February 2007

Sally Greene suggested trading formal LEEDs certification, which RAM’s VP Casey Cummings said cost $225K, for a required %20 energy reduction, as measured against ASHRAE standards.

Cummings claimed that $14.5K of the $225K involved energy modeling and measurement – the rest involved paper shuffling.

After reviewing the current proposal, it is still not clear that the Town has discussed a baseline with RAM for what a “reduction” entails – let alone a methodology to establish meeting the ASHRAE goals.

That issue aside, if we trade away LEEDs, which as Sally pointed out is an arguably flawed tool (no surprise, local folks pointed that out over a year ago), we still need to establish a firm requirement for a reduced energy footprint and make the commitment to independently establish compliance with that requirement.

In other words, not just take RAM’s word (“trust but verify”).

So, if we spend the $14.5K to verify adherence to LEEDs principles without doing the LEEDs paper-shuffle – well, that seems reasonable in isolation.

But, then again, why are we trading away anything? We’ve already reduced the public space, we’ve upped our public investment 15-fold, we’ve assumed a significant liability for less and less public utility. Our compliant negotiating team let RAM chip, chip, chip away the value.

And why just %20? If RAM pushed for %50, they’d qualify for a hefty tax break – $1.80 per square foot. Heck, they would get $0.60 per square for hitting %17.

Why are we begging them to do the “right thing”?

Luckily, Council will have an opportunity to attenuate their environmental misstep when Tom and company submit the following challenge to Council calling on all local building to meet the much more stringent AIA 2030 goals – a suggestion, at least for Lot #5, that was dismissed almost without comment.

Resolution to the Town of Chapel Hill to Adopt the AIA 2030 Challenge:

Combating Climate Change through Building Design

Whereas buildings in the United States are responsible for 48% of primary energy consumption and 46% of greenhouse gases; and

Whereas current trends indicate that, unless immediately addressed, the amount of energy consumed by buildings will continue to escalate; and

Whereas 7% to 8% of energy consumed in the United States (150 Btus/gallon water) is associated with the treatment and transport of municipal water; and

Whereas to restrict global warming to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial era levels will require atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, now at 380 ppm, to be held below 450 ppm; and

Whereas the decisions made today in designing buildings will directly impact the amount of energy consumed by those buildings for decades to come; and

Whereas technologies and skills exist today that enable architects to design buildings to consume a fraction of the energy that is typical of current construction; and

Whereas the American Institute of Architects has adopted the targets of “The 2030 Challenge”, establishing the national goal of immediately reducing “site” fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in new buildings and major renovations by 50%, and continually improving energy performance so buildings constructed in 2030 will be carbon neutral; and

Whereas the Town of Chapel Hill has agreed with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to jointly participate in a carbon reduction program;

Therefore, be it resolved that the Orange County Democratic Party calls upon the Town of Chapel Hill to recognize the imperative of immediately addressing climate change through the buildings built within the Town by taking all necessary steps to insure that all new buildings, major renovations and additions be required to consume 50% less fossil fuel energy than is typically consumed.

Further, in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change associated with the operation of buildings and to reduce greenhouse gas levels to those experienced in 1990, we additionally call upon the Town of Chapel Hill to require the improvement in the energy and water efficiency of our building designs at the following rates until, in 2030, our buildings consume only site-generated and/or purchased renewable energy.

Years % reduction in non-renewable energy
2007 – 2010 50%
2010 – 2015 60%
2015 – 2020 70%
2020 – 2025 80%
2025 – 2030 90%
2030+ 100%

For a Council that appears to be incapable of managing its own environmental concerns, the AIA 2030 challenge might be too much of a stretch.

I hope that I’m wrong and that they’ll rise to the challenge.

Endorsing the flawed deal:

Anita Badrock Chapel Hill/Carrboro Chamber of Commerce

Criticizing the misbegotten proposal:

Andrea Rohrbacher former Council candidate, Chair of the Downtown Partnership, representing the Sierra Club.

Francis Henry downtown business owner, longtime resident of Chapel Hill.

Jean Brown Chapel Hill/Carrboro school advocate

Tom Henkel Long time resident, brilliant alternative energy consultant.

Mike Collins leader of Neighborhoods for Responsible Growth

Joyce Brown Environmental activist, former Council member.

WillR of Citizen Will.

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.

Is RAM Development’s Casey Cummings the sixth Beatle?

I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get some video snippets (wish the Town was streaming video!) to get direct confirmation but it sure seemed like he was comfortable jumping up to the podium sans a request of Council.

