Election 2007: Neighborhoods for Responsible Growth

This year the NRG decided to vet the candidates via email. In 2005 they held interviews and presented the audio responses. Trying to be thorough, I went a bit overboard this year. Figuring no one would want to wade through 10 pages of answers, I tried to boil down this final response to the NRG.

In its Comprehensive Plan, Chapel Hill is committed both to denser urban development and to protection of existing neighborhoods. Do you see any conflict between these goals and what do you feel is the best way to achieve them?

There are trade-offs, thus conflicts between the goals of high density and neighborhood protection.

To start, in any discussion of density we need to establish the limits of growth. I’ve been using the concept of “carrying capacity” as a guide.

Carrying capacity is a multi-dimensional evaluation of an ecosystems ability to maintain a particular population. In biology, this usually means water, food and habitat. In Town, we need to add, for instance, the ability for to maintain a diverse and healthy socio-economic balance within our community. We all can’t live in million dollar condos or pay an extra couple hundred bucks in taxes each year.

We don’t currently assess density to that level of detail. I believe we should at least start thinking within those terms as it will help us create a more sustainable outcome.

Another general problem with our comprehensive plan is that our process for upgrading our goals as our understanding improves is broken.

We need to implement a continuous review process, as suggested by the former chair of the Planning Board, to review our goals in light of achievements to-date, successes and failures. Not only do we need to be more nimble in managing our Town’s comprehensive plan, we need to be much more inclusive in drawing upon our community’s expertise.

Three recent omissions in our planning process provide examples of where we need to improve.

I’m not %100 sold on all the elements of the Northern Area Task force but believe it set an excellent framework for further work. One hole in that plan was the real gap between Estes and Downtown. We need to treat the MLK, Jr. corridor from I-40 to Downtown as a whole. Squeeze on one part of that corridor and the excess development will spread into other neighborhoods. We need a balanced approach that incorporates all the moving parts.

Our Town, until recently, has not done a very good job promoting dense development in some of the most appropriate locales in Town. One incumbent recently claimed “all roads lead to Downtown” but the truth is all the highest traffic bearing and transit-friendly corridors lead to Eastgate, Rams Plaza and University Mall.

These commercialized sectors already have sufficient living infrastructure – grocery stores, etc. – to support much higher levels of development.

These areas are accessible but somewhat isolated from the more traditional neighborhoods like Coker Hills. That isolation favors taller, denser developments removed a sufficient distance from our current residential areas so as not to adversely affect those traditional neighborhoods quality of life.

The call for density, I’m concerned, has blinded our current policy makers to other opportunities.
Finally, we cannot “dense” grow ourselves out of our troubles. I’ve been quite concerned by some of the incumbents relentless rhetoric on “dense is good”. Dense, especially beyond our community’s carrying capacity, could rob our community of its charm.

Worse, dense, inappropriately sited, can have wide ranging impacts on remote neighborhoods.

I believe the TC-3 zone, supposedly created for Greenbridge but really created to support the Council’s Lot #5 boondoggle, is a case in point. TC-3 raised allowable Downtown building heights to 120’ (from 90’) and doubled the density.

Contrary to what one of the incumbents claimed, once Council opened the door to taller, denser development for these two projects, they opened the door to similar development all along Rosemary St.

Besides diminishing the charm of Downtown, a string of dense development stretching from the Carrboro border to Columbia will create intense pressure on the Northside neighborhood. From what long time residents of those neighborhoods have told me, the neighborhood conservation district (NCD) was probably too late to save this traditionally blue collar neighborhood. These same folks see the blooming of dense Downtown development as the final straw.

A gentrified Northside, fronted on Rosemary St. by dense development, might be a nice place to live for the new folks but displacing existing folks – many who have lived their whole life in that neighborhood – is a steep price to pay.

Please describe at least three ways you feel the Town could do a better job protecting creeks and other environmentally sensitive habitats.

In the last year, we have had opportunities to show – by doing – a real concern for tree conservation, fuel reduction and energy efficiency. In each case, either the opportunity was missed or an expedient course charted. As Jim Ward pointed out this spring, our Town undercuts its environmental credibility when it practices “do as I say, not as I do”.

