June 2010

Quick follow-up to my recent post on NC’s Internet gambling ban (Cognitive Dissonance? NC Legislature Bans Internet Sweepstakes).

WUNC’s reporting treasure Laura Leslie (can you tell I am a fan?), made an informal personal survey of her community’s (Garner) “Parlor Games”.

Ripping a page from the big boys (It’s Not A Spill), one “parlor” (sounds funereal) she visited was

“decorated with pictures of craps tables and roulette wheels, right next to the signs assuring you in capital letters that “YOU ARE NOT GAMBLING.”

It appears that in-spite of evidence to the contrary, as long as you post a sign ALL IN CAPS you’re good to go.

I generally don’t say much on CitizenWill about Federal officeholders but since there’s been a lot of blather about Elaine Marshall’s chances of overcoming Richard Burr I thought I would submit one way she can challenge Burr’s reputation of supporting our troops.

Elaine, as part of her Senate campaign, started a petition calling on Burr to support a Consumer Finance Protection Agency.

Burr, so far, and his Republican colleagues have been less than supportive (to put it mildly) of the initiative.

In fact, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.),

ranking Republican on the Senate banking committee on Monday [June 21st, 2010] told a group of N.C. bankers that a proposed consumer financial protection agency is the “worst” part of an industry overhaul making its way through Congress.

“They will decide what products you can put out, to whom and probably at what price,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in remarks at the N.C. Bankers Association’s annual meeting, held at a University-area hotel. “Can you imagine all this?”

Charlotte Observer, June 22nd, 2010

Senator Shelby, after Wall St. gamblers pissed billions of investor dollars down the drain, threw the economy into a historic tailspin and bamboozled American citizens into picking up the tab, I can well imagine having more oversight. For instance, “visualizing” restoration of the kind of protections we once enjoyed under the Glass-Steagall Act.

Shelby was visiting the Old North State “at a breakfast fundraiser for Burr attended by about 70 bankers”.

What does the Consumer Finance Protection Agency have to do with our military families?

The Department of Defense’s Office of Personal Finance specifically endorsed the creation of the CFPA [PDF] because, as Director Julian said, “DOD firmly believes that the financial readiness of their troops and families equates to mission readiness and anything that we can do to help our families be financially ready, we will support the family and the mission.”

That letter of endorsement starts by highlighting the effects predatory and unscrupulous lending practices by some automobile dealers have on our military families.

The excellent academic consumer credit ‘blog Credit Slips has posted a good overview of those reprehensible tactics:

So what are the problems in the auto lending world?  Here are some.  I’m guessing I’ll learn of some new ones in the comments.  I’m also guessing that auto leasing has its own bag of tricks.  

Bait and Switch.   There are lots of variations on bait-and-switch with auto dealers.  Here’s one: the dealer gives the consumer a quote on a particular model and says that it is in stock.  The consumer comes in and guess what–that model is still in stock, but only with a bunch of dealer-added features (hubcap locks, pinstripe, fog lights, etc.) that raise the cost of the car by more than the value given.  Want to guess why I’m driving a Honda Odyssey with a “racing pinstripe” on it?   

Hidden Fees.  This is sort of self-explanatory, and is another bait-and-switch variation.  The consumer bargains with the dealer over the price of the car and the financing and thinks that a deal has been reached.  Then the consumer gets the final bill for the car and it has a bunch of previously unmentioned fees.  The dealer says don’t worry, we’ll just increase the amount financed.  

Dealer reserve kickbacks.  These are the yield spread premiums of the auto world. The dealer often acts as a broker for a financing company that will finance the car purchase.  The dealer is compensated for this service by getting a slice of the interest on the loan.  The higher the loan rate, the larger the kickback.  So the consumer qualifies for a loan at 10%, but the dealer steers the consumer into a 14% loan in order to get a larger dealer reserve payment.  (One way to avoid being steered due to dealer reserve is to go in with a direct financing offer lined-up from an independent finance company; I wonder how many consumers do this, though.)  