I’m not quite sure the propriety of his hard charging rebuttals but I have seen the Mayor spank folks for making unbidden comments outside the normal time for testimony.

Heck, I wish I had had the opportunity to publicly cross-examine his assertions but I bit my tongue and chose to respond via the ‘blog.

Others commented on Cummings ease breaking convention in responding to Jim Ward – and seemed shocked that the Mayor didn’t rein him in.

I’m not surprised. With tonight’s vote, it’s clear that the Council has tilted away from the citizens and towards their partner – that in a sense they’ve been co-opted (though I still think it falls short of one person’s claim that they’ve succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome ) .

Given how difficult it was for me to see Foy’s, Kleinschmidt’s, Strom’s and Greene’s defense of RAM’s tipsy-turvy assertions, maybe, from Cumming’s side, their performance was emboldening.

The bar has been lowered. The door is opened. The precedent is set.

I missed the exact vote but the Council has not only authorized the Lot #5 development but put it on a fast-track.

Talk about compounding a mistake. What’s clear, especially after this evening, is the bulk of Council does not comprehend the consequences of their decision. From my understanding, the SUP (special use permit) gives the Council little leverage to modify building requirements peripheral to the issues specified in the SUP.

To wit, any leverage to mitigate the hazardous waste liability, to make the %20 ASHRAE and AIA 2030 energy goals requirements, is gone.

Below is the liability language Laurin Easthom and Jim Ward referred to:

3.5 Town’s Obligation to Remediate.

In the event that any Hazardous Substance is found on Lot 5, the Town shall be responsible for adopting a remediation plan reasonably acceptable to Developer and the Town’s environmental engineer to remediate such Hazardous Substances in accordance with Environmental Laws. The parties agree that any remediation required will be undertaken by the Developer on behalf of the Town and the Town will reimburse the Developer for the actual cost thereof or, at Developer’s option, the Town will pay such cost on a direct basis, it being agreed that the Developer has no obligation to fund on an advanced basis the Town’s Remediation Cost. For purposes hereof the actual cost of the remediation shall be the incremental increase in construction costs directly relating to any required remediation (the “Town’s Remediation Cost.”) For example, in the event that the soil on Lot 5 is contaminated by a Hazardous Substance and must be removed, the cost of any excavation to remove the same shall not be treated as a remediation cost allocable to the Town if such excavation was otherwise required in connection with the construction of the Project.

However, if the soil excavated and removed must be treated under the remediation plan, then the cost of such treatment (but not the excavation) shall be borne by the Town. The Developer shall submit to the Town on a monthly basis the cost associated with any required remediation and the Town shall reimburse the Developer therefore, or pay such costs on a direct basis, within thirty (30) days of the receipt of an invoice.

Page 27, January Agreement

Prepare to bend over Chapel Hill.

Live ‘blogged from hearing:

Laurin Easthom picked up on a point that I didn’t have time to speak to this round: hazardous material remediation.

It’s incredible that a hazardous waste assay hasn’t been done on a piece a property that is known to have had oil and gasoline exposures. Back in the ’80s I used to do environmental assays of just such properties. The cost was quite modest, moreso considering the heightened risk entailed by this site.

As Laurin pointed out, the taxpayers will eat the open-ended cost of remediation – now, as the project starts, instead of later. So, one hit on tainted soil in 2007 could cost the Town’s taxpayers $2-3 or more million.

Where’s the due diligence? This is symptomatic of the gaps opened up during the negotiation process.

Now Jim Ward has jumped in on the hazardous waste issue adding that remediation is more than soil removal. Volatilization of the chemicals could require long term pumping strategies. As Jim said “I’m not ready for an open ended commitment”.

Jim calls RAM’s Casey Cummings out on the energy commitment language in this agreement – “don’t we already know what your answer is?” Jim Ward wants the language struck as a farce – non-sensical given RAM’s VP Casey Cummings rather stern declaration that they won’t do more.

Mayor Foy tries to defend RAM Development’s language – saying, incredibly, “it’s not like they will just change the numbers”. This with a project that has lost half of its putative purpose while increasing required public expenditures 15-fold. Tomorrow’s video clips hopefully will capture Foy’s strange defense.

Jim Ward jumps in with a valiant defense – and makes the excellent point that they’re leaving a tremendous legacy – a poor legacy if they let the project go forward.

Later on:

Foy suggests there should be some give and take – more negotiating but RAM has already squeezed an incredible deal out of Council. Trading more elements away makes a tragic mess worse. My review of the negotiating process convinced me that our Council members compromised all the promise of this project away while RAM gets to pickup a bigger and bigger payday.

