Hazardous Consequences: Mystery of the Vault Contest

Thursday, April 5th, 2007


Everyone gets two (2) guesses – their “real” guess and an outlandish assessment (please, keep it clean. Yes, skeletons are welcomed).


Over on SqueezeThePulp former (and soon to be?) Carrboro Board of Alderman candidate, Orange County Democrat Women President, local businessperson and activist Katrina Ryan has offered a delicious La Rez meal for the grand prize winner and guest.

Thanks Katrina for stirring the pot!


(click to expand)

I’ve covered the devolving fortunes of our Town’s Downtown Development Initiative (DDI) since last Fall.

Throughout, I’ve referred to the Lot #5 development as an expensive boondoggle, a miserable mistake, poor public policy, a looming Behometh, a monument to the triumph of political ego over the public good.

I’ve also called it a potentially vast money pit.

Our elected folks might argue with most of my characterizations but not, it appears, my claim that Lot #5 is a money pit.

According to the recent environmental assay, Lot #5 contains

An unknown feature located at position A was identified as a potential metal vault approximately 8ft by 10 in area.

Former Councilmember, NC legislative bill drafter and longtime Chapel Hill observer Gerry Cohen speculates on the vaults contents:

I’m going to assume that Ross Norwood abandoned the vault when his lease was terminated around 1970 and he was kicked off the site. I will offer advance speculation that it is filled with cash. I’m being serious about this. I think I posted earlier about the swindle with his dollar bill machines, and there was a post in another thread on OP from a former employee at Ross Norwood Esso about “questionable ethics”.

Like Geraldo Rivera’s Al Capone’s mystery vault stunt, the over-hyped Lot #5 project is already fated to disappoint.

Whether the vault exists, has cash in it or not, I thought the mystery was worth some speculative fun and a community reward.

To that end, I’m sponsoring a contest to reward two local community organizations with cash donations.

Post a comment on this thread detailing your ideas about:

  • the most outlandish, Chapel Hill related, treasure this vault might contain (Dean Smith’s bronzed baby shoes?) and
  • the most accurate description you can summon on the vaults contents (a $100,000 in singles as per Gerry) or what “the vault” might actually be (Jerry Garcia’s missing VW Bus?)


  • Please keep entries clean and “family friendly”.
  • Winners will be selected based on accuracy and creativity.
  • I will contribute $150 to each winning person’s local charity/organization of choice.
  • Though the awards will stay within our local community, local residency is not required.
  • Sorry, no one working for the construction or excavation firms can participate.
  • Contest closes one hour before the vault is revealed.
  • Finally, while I’ll be the sole judge on both criteria, please feel free to influence the outcome by voting for what you think is the most outlandish, creative idea.

So, some good – and a bit of socially redeeming revenue – will come from building on Lot #5.

I invite other organizations more PR savvy (Liz, maybe the Downtown Partnership?) to build an “event” around this vaults unveiling – it might be the most “rewarding” aspect of this project for years to come.

Hazardous Consequences: A Report, a Rushed Decision, a Regrettable Day for Chapel Hill

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

The Chapel Hill News’ ‘blog OrangeChat first alerted me to the Town’s completion of the Lot #5 negotiations with RAM Development (more to come in the N&O).

The Town’s April 3rd news release celebrates what I believe will eventually be seen to be a rushed decision foisting a counter-productive, fiscally irresponsible obligation to construct expensive rental properties for out-of-town landlords on our citizen’s dime:

04/03/07 — The $75 million residential and retail complex to be constructed on Town-owned Parking Lot 5 in downtown Chapel Hill moves a step closer to reality. Town Manager Roger L. Stancil today concluded final negotiations and executed the development agreement with Ram Development Co.

April 3rd, 2007, a regrettable day in our Town’s history.

Why? According to our Town’s legal counsel, the only way now to back out of this troubled deal is to default. Default means difficult to defend lawsuits against our Town. Default means probable expensive judgments against our community. Default, after today, puts all our residents firmly on the hook for millions of dollars of expenditures.