Loan packing.  Overpriced and underused or frankly unnecessary products like credit life insurance and GAP insurance and rust-proofing get bundled in to the deal.  

Overselling.  Dealer’s cuts on loans can give them an incentive to steer consumers into larger loans.  One way to do that is to sell the consumer a more expensive car, which requires more financing.  Of course the consumer still has to be qualified for the loan, and there have been problems in auto lending, just as with mortgages, of dealers (and borrowers) fudging the numbers on the paperwork to make borrowers look more creditworthy.  

Spot delivery yo-yos.  This is one of the sleaziest moves.  The consumer buys a car with financing arranged through the dealer.  The financing includes a nonrefundable deposit.  The consumer takes the car home thinking that everything is in order.  The dealer then calls the consumer the next day to say that the financing was denied in the end and the consumer has to return the car.  And the dealer keeps the deposit. 

Binding mandatory arbitration.  This is a generic consumer finance problem.  

Such practices are familiar to folks who live in North Carolina’s host communities.

Unfortunately, the protections DoD asked for have been gutted by both Republican and Democratic (BOO!) House members.

Elaine can differentiate her candidacy not only from Burr’s but of her own Party by coming out strongly for specific remedies to this loophole.

Chapel Hill’s Locally Grown Summer series kicks off this Thursday with a concert by Southern Culture on the Skids.

I remember when SCoTS first formed (they were friends of friends) in 1983 (wow, that feels like a zillion years ago!).

The Parks & Rec Locally Grown series features music and movies throughout the Summer and is part of a wider initiative to draw more local folks Downtown especially during a traditionally slow business season.

Ready for a free concert? LOCALLY GROWN on Thursday, June 24, will feature Southern Culture on the Skids with The Moaners. Gates open at 6 p.m.; the show starts at 7 p.m.

Southern Culture on the Skids, also sometimes known as SCOTS, is an American rock band that was formed in 1983 in Chapel Hill. Stylistically, SCOTS gravitate towards the rockabilly, surf rock, country music, and R&B genres, with a punk edge and outrageous humor thrown in. The Moaners are a Chapel Hill-based Indie rock band. The band is often compared to the The White Stripes, as they are also a two-piece and employ a similar garage rock, bluesy style. The dark, southern Gothic elements of Trailer Bride are also evident; however a major difference is that The Moaners have more an electric, punk rock style.

Southern Culture on the Skids w/ The Moaners

Thursday, June 24
Gates Open – 6PM; Show – 7PM; FREE
Wallace Plaza, on top of Wallace Parking Deck
150 E. Rosemary Street in Downtown Chapel Hill

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!

[UPDATE:] Ellie, at 3:00pm, was #143. Analysis of turnout is coming in but it’s clear Elaine has won with apparently 2/3rds of the vote.

Just back from the Library. I was #112 in one of the voting-est precincts in Town. Given the early voting trend this year, that doesn’t bode well for overall turnout.

In a funny coincidence, I was talking with one of the long term poll workers about how crazy mad my Mount Bolus neighbors are to vote when Judy B., who lives down the lane, dropped by to be #113. I’m proud to live in a neighborhood that so consistently turns out to vote.

I’ve voted, with the exception of one 2nd primary, every election from 1980 on. I heard it suggested by some folks that those who wanted to keep their voting streak alive but didn’t like Cal or Elaine drop a blank ballot in the box (I’m talking about you G-man!).

I believe that you can always make an affirmative choice, that not to do so doesn’t help move our democracy forward, and so I cast my vote today.

WUNC’s Laura Leslie (a reporting treasure) has a great post (Mon.: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before) on tonight’s 47 to 1 NC Senate vote “to ban video gambling – again – in North Carolina”.

Republican Tom Apodaca didn’t mince words in urging his fellow senators to ban video gambling.