Sally Greene jumps in bolstering RAM’s VP Casey Cumming’s suggestion that they don’t spend $200K on a consultant to verify LEED compliance but on actual energy improvements. The problem? RAM’s credibility on delivering to target has been tarnished by their recent history. Reagan’s “trust, but verify” comes into play here. How, other than measuring the compliance, do we know we hit ASHRAE’s targets?

No reason to ask for compliance if it isn’t measured?

RAM’s VP Casey Cumming’s wants to move on to the SUP as the gatekeeper. Ralph Karpinos, the Town’s Attorney, points out that the SUP concerns itself only with LUMO (land use ordinance) variations and not energy/environmental concerns.

The Council, if the plan to “walk the talk” needs to stop the process tonight.

Dang! It’s tough watching Foy, Strom, Greene and Kleinschmidt work so hard on RAM’s behalf. Of course, Bill and Mark, using strategy to push through the proposal, were quick to move the resolution.

Hill and Thorpe are still out.

Right before the vote, Jim presses again on the hazardous waste liability. Karpinos says our only recourse is to default on the agreement and take our chances in court. In other words, the risk – which seems quite high given the prior use of this property – is passed on to the taxpayer.

Basically, RAM can sue the Town to move the project forward EVEN if the Town determines the cost of hazardous waste remediation isn’t tenable. The developer, RAM in this case, holds all the cards… The Town’s additional counsel says we have to go forward no matter what “damned if we do, dammed if we don’t”.

Would the “rah rah” folks pushing this broken deal be so jubilant if we don’t have the money to do social program improvements or couldn’t build the new pool complex, etc.

The counsel says the second environmental assay was unsanctioned and that there was a “smell of gas”.

Tonight’s vote is not about whether Chapel Hill is a town or a city or whether we need to vitalize Downtown or not. We know that Downtown needs help.

Tonight’s vote is simply about whether the RAM proposal is a good deal for the town’s citizens – both now and in the future….

After reviewing January’s proposal, reading 100’s of pages of confidential minutes, listening to hours of confidential negotiations, rereading all the published material on this project, it is quite clear that this is a
broken deal.

There are so many reasons to turn this deal down, so many, I’ll mention just a few:

Affordable housing is important in our community but affordable housing at any cost is not a good deal.

What kind of precedent does this community set when we spend $7.5 million housing cars at this facility and give property worth millions dollars to a developer so he can build million dollar condos – all so we can get 21 small units?

Council says that these units are sufficient for families but that assessment has not really been made. We don’t know the economic viability of units where folks have to park off-site when their neighbors don’t…. Or can only park between 6pm and 6am. How family friendly is that?

And the %1.5 condo fee cap sounds so alluring but it makes up a significant chunk of qualifying tenants monthly income.

The $7.5 million would be better invested in strengthening existing neighborhoods and building affordable housing units more akin to what we KNOW our citizens desire.

Council continues to celebrate the %1 Art funding going to an out-of-state artist for a centerpiece who’s public usage has not been clearly defined. Nearly a year after I first asked, I still don’t know if my 10 year-old son or his friends will be trespassed off the property for dangling their feet in the fountain.

And why is it that the lions share of this public investment isn’t going to structural improvements in our local art’s scene? Why not provide an on-site arts space? For that matter, why aren’t the taxpayers getting on-site play structures, public bathrooms, drinking fountains.

The pretense that this development improves our transit picture is disturbing.

Without sufficient walkable living infrastructure – grocery stores, parks, schools, jobs – the tenants of this building will inevitably make car trips – maybe as many as a typical resident.

Why no anchoring grocery store? Why no commercial office space for jobs? And why no discussion of incorporating the planned Downtown transit transfer station?

LEED certification is a minimal requirement for today’s sustainable buildings. The lack of a firm commitment for energy reductions in the design and operation of this building is just not acceptable. We know, with better accuracy than RAM showed in forecasting construction cost increases, the trend line for energy costs is only up. Energy efficiency is more than saving money – it is about doing the right thing.

How will Chapel Hill claim moral leadership on environmental issues when our Council approved, financed, built an environmentally sub-par project?

Approval of the initial stages of Carolina North is coming soon. How can our Council demand the highest caliber of environmentally sound development from UNC when they won’t practice what they preach?

You need to walk the talk…

As Council member Kleinschmidt asked, without the carrot of Lot #5, can we ever get a good deal on re-development of Wallace Deck? You know the answer – it will be from difficult to nearly impossible. Will we have to sell the Wallace Deck to get redevelopment? My guess is yes.

