiations, the Council’s negotiating team (Strom, Hill, Greene) failed to get RAM to commit to all the requirements the Council had asked for whether reasonable or not. The team had painted themselves into a corner, in a sense, because they had publicly stated they would not approve a SUP granting the height, density and other extraordinary specifications that RAM wanted (specifications tailored to enriching their bottom line at taxpayer expense) without a commensurate quid pro quo.

Empty handed, unable to get a deal which would satisfy their already announced SUP requirements, they created a new zoning district, rammed it through without extensive public review and applied to their own pet project – Lot $5 – to close the deal.

Tonight the Council proposed using the same tactic, in this case twisting an existing zone (Residential-Special Standards-Conditional Zoning District) developed in 1999 to promote affordable housing, so that they could apply it to another RAM Development project – The Residences at Grove Park of which I have written about several times.

Over two years ago, in fact, I asked Council to be as Caesar’s wife – beyond reproach – when dealing with other projects from their business partner RAM Development.

Carefully tailoring a zoning ordinance modification that, as our own Planning Board said “appears to be in direct response to the proposed Residences at Grove Park developments and therefore may not be well suited for other areas of town”, doesn’t instill confidence in the integrity of our zoning process.

Why does this project, which wipes out 111 affordable housing units and replaces them with 300+ luxury condos get this particular special treatment?

Here are my prepared remarks (which I tried to consolidate as, once again, the Council collapsed two public hearings into one possible confusing tangle):

What we have tonight with these proposed zoning modifications is a set of vague requirements with no backing metrics. Essentially, you are being asked to loose the “specialness” of the Residential Special Standards zone.

The original intent of RSSC zone was to promote affordable housing.

Tonight’s proposal is all about a 3-fold increase in density to satisfy your development partner’s, RAM Development, desire to maximize their profits in selling more luxury condos at the community’s expense.

But, like the Council’s decision to pass TC-3, modifying the RSSC opens the doors to all developers to follow your business partner’s lead. Without the specific, measurable standards, it will be quite difficult to measure if the promises made in granting a zone are actually carried out.

#1. Promoting affordable housing.

This Council has more and more accepted in lieu payments over actual square footage. How will this project be any different? Is there a commitment to accept 26 units? And based on RAM’s own projections, in no way are these units as affordable as the existing housing stock.

#2. Promote sustainable transportation.

What, specifically, is so much more extraordinarily different in RAM’s 425 Hillsborough proposal than existing transportation conditions? Nothing. Without setting specific goals or guidelines, how will we ever know?

#4. Protection of the natural environment.

RAM’s project, as currently designed, has significant impacts on the health of Bolin Creek. During the buildout and occupancy of these condos, significant changes – changes not accounted for in the current plan – will negatively affect the surrounding and downstream environment. There are already sanitary sewer issues along that part of the system, where’s the request to study the impact of Hillsborough 425 on that system?

#6. Protection of adjacent neighborhoods. [I made an aside to Sally Greene since she had raised concerns about the appearance of UNC’s Innovation Center fronting MLK,Jr.: …this is a big project..it will be the visible entranceway to our Downtown…it will loom above the historic neighborhoods behind… ]

Like TC-3, the proposed modifications are pushing an agenda that will have far-reaching effects on adjacent Downtown neighborhoods. Pass the modifications and you are opening up the flood gates to radical changes at odds with Chapel Hill’s current character. Let’s give the public a full opportunity to understand the breadth of these changes.

#3. “Promotion of a healthy downtown and healthy neighborhood commercial and employment centers;”

Does this mean displacing the hard-working folks from what little remains of privately owned affordable housing stock and replacing them with rich retirees and wealthy student havens? What guarantees do we have that the residents of these 300+ luxury condos represent greater economic reward for Downtown? Like Lot #5, do we expect RAM’s targeted demographic to increase employment Downtown? Or will, given the cost of these units, will the workers commute to RTP – defeating the transportation initiative?

[Another aside in reference to RAM’s point mans statement that only 3 non-student leasees live at Town House] As far as the 100 students you will displace. I’ve known folks living at Town House…students…they work in our community….they have jobs….] (this trivialization of the student population of Town House just shows how RAM Development feels about Chapel Hill – it’s a fattened goat – with a sleepy goatherd – ready for the roasting].