“This is something we really don’t need. I mean, this is just a scourge, and I’ll happily vote to ban this.”

It’s not the first time Apodaca’s said that. North Carolina has been trying for years to get rid of video gambling. Its critics say it’s addictive, it breeds crime and corruption, and it preys on low-income and minority populations. And yet, it’s more popular than ever among those who say it’s harmless entertainment.

Wilmington’s Democratic Sen. Julia Boseman was the lone dissenter, arguing that the industry, if properly regulated, could generate millions of dollars in tax revenues.

You might recall a similar argument made in selling NC’s “educational” lottery.

If the lottery is any indication of the trajectory Internet/video gambling would take, the only way to grow revenues is to expand the reach of the games. With the lottery, what started as sales of tickets for a NC-only game became sales of scratch-offs along with mega-lottery options.

Easily deployed, requiring no special infrastructure, regulating the games the Senate banned this evening would become exponentially more difficult as their numbers increased.

There are other downsides which NC has already experienced:

…critics warned that video poker had become a front for organized crime. The allegation turned out to be true. Operators were bribing local officials to look the other way, and pumping money into campaign coffers to make friends in Raleigh.  Federal investigators sent about half a dozen people to prison – sheriffs, industry figures, and eventually, former House Speaker Jim Black.

I was and remain firmly against NC’s “education” lottery. Like many state lotteries, the promise has far exceeded the benefits while the damage has been more widespread than supporters claimed.

Studies show that lottery per capita revenues tend to come from the poorest parts of the State. It appears folks having difficulty controlling their scratch-off ticket purchases – whose attraction is pernicious – aren’t getting assistance from the service setup to handle that contingency. And, as feared, some school districts have come to imprudently rely on lottery monies for core needs.

Given those problems it makes little sense, moral or otherwise, for the State to be in the gambling business.

So, while I welcome tonight’s ban on video gambling, I’ve got to wonder why the Senate doesn’t apply the same concern to NC’s lottery shakedown.

Over the year’s I’ve seen some rather jam packed final spring term Council meetings. This one was about average in length, light on content but big in setting the stage for two broad initiatives – siting an emergency shelter and legally mandating affordable housing – to move forward.

I left prior to Council’s revisiting Laurin Easthom’s reasonable request for further fiscal analysis of Library funding, I’ll report back on that soon…

The first big bang of the evening, Council approved the %15 affordable housing inclusionary zoning ordinance.

Before voting for the zone, Jim Ward brought up the same fiscal equity issue I raised about this ordinance months ago. Downtown developments are only required to provide %10 affordable housing under the logic that it is more expensive to develop Downtown and that development will be driven into other parts of Town to avoid a %15 requirement.

Sally Greene reiterated that the existing density and height bonuses were not sufficient to overcome developers reluctance in meeting a standard %15 requirement. Of course, while property Downtown is more expensive to develop it also demands far greater premiums – something the analysis downplays. Her argument also doesn’t account for the radically increased density/height allowances in TC-3 – the self-serving zone Council created for their Lot $5 disaster.

Mark Kleinschmidt acknowledged that the inclusionary zone wasn’t fully baked and suggested that it be reviewed one year out. The zone, whose goals are laudable, could’ve used a bit more polish before setting in motion. We’ll see if the gaps are filled in 2012 (if the Council is entangled in litigation over the provisions by then).

While I semi-live ‘blogged the discussion of creating guidelines, standards or zones for human service facilities there are a few more observations to add.

First, there was a strange juxtaposition between the discussion of siting human service facilities, including “white flag” emergency shelters, and the approval of the inclusionary zone.

In initial discussions of the inclusionary zone, several of us argued that space should be allocated not just for affordable housing but community-oriented uses like human services facilities. Using a zoning process would be one way the Town could find needed space for these type facilities. We got the same response as when we asked Council to include space for feeding/housing the homeless at East54 or Lot #5 – not interested.

