The Estes Dr./MLK, Jr. Intersection: Crossroads to Chapel Hill’s Future

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

June 23, 2012

Dear Mayor and Town Council,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for considering these changes.

Sincerely,

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

Density, 2008

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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



Comprehensive Plan Refresh, A New Toolbox

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Probably the best Council comment during Monday’s Comprehensive Plan discussion came from Ed Harrison.

Ed, who often relates how his neighborhood straddles the Orange/Durham county border, explained how Durham has newly integrated a set of tools in its comprehensive plan to guide both developers and staff.

The effort was spurred, Ed said, primarily by the planning staff, who wanted a better “planning toolbox” to manage the sprawling growth we often associate with Durham. That refresh complements the joint Durham County/City UDO (unified development ordinance) and extends beyond simply affirming base principles by integrating specific small area, transit and economic development initiatives and plans.

During next week’s Council Planning Retreat, Ed’s colleagues should take a few moments ahead of time to review Durham’s work with an eye towards integrating “lessons well-learned” from our neighbor’s work into our own new effort.

Comprehensive Plan Refresh, Long Overdue

Monday, January 24th, 2011

The former and current Planning Board chairs made a concerted call for a long overdue refresh of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.

This refresh and elaboration on the existing plan is long overdue. I started calling for a re-evaluation 6 years ago when the original plan had an already scheduled a review of the underlying assumptions and requirements.

Tonight former Sustainability Task Force members Del Snow, Madeline Jefferson and myself suggested a few ways to achieve a usable product in the not too distant future.

Below, my comments:

I welcome the Council’s interest in refreshing the Comprehensive Plan – it’s been a long time coming.

By 2004 it was obvious that the generic quality of many of the plan’s aspects were not achieving the goals originally expressed by the community. Anyone who has reviewed development applications over the last decade will note how the same language in the plan is copy-n-pasted into those applications to justify wildly divergent developments.

In January, 2005 there was an effort to get the Council to refresh the comprehensive plan in light of the many changes going on in Town – including a move from the previously favored MVU type developments like Meadowmont and Southern Village to the more high density, multi-modal projects like East54. Council initially expressed support for the effort and by October, 2006 the Planning Board had made a series of recommendations which, unfortunately, ended up being rejected.

Over the years since there have been several attempts to resuscitate that effort and – more importantly – fill in the gaps between the goals of a plan that, by necessity, remain broad and the need for more measurable requirements.

Most recently, March 2010, part of the Sustainability Task Force called for an effort to not only review some of the tenets in the plan (Sustainability Task Force: The Whole or The Sum of the Parts?) but to look at introducing a further level of refinement – including objectively measurable goals and a core recognition that there are constraints to growth.

Now, nearly a year later, it appears the Council is ready to move forward.

I’m a bit concerned that Council will rely on internal staff and consultancies to drive the process. Whatever you decide the community must play the dominant role in moving forward.

The current plan is quite broad, has a lot of moving parts, took years to formulate. I strongly suggest that while we remain aware of the inter-play between various components that the refresh is broken into distinct parts.

Council needs to prioritize and set clear expectations while also dividing the work into pieces that can be dealt with in a timely way – in a way that will have direct impact sooner than later.

Having said that, I also remind you of what Amy, Del, Madeline and I said last March: look at the big picture, provide specificity, acknowledge constraints and plan from the beginning for iterative community input.

Finally, we can no longer pretend what happens in one part of the community doesn’t affect another part.

Development impacts do spread beyond the property line.

We, the citizens of Chapel Hill are all in this together – so as we develop small area plans for Ephesus Church Rd. or development agreements for Glen Lennox or revisions in zoning for Obey’s Creek, these efforts must mesh with the new set of planning tools and approaches called for by the Planning Board and former members of the SCVTF.

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