The Council last month authorized the Manager to finalize negotiations and execute the agreement. The project will now follow the Town’s normal regulatory process for a Special Use Permit, including review by the Town’s advisory boards and commissions and a public hearing before the Council.

While they did authorize the Town Manager to proceed with negotiations, the Council also directed Roger Stancil to achieve certain goals – like a firm commitment to improve energy efficiency as per ASHRAE 90.1 20% efficiency standards and an increase on-site affordable housing parking.

Without the final modified agreement (not available this evening), it is not clear our Town Manager achieved these goals. Further, for the partial success reported – 5 additional on-site parking – the trade-offs required by RAM to get those spaces remains unknown.

Final negotiations centered on energy efficiency construction. Recognizing the importance of reducing the energy demand of buildings and dependence on energy from fossil fuels, the Council directed that the agreement require the design and construction of the project to meet a minimum 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency (as measured against standards established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers – ASHRAE).

Again, the language of the announcement leaves it somewhat unclear, at least to me, if the commitment to the ASHRAE 90.1 %20 energy efficiency standard is measurably firm.

[UPDATE] From today’s N&O

As part of the final contract, Ram agreed to achieve an energy efficiency level 20 percent better than standards established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

It appears the LEEDs trade-off discussed here was the key to ASHRAE acceptance. Of course, without the final contract before us it’s difficult to ascertain how compliance with ASHRAE or LEEDs will be measured.

The project will incorporate sustainable, “green” features that will result in at least 26 points under Leadership in Environment and Energy Design (LEED) standards, the equivalent minimum number of points for basic certification under the LEED system. The Council has established a Town-wide goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by 2050 through the Carbon Reduction Program.

Councilmember Sally Greene suggested trading the potentially expensive formal LEEDs review for simple compliance with the LEEDs basic certification goals. Councilmember Jim Ward countered that RAM Development’s assertion of compliance was insufficient – that the review process was a necessary element to achieving those goals. I lean more towards Sally on this with the proviso that a specific, standards-based methodology for measuring compliance outside of the LEEDs process be agreed upon prior to a final commitment (would’ve been nice to also pursue some of the AIA’s 2030 sustainability goals). Again, sans the modified agreement, it’s unclear whether any process for measuring LEEDs compliance is in place.

To the Town’s credit, the environmental reports I asked for in my Mar. 27 petition were provided as part of the announcement.

The completed environmental assessment report will be on the Town’s website.  The assessment detected no underground gasoline tanks, only limited sections of petroleum-impacted soil that will require remediation.

Timed too late for our talented citizens with expertise in geology and environmental remediation to influence Stancil’s decision, this coincident release demonstrates, once again, the ascendancy of clever political gamesmanship over good public policy.

This bit of Town PR vastly downplays the caveats and disclaimers the authors used:

The report’s findings are based on conditions that existed on the dates of ECS’s site visits and should not be relied upon to precisely represent conditions at any other time. ECS did not assess areas other than those discussed in the report.

The conclusions included in this report are based on: ECS’s observation of existing site conditions; our interpretation of site history and site usage information; and the results of a limited program of subsurface assessment, sample screening, and chemical testing. The concentration of contaminants ECS measured may not be representative of conditions between locations sampled. Be aware that conditions may change at any sampled or unsampled location as a function of time in response to natural conditions, chemical reactions, and/or other events.

Conclusions about site conditions under no circumstances comprise a warranty that conditions in all areas within the site and beneath structures are of the same quality as those sampled. Recognize, too, that contamination might exist in forms not indicated by the assessment ECS conducted.

April 2nd’s letter from ECS Carolinas, LLP concerning the “Phase II ESA and Limited Soil Delineation Report”, p. 2

Based on approximate measurements of the property boundary and sample locations, ECS estimates that approximately 8,600 cubic yards (~13,000 tons assuming 1.5 tons per cubic yard) of petroleum-impacted soil may be present at the site. This is a preliminary estimate only; the actual quantity of potentially impacted soils may vary based on conditions observed during soil excavation. [CW: EMPHASIS by ECS]

April 2nd’s letter from ECS Carolinas, LLP concerning the “Phase II ESA and Limited Soil Delineation Report”, p. 6

The concerns of the report’s authors are clear. What is left unsupported is the Town’s cost estimate.