Council continues to reject calls to make this part of our development approval process (if Roger Perry’s Obeys Creek proceeds I’ll be asking Council to set aside some of that mandated square footage or in lieu monies for community-oriented services outside of affordable housing).

Second, the IFC has tried very hard to work within the rules informally suggested for siting the new Community House facility.

One primary requirement was that the property didn’t need rezoning.

I’ve watched Council twist zones, like the RSSC zone meant to encourage %100 affordable housing into a spot zone for hundreds of luxury condos for their business partner RAM Development, to meet their political agenda. Ed Harrison observed the current SUP process is a “crap shoot”. I’ve seen similar Council machinations use the SUP process to meet various goals (many I agree with) so why can’t we roll the dice favorably?

The point being that while the IFC struggled to find a site that doesn’t need rezoning, there are many examples of where a particular zone was little or no impediment to Council approval of a project (look at the creation of TC-3 for Greenbridge, West140 and which will apply to Short Bridge development and University Square redevelopment, look at how East54’s developer Roger Perry got a range of allowances to maximize his profit, etc.).

Of course, this is a main concern of Homestead’s neighborhood activists.

Without binding zoning requirements (well, as binding as Chapel Hill makes them) or standards mandated by ordinance, the Council can twist the current rules to meet their own agenda and reject public concerns.

The IFC continues to jump through what must seem like an endless series of hoops in an effort to provide two services, one – an emergency shelter – of which is squarely the County’s responsibility, the other – a transitional program to move folks from homelessness to established residents – which is commendable on every measurable axes.

After years of marching through the desert, th group submitted their special-use permit (SUP) request this morning – moving the project forward to an eventual yea or nay vote early Fall.

Neighborhood activists have already helped IFC sharpen their proposal. The move to address some of their concerns is what is fueling the drive to create a transparent, somewhat objective, process for evaluating siting services.

As the Community House discussion lurches into the next phase, I anticipate arguments over what guidelines or standards should apply and what decision-making framework – the Planning Board’s findings, SUP process or some kind of intermediate hybrid – will dictate the eventual result.

The residents of Chapel Hill deserve an open discussion on not just siting human services but providing future space for anticipated human service requirements. Not only should the current process yield a set of somewhat binding standards for evaluating particular sites but also provide a framework for measuring the cumulative impact and operational advantages of siting services compactly within the community.

Finally, my hope is that the current process opens up a real discussion on this Town’s obligation to support IFC and other incredible human service groups within this community.

That discussion should be frank and honest.

Council must explain why human services aren’t sited at developments like East54 as part of the SUP process, why it is so easy to twist a zone like RSSC or create a TC-3 zone for their own agenda while making the IFC jump through hoops to find an existing zone and why the newly minted inclusionary zone doesn’t include a mandate to set aside square footage for both affordable housing and human services.

The Council has asked the Planning Board to develop a range of regulatory options controlling the development and operation of shelters within Town. The range of policy proposals the Planning Board could create include shelter zoning, shelter standards or shelter guidelines – each with their own regulatory weight and requirements.

Guidelines, for instance, are broad directives – more suggestive of what is wanted than what is required – don’t have the predictability of a standard or zone.


Semi-live ‘blogging:

Mike Collins, Planning Board chair – Council discussion already demonstrates the complexity of the process and the need for firm direction from Council

[UPDATE:] According to Chapel Hill News reporter Jesse D. the Council finally agreed to Laurin’s request. Staff will research and report back on the options this Fall, approximately 18 months after her first request.

Quick note from this evening’s Council meeting. Council member Laurin Easthom renewed her reasonable request (reviewed here [THE LIBRARY AND THE FREE LUNCH]) for additional fiscal analysis of the recently approved Library expansion.

Her original April 2009 request to the staff and Town Manager for a range of specific funding scenarios to manage both the transitional and additional operational cost of the Library expansion has been rebuffed successfully over the last year.

Why the delay?