What is so special about this project to justify a modification in the zoning laws to allow not only your business partner but every other developer wishing to cash in on Chapel Hill’s diminishing cachet from making the same vague assertions? Once you open the door, you cannot favor RAM over others – unless you want to invite lawsuits.

Which brings me to my final issue with tonight’s proposal.

This is the second time this Council has been asked to modify zoning regulations to favor their business partner RAM Development.

The first time, with TC-3, the majority of this Council were willing to open the door to long-range negative changes Downtown – radically allowing increased density and heights Downtown – with the costs passed on to us – the taxpayers.

The appearance of favoring RAM, your development partner, once again calls into question the integrity of the Town’s zoning process.

If this project is so special as to require modifications, let it be under the current zone. Make RAM make the case – cross every T and dot every I – and set specific, measurable requirements for granting variances so that the public remains confident that one, they are getting a good deal and two, that favoritism played no part in the final outcome.

Councilmember Mark Kleinschmidt said I was “being mean spirited” highlighting that this is the second time that a proposal was made to modify the law – the zoning ordinance – to favor the Council’s business partner. I wasn’t being mean-spirited, I was being frank.

What would I do differently?

I agree that the RSSC needs to be updated to reflect current density expectations. Would I go from .4 to 1.10, not without an escalating scale of extraordinary requirements and not outside the original intent – to foster affordable housing. For great rewards, go great responsibilities.

What about higher density, transit-oriented developments? I would take another stab at creating a new zone, as the Council failed to do this Spring, that captured the requirements – and as importantly – set specific measurable metrics – for a new zone. I would then invite community input – have outreach events as UNC has done with Carolina North – and then hold extensive public hearings to “sell” this new zone to the public. No more of this under-the-table gamesmanship.

What about adding the six new comprehensive plan related requirements as proposed by staff to this new zone? Great idea if it can be done to foster appropriate in-fill development throughout Chapel Hill.

What I wouldn’t do, and what I really hope our Council stops doing, is to attempt to make far-reaching, potentially harmful modifications to our Town’s zoning ordinances, without informing and educating our public.

Godzilla vs. Bambi::RAM Development and Chapel Hill

Monday, February 12th, 2007

If I worked for RAM Development, I’d be dancing quite a jig this evening.

Not only have they negotiated the sweetest of deals – their own publicly underwritten Downtown tower of wealth – they’ve gotten the friendliest of non-reviews by the majority of Council.

Maybe folks will like “rah rah” growth RAM Development style. If so, they’ll be pleased to see that they’re geared up for Phase III:

CHAPEL HILL – Ram Development Co. is moving forward with two projects at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Weaver Dairy Road.

On Feb. 21, Ram will go before the town’s Community Design Commission with plans totaling about 130,000 square feet on either side of MLK Boulevard.

The first project, called MLK at Westminster, proposes 48 condos, two banks and a 22,000-square-foot office and retail building on the west side of MLK at the edge of the Northwoods neighborhood.

The second project would include a 16,000-square-foot Walgreen’s drug store and a 22,000-square-foot office and retail building on the east side of MLK near Timberlyne Shopping Center.

N&O Feb. 9th, 2007

Is it really “MLK at Westminster”? That surely sounds, ummm, bland? Safe? White?

What happened to Phase II?

That’s Hillsborough 425 – the 335 pricey condos replacing the existing 111 affordable apartments.

So, for those keeping score, RAM Development now has 4 on-going projects before the current Council.

Hillsborough425: Yes, it is interactive!

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

One of my readers was slightly confused about whether the fly-by of Hillsborough425 documented in my post Hillsborough425: Google Earth Fly-By, Alpha Quality was live or not.

Yes it is!

If you have the proper version of GoogleEarth installed ( GoogleEarth v4.0291.beta ), then opening this link will crank up the application and display the maps.

Alternatively, you can download the KMZ file and open it in GoogleEarth.

In either case, once the fly-over/fly-by is open, you can play around with the map views by toggling Hillsborough425: Existing Town House, Hillsborough425ConceptPlanSept17th and Hillsborough425 GoogleEarth under GoogleEarth’s Hillsborough425 folder.

You can also start with a long view oriented from the North of the site by clicking on North Entrance Chapel Hill.

Any questions? Please post a comment, I’ll be happy to help.

Hillsborough425: Google Earth Fly-By, Alpha Quality

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Alpha quality?