Finally, what about the pure bread-n-butter of paying for this project?

Tonight’s coversheet claims we will see significant property and other tax revenues. It also claims a %43 increase in parking revenue. Yet, as we’ve seen, just over the last 9 months, this projects economic projections have been seriously flawed – flawed to the point of losing half the original projects scope. Add to that the public investment increasing 15-fold. Where is the business-like certainty? What proof the return on public investment exceeds the cost of services?

This is a broken project. If Council approves it, please, please, don’t expedite the special use permit.

The public is still coming to terms with the wild shifts in this projects scope and cost – please give them the courtesy of a reasonable time to review what will be the most significant public investment of the next decade.

They say, the story is buried in the details.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of confidential documents and listening to hours of ridiculously poor audio recordings of confidential meetings, I can, sadly, stand by my public assertions that the private-public Lot #5 development Council will most probably be thrusting upon us this evening is a terribly flawed beast.

By now, Council should realize that a re-think is in order. But I doubt that will happen….

Yes, it looks like Chapel Hill’s citizens are going to underwrite the development of million dollar condos, lose its moral leadership to criticize other environmentally poor initiatives, set the sub-standard for a new downtown development cycle that will create concrete canyons quashing the charm of our unique berg.

Like dumping a gallon of perfume in a reeking cesspool, the latest “updated” proposal does little to cover the stench that has settled about “the plan”.

RAM Development, directly, and Council, as I expect with tonight’s acquiescence, has no will to ameliorate the vast negative fiscal, environmental, social and political consequences of earlier versions of this plan.

Worse yet, instead of giving the public ample opportunity to review and reflect, the Council is voting to expedite the SUP (special use permit) to rush their development partner’s application through. Beyond the propriety of granting special favors to ones development partner, the problem of public participation has been swept to the side.

“Ahhh, Will, but the public has been given plenty of opportunity”. What a crock. The deal Council is voting on tonight runs to 160 pages – the public record thousands – yet the Council, generally, has made little attempt to integrate a broad perspective ala the NCD (neighborhood conservation district) process – to draw in to the process all the citizens of Chapel Hill.

We’ve heard quite a bit of enthusiasm from those that stand to gain from this precipitous decision. The developers – who benefit from Council’s ill-conceived direction. Those great social champions who want to broaden our affordable housing stock – but, in this case, at too steep a cost. Those that stand to make tons of bucks from the wealthy inhabitants of the publicly underwritten rooftop villas.

Why hasn’t Council tried to build a broader context around this development? Why didn’t they start a conversation with the wider public – the same public that will be picking up the tab for this mess – months ago?

Why? Because a measured assessment of this project, as currently constituted, by the public, would ring its death knell.

And for those Council members caught up in this “rah rah” – “do something, do anything” – atmosphere engendered by folks standing to win big by big, big, big development – that is unacceptable.

Confidential documentation of Downtown Development Initiative.

I worked to elect all three Council members – Cam, Sally, Bill – intimately involved in the RAM negotiations. I’ve found them to be good folks with a keen interest in promoting what they think is best for our community. And that is why listening to these audio recordings was one of the most dispiriting chores I’ve ever undertaken.

Reviewing the documentation on how RAM Development step-by-step backed these folks away from a good initial vision towards the fiscal, social, environmental, aesthetic mess we have today, well, it was quite tough.

It was one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet of late.

I worked on cleaning up some of the audio, but, on the whole, it is really miserable. Where there’s a MP3 version of a WMA (Window’s Media) file, the MP3 is the “cleaner” of the two.

Aug. 1st

Aug. 2nd

Aug. 18th

Sept. 15

Feb. 27

June 19th

Aug. 16th

Sept. 7th

Oct. 23rd

Nov. 11th

I told the Clerk I’d be happy to purchase the town a couple decent digital audio recorders so that critical meetings (and these are probably some of the most critical held in the last decade) will be captured clearly for posterity.

By the way, I think RAM Development did a FANTASTIC job on what they were supposed to do… get the absolutely best deal for their owners.

I’m sure future developers will take a page or two from RAM’s playbook.

They offloaded the risk to the public, secured an asset they can flip for millions (maybe tens of millions) within a few years and will convert public properties to posh million dollar residences with their awesome “frog in the boiling water” technique.

In preparation for further comments, I’ve scanned in the “confidential” negotiating documents the Town provided Dec. 8th, 2006.

Directory listing of current documents here.

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