While we’ve done a fairly good job identifying broad areas of environmental concern, we should go the next step and survey champion species and unique habitats within our community.

Twenty-seven years of tromping the back ways of Chapel Hill has developed my appreciation for what a varied habitat our community encloses. Unfortunately, we’ve lost some pristine areas. Others, like Umstead Park, have diminished greatly but others – more secluded – remain.

My family loves Battle Park and has explored some of its less traveled avenues.

Fortunately, the Botanical Garden and local neighborhood has taken a leadership role in identifying that tracts unique attributes. As with Battle Park, there are some incredible natural specimens and habitats we need to recognize and protect in the out of the way areas of our Town.

Why worry about singular species or habitats? They are the harbingers of the whole ecosystems health. Their success or failure reflects our greater success or failure in protecting our environment.

Next, we need to identify all the remaining potential open space acquisitions within our boundaries and assess each ones environmental and conservation merits.

My family is blessed with a 10+ acre tract between Burlage and Mt. Bolus. This tract joins a flood plain and wetlands that protects one of the key sources of Bolin Creek. Draining the area bounded by South of Estes and East of MLK, Jr. the three creeks are still relatively pristine. Old cypress and mammoth red oaks dot the flat land. Laurel grows from some of the steepest banks and ravines in Town.

Maybe I’m a bit more sensitive to its preservation than other natural corridors within our community because I live on its margins but I believe that protecting this space – which doesn’t appear in our Town’s current acquisition plans – should be a priority.

To make sure we’re not missing other, similar, opportunities we need a continuous process of evaluation and a funding mechanism that will allow the Town to move quickly when spaces become available.

My third suggestion, which mirrors my more general call for a results-oriented approach to policy, is to improve our overall monitoring of our environment.

Like many issues, if you don’t look, you don’t see.

With Carolina North, I have asked UNC to consider off-site impacts air, water, noise and light pollution. I suggested that the Town, through the now defunct Horace-William’s Citizens Committee, set some goals and discuss some methodologies for evaluating success.

One example I liked to use was the impact of cars traversing the corridor from Carolina North to Main Campus on Bolin Creek. With the addition of 10,000-50,000 car trips per day on MLK, Jr. – adding to the long line of idling traffic we already see each work day afternoon – what is the impact on Bolin Creek at Hillsborough St.?

We don’t currently monitor water quality at that intersection with a frequency or to a quality that would help us set appropriate policy – and we should.

Our Town is being asked to take Lake Jordan’s protection to the next level. One element of that plan is to monitor nutrient and other flows from Town into that watershed. We resisted committing to this monitoring because it is not clear how effectively we can do so or what actions we would take if we discover a problem.

This, to me, is a defeatist proposition. First, we have an incredibly talented pool of professionals that live and work within Chapel Hill. I’m confident we could find a protocol that will help monitor our community’s contributions to Lake Jordan’s woes.

Beyond that, while I understand that currently environmental practices might not be able to help our community mediate the damage, it makes no sense, at least to me, not to try to assess our culpability.

Practice what we preach. We can’t close our eyes to the consequences of our growth decisions.

What suggestions do you have for better ways for the local governments in the Orange County area to work together?

Having reviewed the on-going discussions between the Town, the County, the staffs and leadership of each, I believe we’re overdue for a comprehensive survey of our common interests.

For instance, how do our parks and recreation plans align? What are our mutual goals on reducing homelessness, improving mental health services, managing our rural and urban zones? Where do we agree on waste management and our community’s commitment to environmental stewardship? How do we assess the inter-relationships between these issues?

And, most importantly, how do our independent actions create a shared success?

We’re addressing many of these issues within different “silos” of activity. As a citizen trying to tease out the details, it is not always obvious how particular activities within one silo are contributing to the success (or failure) in reaching the goals in another.

Where, then, do are common interest lie?

While our Town’s leadership and the staff and leadership meet somewhat frequently within various committees, joint working meetings by both are too rare. When called for, we need to take the time to thresh out the relevant issues – tete-a-tete – and get beyond divisive political rhetoric.