This is my first release of a “fly-by” created with Google’s mapping tool Google Earth [v4.0291.beta], drawing tool SketchUp and published concept plans to model new development in our community. In this case, modeling RAM Development’s 322 luxury condos visual impact.

The large McMansion-like teardown, unfortunately, is displacing Hillsborough Street’s affordable 111 unit Town House apartments. Town House has been a low cost haven for students for years.

Hillsborough425 aka “The Residences at the Grove” (again, what grove?) will be the largest development of its kind to bless (?) Chapel Hill. Given that and RAM Developments close relationship with Council in the ongoing $100M deconstruction of downtown, the Mayor’s brush-off of greater transparency is troubling.


How did I do it?

Tools:

Input:

Output:

Using Google Earth:

  • 1) “Flew” to the general location of Hillsborough425.
  • 2) Added Hillsborough425: Current Town House Apt. layout [JPG] as an overlay, changed its opacity to %50, then stretched and rotated it until the roads and features matched up.
  • 3) Set the overlay to be drawing priority #1.
  • 4) Added Hillsborough425: Sept. 2006 Concept Plan [GIF] also as an overlay and adjusted it in a similar manner using both the underlying GoogleEarth features and the current layout overlay.
  • 5) Toggled off the Town House Apt. overlay leaving just the concept plan.
  • 6) Saved the result safely to disk.

Using Google Sketchup:

  • 1) Imported the current view from GoogleEarth (the Hillsborough425 concept plan overlaid on the current topography)
  • 2) Toggled Google->Terrain OFF
  • 3) Outlined the buildings using the flattened concept plan imported from Google Earth and tracing with the LINE tool.
  • 4) Using the Hillsborough425: Concept plan descriptions and other documents as references for each buildings height, used the PUSH/PULL tool to extrude a volume roughly the same height.
  • 5) Toggled Google->Terrain ON
  • 6) Using the SELECTION tool to select an element in one building, right clicked and selected all connected components. Once selected, used the MOVE tool to place the building roughly at grade.
  • 7) Exported the finished product to GoogleEarth.

Once exported to GoogleEarth, I finished by exporting my alpha-quality project as a KML suitable for GoogleEarth v4.0291.beta.

If I get some time this weekend (ha!), I’ll add in the existing two and four story apartments for scale.

Here’s the Sketchup files ( [1] and [2]) of the Hillsborough425 buildings, please feel free to build upon my initial effort.

My only request is you publish the results for the wider community.

Hillsborough425 aka “The Residences at Grove Park”

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

Plenty of kudzu, not much of a grove.




HeraldSun covers some of the issues with RAM Development’s strangely renamed condo-blivium project “The Residences at Grove Park”. I’ve already commented on Council’s need “to be as Caesar’s wife” in handling this project’s approvals in light of their existing relationship as co-developers with RAM on the $100 million downtown redevelopment project.

More to come on the project….

Council’s Conflict of Interest?

Friday, June 16th, 2006

RAM Development, our town’s partner in an increasingly troubling downtown development project, is now looking to build the largest condominium project in Chapel Hill’s history. Sited along Hillsborough Rd. on the current Townhouse Apartment parcel, the project would include 335 condos in 6 story blocks.

Without a site proposal, it’s hard to envision how such a massive development couldn’t harm the Bolin Creek watershed, create an incompatible juxtaposition with nearby charming historic residential areas and pressure the already difficult Hillsborough/MLK transit corridor.

Considering Council is knee deep in on-going negotiations involving RAM’s design for downtown’s Lot #5 behemoth (next meeting June 19th, 2PM), what leverage, if any, does RAM have in getting approval for what I expect to be one of the more controversial developments in town’s history?

CHAPEL HILL – Townhouse Apartments, a wilting, close-to-campus haven to UNC-Chapel Hill students for four decades, may be demolished to make way for one of the biggest condominium projects in town history.

Ram Development of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., wants to build 335 condominiums stacked six stories high and 22 townhouses on the 12.5-acre site by 2010.

The company has a contract to buy the 111-unit complex between Hillsborough Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, less than half a mile north of Franklin Street.

The sale is to close next year. Meanwhile, Ram is to submit preliminary site plans for the project, simply called 425 Hillsborough St., this month, said John Florian, the company’s vice president of development in Raleigh.

News & Observer, June 15th, 2006

Townhouse Apartments

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