Possible political embarrassment to some of the Council folks who pressed for expansion in-spite of foreseeable negative consequences. A real analysis would reveal the weakness of the current estimates for these costs.

Tonight’s problem, though, is that Laurin is well within her rights as a sitting member of the Council to request staff input and that foot-dragging is not acceptable. Rather than strengthening her call for informed decision making, some of her colleagues have tacitly participated in this delay.

Tonight her re-request for this information spawned a half-hour of meandering Council commentary.

Instead of a clear directive to staff to produce the report, Mayor Kleinschmidt punted the issue to later this evening. Mark, rather than reaffirming his colleagues simple, reasonable request, dispatching it quickly, instead, muttering several times that “folks are waiting” and “we’ll discuss this after 12:30”, pushed it to the Council meeting dead zone.

Anyone that still buys the myth former Mayor Foy touted of a Council grounded in collegiality should take heed how the tactics of the imperial mayoral-ship he fostered impedes respectful dissent even within the Council itself and harms a transparent, reality-based approach to decision-making.

Search engine providers like Google are making cash by building detailed profiles of your web surfing habits.

There is a slew of technologies they use to track usage, following folks as the hop-skip-and-jump across the world wide web. In this “social networking” world it seems like many people wait until an inevitable crisis before taking even the most rudimentary precautions.

Even then it isn’t always obvious who is prying or how much snooping is going on.

I am not a member (and never plan to be) of many social networking sites, like FaceBook, because of the aggressively antagonistic approach they’ve taken towards maintaining a balance between exposing folks personal data and commercial gain. I vehemently disagree with FaceBook’s Zuckerberg that “the age of privacy is over” and that users should just suck it up and let him and his ilk commoditize our private lives for his personal gain (FaceBook certainly doesn’t offer a compelling enough value proposition for me to willingly trade away more of my privacy).

Even the simplest of activities, asking “questions” of the ‘net, can be used as fodder for the anti-privacy grist mill. For every move to secure folks basic right to that privacy, the industry counters – sometimes with the full complicity of the companies that develop surfing technology (think Micro$loth).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to maintaining individual rights online, has teamed with the Tor project (software to “defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security”), to roll out a new Mozilla Firefox browser extension that encrypts your communication to a variety of services.

click here to encrypt the web

Encrypting communication with Google isn’t the same as eliminating their ability to build a profile of you based on your questions. Instead, encryption will make sure that your ISP (in my case ATT) and any other internet service provider between you and the end-service provider can’t snoop on your traffic and build their own profile of your activities.

Other than Tor, which anonymizes interactions with web-based services, there are a wide variety of additional extensions to Firefox available to combat Google and other service providers snooping.

  • BetterPrivacy – removes “super-cookies” which allow sites to track your wandering across the ‘net
  • Redirect Cleaner – new websites can’t discover what site you linked in from
  • AdBlock Plus – the king of ad blocking extensions
  • NoScript – limits sites use of JavaScript and other technologies to work-around privacy protections.
  • Ghostery – actively blocks tracking by a wide range of advertising tracking companies
  • Tor Button – manages use of TOR network which confounds network-based tracking of ‘net usage

While I expect CitizenWill readers are the kind of folks who wouldn’t casually give away financial or personal information to a complete stranger on the street, it isn’t always obvious how what we do online leaves tracks in the wider world – technology can help protect your privacy, the best protection remains a healthy dose of common sense and “eternal vigilance”.

There are no consistent set of laws that dictate basic privacy protections online, especially when it comes to commercial harvesting of what many of us consider personal information. The minimal expectation is that the “contract” between you and the service provider is clearly posted, easily understood and has provisions for terminating access gracefully.

Read sites TOS (terms of service) and privacy policies – including how they manage and protect your personal information – before entering into that “contract”. Understand what 3rd parties have access to your details, how you can opt out or eliminate what you share online. Determine if the benefits of the service are commensurate with the value you receive (you best know the value of your life’s details).