Take the Rogers Road mess. We should dedicate a joint meeting hashing out our mutual obligations to that community, sketch out a plan of action (with measurable goals – sorry to be a broken record on that) and then follow up – jointly – to make sure adequate progress is being made.

There are other improvements we could make but I’ll note only one more general issue: communication – specifically, managing the agendas and minutes between both groups.

Just as I’ve asked the Town to produce a complete agenda seven days prior to any substantive discussion, I would encourage the County to do the same.

Usually items under joint consideration are not so noted on each government’s web site. As with the agendas, relevant supporting documents are also not linked.

For common issues, it would be nice if the relevant materials – minutes, reports, etc. – were coordinated so that we can – jointly – be sure that we’re negotiating within the same context.

Finally, both could improve communication with the wider community on these joint issues.

4. All UNC actions up to now indicate the submission of a comprehensive Master Plan for the Horace Williams tract. How do you recommend that the Council deal with single application requests for that property?

The Innovation Center being developed on Horace-William’s tract is within a zone requiring a special use permit (SUP). Withholding approval of a SUP on grounds outside of those specified by law is problematic and should be avoided – especially in a situation where we want to build a framework for an honest, sustained, 15 year long, negotiation on Carolina North.

The University has said, for this one project, the business imperative requires an expedited process. I understand and sympathize with the pressure they must be feeling.

Even though the University considers this building as an adjunct to the Carolina North campus, I believe they should wait until three elements are completed:

First, the completion of a comprehensive master plan detailing, to some extent, the location of transit corridors, primary infrastructure, support services, open space, parking, buildings and permanently protected ecologies.

Second, the completion of the key transit, fiscal equity and environmental studies that will guide further negotiations on Carolina North.

I know the University is chafing at the delay inherent in finishing these studies but we need to establish some baseline expectations. These reports set the foundation for the creation of specific environmental, fiscal and transit goals.

As a sign of good faith, we must, with no further delay, be clear with the University on how we plan to use these reports to inform our further actions. How, specifically, do we plan to take these studies and move forward? What, specifically, are we trying to achieve? How, specifically, will we measure progress?

Third, the establishment of a new framework for sustained negotiations with our community. Having reviewed the last 25 years of Town-n-Gown relations, having been involved “up close and personal” for many years now, I’m convinced that for too long we’ve gone without an established framework for serious dialog.

Throughout the years, we generally treat each request individually instead as just another point within a continuum. As the University evolved, we had separate negotiations on the Horace-William’s Airport, main campus’ explosive growth (and the creation of the OI-4 zone), UNC Healthcare’s incredible spillover, South Columbia’s woes, etc.

Many of the same folks have been involved in each discrete effort yet, at least it appears to me, that some of the hard lessons hammered out in each phase – for various reasons, many times University-related – were not carried forward.

Our community is facing at least 15 years of continuous building at Carolina North. We need a flexible, adaptable, transparent and open framework for honest negotiations with the University. A framework where we build upon our successes, work to our mutual advantages and overcome the gaps created by the sometimes mutually exclusive charters.

Back to the Innovation Center, the University says their business partner is set to bolt. How do we get the University to “hold their horses” – to wait until these necessary elements are completed?

How, in this one particular situation, can the Town reduce the risk of the University losing out on what they think is an exceptional opportunity?

By, I believe, committing to a planning process with specific, performance-based, checkpoints and goals. We need to develop a plan of action that creates a predictable outcome for the University and its partner.

In other words, we need to layout what we expect and then follow through as the University jumps through each hoop.

I believe the University, and their new partner, will wait when they see we’re making a serious attempt to accommodate both our charters.


One response to “Election 2007: Neighborhoods for Responsible Growth”

  1. ellen Avatar

    unc should look at accessible issues on campus more before they want to build more buildings the sidewalks are terrible and on raleigh rd up near franklin st there are steps instead of a ramp unc or chapel hill put this insteps are not accessible for students on crutches or in a wheelchair so i think unc needs to look at their own campus before building on the horace williams track and get this one right

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