Finally, even though the rules that govern commercial entities are far from complete and our ability to demand fair treatment quite limited, we can demand basic protections on websites our own government provides.

For instance, Chapel Hill’s (now defunct) Technology Advisory Board, strongly recommended 5 years ago that the Town’s own website had a clear and easily accessible terms of service/privacy policy. As of 2010, that more than reasonable request is not part of the Town’s commitment to serve the public’s interest.

Chapel Hill 2030?

A quick update on yesterday’s report (“Radical Shift In Vision For Downtown”) about the Downtown Development Framework and Action Plan charrette.

First, the Downtown Partnership has posted the DRAFT Downtown Development Framework Presentation here [PDF:14M]. The Town’s webserver had a little trouble downloading it so I’ve also put a copy here.

The presentation made by Kling-Stubbins fleshed out a bit more of the proposal and added additional context, so what you see here is not the whole story.

Second, a few observations.

I was pleased to see a wide range of comments I heard during last April’s forums make it into yesterday’s presentation.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see how many of the specific comments I made were reflected in the draft.

For instance, noting “Wallace deck provides no active street edge on East Rosemary” (and creating a commercial component along that edge and other potential decks should be a design recommendation) and that defining the “edges of Downtown” along with creating a better “transition to residential neighborhoods” should be an integral priority.

Beyond that, they also captured my concern that the Town isn’t addressing the issue of “downtown/higher density … creeping up MLK”.

I had echoed a common, but understandable, complaint from both the development and wider community that the Town’s “redevelopment review is too subjective” (you might recall my underlining Council member Ed Harrison’s comment that the development special use permitting process was a “crap shoot” during last year’s election).

Further, they specifically quoted my comment that Downtown should be partially “about culture, not just commerce” (though Kling-Stubbins omitted my elaboration that Downtown is a common asset of and for the whole community).

Of course many folks share common concerns, like bolstering a “more visible Police presence” Downtown and have made similar suggestions. A lot of this ground has been tread over before.

As far as commercial development, Kling-Stubbins didn’t mention my call for affordable commercial/office space but did mention my suggestion we should encourage creation of commercial “incubators”. They also referenced my concern that our current leadership has “a perception that nobody works downtown” (I did for over 8 years and well understand that blindspot that used to plague policy creation).

Unfortunately, staff and the consultancy omitted the Town’s municipal fiber network infrastructure as a key Downtown economic development resource.

“Why don’t residents frequent Franklin St.?” is one question I’ve heard over and over through this and many other Downtown policy discussions. Solving that riddle, not just relying on attempts to increase the number of high-roller residents, is the real key to Downtown’s success.

Downtown shouldn’t be all work and no play.

It was great that several folks brought up the use of UNC’s “McCorkle Place for concerts and public events”. Sadly, the University just indicated that using McCorkle for public gatherings, a common practice a few decades ago, is untenable. Big events there pose a serious environmental threat to the grand old trees spread throughout that University commons.

A plank of my election campaigns going back to 2005, addressing the need for “more family oriented public spaces”,”fountains [I meant drinking]” and “pocket parks” Downtown also made the grade.

The consultants also picked up on the idea of siting both a “library”, which the Chamber’s Aaron Nelson help flog last year and Commissioner Barry Jacobs promoted this, and a “middle school downtown” (I had observed that the old University Chrysler building was larger than my elementary school and suggested it might be converted).

It wouldn’t be Chapel Hill without some discussion of transit.

“Increasing night time bus service” and creating more direct routes to Downtown from Hwy. 54 and 15-501 , both comments I frequently heard (and made myself) at the two previous forums, led to some more involved discussion during the informal Q & A session following the presentation.

In terms of a comprehensive facility for managing multiple modes of transport, Kling-Stubbins used a design example for the proposed transit center (lining the new street occupying the eastern margin of Lot $5) that was architecturally like Durham’s new facility (which I covered last year Multi-Modal Design I Appreciate).

Again, the consultants manage to catch some of the best ideas from last April including riffing on improved transportation linkages and walkability throughout Downtown.

I really liked that Kling-Stubbins was willing to challenge the general view that Downtown only needs a series of tweaks by sketching out a new system of pedestrian and bike friendly roads – real linkages – in central Chapel Hill.

A revolutionary approach I hope will shake up some of our more uncompromising conceptions of Downtown.

That said, while “high concept” can be enlightening, there are a series of very practical, pragmatic and cost-effective tweaks that were missing from the proposal.

One example, dealing with the grease depository behind Franklin Street’s 100 block. Fixing cracked or handicap inaccessible sidewalks were among others not even acknowledged.

One practical solution that wasn’t omitted, improved signage. Specifically, creating directories of downtown services and posting them throughout the central district between Franklin St./Rosemary St. (in Planning parlance “way signage”). This is an idea I’ve lobbied for since my run in 2005 (and again as a member of the Downtown Parking Task Force).

A bit further afield, Council member Laurin Easthom’s call for another Downtown trolley along with a suggestion made by several folks to convert the intersection of Columbia/Franklin St. into a “scramble” zone (red lights both directions, free-for-all getting across).

Many of the concerns and suggestions I heard during the (now defunct) Sustainability Visioning Task Force’s forums last year also arose during both last April’s initial and yesterday’s Action Plan public outreach. There was also quite a bit of overlap with comments made during the University Square redevelopment forums, the Campus-to-Campus Bike Connector discussions, the recent Police outreach effort and quite a few other public events sponsored by the Town or University in the last few years.

Unfortunately it appears that the Town hasn’t provided Kling-Stubbins that citizen input and, at least at this time, there is no plan to integrate the concerns/suggestions voiced during these different events in crafting the new Downtown action plan.

Seems like another waste of citizens’ valuable efforts to influence our Town’s direction. A bit discouraging.

The core themes of the framework revolved around a compact, connected, green design for Downtown with key anchoring elements to draw folks in. Or, to quote

  • Keep downtown Compact and walkable but identify new development opportunities
  • Improve Connections…cars, buses, peds and bikes
  • Develop parking and visitor facilities to Anchor downtown and deliver customers
  • Create new Green public space and advance environmental and financially sustainable development practices

That high flying rhetoric looks good on a chart but the emphasis on “delivering customers” and the use of “green” is a bit troubling.

What happened to the idea that Downtown, which all of us are invested in, is a community asset – a commons for culture, commerce and community to meet in?

The faux “downtown” at Durham’s Southpoint might be designed to lure customers, Chapel Hill’s Downtown needs to be designed to lure community.

And “green”?

Without a sincere and concrete commitment to make measurable and enforceable “green” goals a part of the framework (something the Council wasn’t willing to do with their own Lot $5 project), this rhetoric amounts to little more than “green washing” – a PR tactic we’ve seen used to promote some fairly substandard projects throughout Town.

Of course, this is just the first draft of the first steps proposed.

Both the consultants and our Town staff – Economic Officer Dwight Bassett and Downtown Partnership’s Jim Norton – agree that much more resident review is needed to hammer out the final plan.

More analysis and commentary on the revolutionary new layout for Downtown, the troubling suggestion of financing improvements using TIFs (tax incremental funding), the reliance on the recent flawed parking study and interesting examples of the consultants misreading of Chapel Hill’s character coming soon.

Happy Birthday to WCHL’s Ron Stutts!

Ron, besides being the bedrock upon which WCHL’s success rests, is an all-around “nice guy” (hope that doesn’t mess with his street cred ;-)).

I met Ron a longtime ago but didn’t really get to know him until I became more active in the local community. Ron seems to know everyone, has an encyclopedic knowledge of our community, is a stalwart supporter of many worthy local causes, has a great mellow vibe and is just an interesting guy to shoot the breeze with.

One of Ron’s many jobs at WCHL is to corral community commentators for WCHL’s 90-second commentary spots.

While I had done a few sporadic commentaries on critical issues like the red-light camera project, saving Chapel Hill’s only hands-on arts program, the Town’s budget, Lot $$$5, etc. over the last decade, I hadn’t thought of myself as up to being a “regular” like Walt Mack, Terri Tyson, Augustus Cho, Wes Hare, Laura Paolicelli or Fred Black (who now appears to have a regular gig subbing for DG Martin on WCHL).

I ran into Ron at a community event shortly after last year’s election and he kindly encouraged me to comment on a more regular basis.I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for as I’m fairly sure each of my spots takes some skillful editing to squeeze them into their allotted time.

Ron always pulls off that feat with the best of humor and makes what sounds like an incoherent delivery into a fairly serviceable message.

Thanks Ron for giving me the opportunity to get the message out.

Ron is always looking for new commentators, here’s his contact info if you’re interested.

Here’s a few of my recent commentaries that Ron and fellow production wizards Anthony and Walter somehow whipped into shape (MP3’s):

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.

My folks used to take us to a pristine stretch of the Florida Panhandle west of Panama City. Back then you traveled through pine barrens on two lane blacktop and strips of red clay to get to some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Squeaky white quartz sand, partially comprised of the remnants of North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, still line those beaches.

Of course, the Panhandle has seen it’s share of development with condos and hotels also lining the Gulf from Pensacola to Panama City. Tourism has brought its own style of blight and traffic jams are commonplace when the snowbirds come down to roost. For all that, that magnificent part of the Gulf lures us down at least once a year.

I’ve been talking to my parents who live just east of Destin and it sounds like “all hands on deck” as the coastal communities brace for the slick.

For folks that haven’t visited the Gulf the whole mess might seem a bit abstract.

Luckily the site If It Was My Home has collected some resources to help visualize what the mess would look like in our own neck of the woods.

Centered on Chapel Hill, the current BP mess (their 3rd major disaster in less than 5 years) stretches from Roanoke Rapids nearly to Asheville.

Not so abstract when put in those terms is it?

Final bit of business from this evening’s Orange County Board of Commissioner’s meeting.

A couple weeks ago, members of the Council, Commissioners, our Town and County managers, met to discuss increasing the County’s financial contribution to Chapel Hill’s Library.

As of today, the County’s current yearly $250K contribution is out-of-line with out-of-town usage. In effect, Chapel Hill subsidizes, and has subsidized by as much as $6M over the last decade, County residents use of our facilities.

If Chapel Hill elects to expand the Library (which it seems at this point Council will do irrespective of fiscal prudence), that subsidy will swell.

Now, it isn’t the County’s fault that Chapel Hill’s Council wants to take on another $1.3M in yearly operational costs (and another $2.3M in yearly bond payments) during the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression but they did commit to answering Council’s pleas for more bucks.

Tonight the County Manager proposed [PDF] to raise the contribution to $500,000 or %50 of Hillsborough’s main library budget (which services Hillsborough and beyond). The increase to $500,000 would be graduated over time and level out.

This is below the initial $700K figure thrown out a few weeks ago and well below the $1.1 million ( of an eventual $2 million OC library services budget) Chapel Hill calculates as the County’s “fair share” of support necessary after the expansion.

FYI, Orange County’s current library services budget – which was reduced by $162,000 in all areas EXCEPT for Chapel Hill’s $250,000 stipend – is now down to $1.2 million.

In other words, while the County’s budget for services outside of Chapel Hill dropped %11.7, Chapel Hill’s, as a percentage of the available funds, increased from %18.1 to %20 – a rare increase in this year’s County budget [PDF].

Below are my notes from this evening’s discussion (video here eventually):

Note: Southwest branch refers to a proposed new facility serving Carrboro and points west. Barry Jacobs suggested opening branch at the County’s Skill Development Center on West Franklin St.

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