The estimated cost of the clean-up will be $232,000. The Town will assume the costs for remediation, and the developer will fund the excavation.

So, RAM Development will pick up the tab for excavating 13,000 tons/8600 cubic yards of hazardous material and the Town will pay, I assume, to haul it safely off-site and dispose of it in an acceptable manner. Given the author’s caveats and the lack of discussion of hazardous material intrusions into the underlying bedrock, I’d like to see the analysis behind the $232,000 cost estimate.

Is it as solid as RAM Development’s Spring 2006 claim of a total $500,000 in public outlays? I hope not since a 15-fold increase in the environmental costs, similar to the 10 month increase from $500,000 to $7,425,000 for those 161 buried parking spaces, would be in the neighborhood of $3.5 million!

One notable improvement in our Town’s communications is a savvy ability to propagandize, making a gold-filled silk purse out of the hazardous waste sows ear by now trumpeting development on “brownfields”.

“Developing a project in downtown reflects Chapel Hill’s commitment to build on brownfields rather than greenfields in order to preserve our environment,” said Manager Roger L. Stancil. “Brownfields are properties where redevelopment or reuse can be complicated by the presence or potential presence of pollutants or contaminants from past use. Developing on greenfields is to build on undeveloped properties on the urban fringe, often farmland. Chapel Hill intends to keep the greenfields green.”

A month ago we weren’t supposed to worry about hazardous waste on Lot #5. Today it’s an asset.

There’s a lot of fertile “brown” in the “fields” lay bare by this announcement. Once again, the liabilities are down-played, the potential fiscal “surprises” ignored, the value of the project over-stated while the obligations continue to be heaped upon our citizens.

April 3rd, 2007, a regrettable day in Chapel Hill’s history.

Hazardous Consequences: No Official Word, Yet, On Lot #5’s Hazardous Waste Issue

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

[UPDATE] As of April 3rd, the Town has provided part of what I asked for in the following petition, the environmental report [PDF]. In the Town’s announcement of a conclusion to negotiations, the figure of $232,000 for a remediation was thrown out. This figure, of which I haven’t found a full justification, would supposedly include removal of 13,000 tons of material to either a hazardous waste landfill or some other remediation facility.

More to come.


A quick follow up on my previous post Lot #5 Development: “…up through the ground come a bubbling crude…”.

I’ve sent Chapel Hill’s Town Council a petition (Mar. 29th) asking for a postponement of any further approvals for Special Use Permits, extending or adding new consultancies, preparing the lot for construction, etc. until the financial liabilities attendant to environmental remediation are fully and timely disclosed.

Further, to avoid the recent mess involving the Rogers Road community, siting a trash transfer station on Eubanks and the Orange County Board of Commissioner’s apparent lack of any discernible specific, detailed and publicly revealed process for making their analysis and decision, that the methodology, data and assumptions are published by Council fully seven (7) business days prior to any approval.

A call from the Daily Tar Heel spurred me to take this action. I was hoping the environmental report, which, from my experience, should’ve taken a short time to prepare, would be published for public review by now. According to the DTH’s reporter, it hasn’t.

My concern is that the “clock” would be “run out” on the hazardous waste remediation issue – that Council would move ahead amassing further public (taxpayer) obligations without adequate background.

To help encourage a full, timely, open and responsible discussion of the hazardous waste issue, I’ve submitted the following petition:

Mayor and Town Council,

I’m petitioning Council to postpone ANY further approvals for the Lot #5 Downtown Development Initiative:

1) until the environmental assay of Lot #5 is 100% completed. This would include any recommended
follow up tests, such as monitoring wells, further core sampling, ground-radar location of
tanks or other structures, etc.

2) until the results of the environmental assay have been independently reviewed.

3) until the results, the independent review, the methodology, data, assumptions, geologic maps
and any other factors used to derive the results have been published 7 days prior to the
approval meeting.

4) until an initial estimate and plan for the environmental remediation, if necessary, has been

5) until the estimate, the methodology, data and assumptions going into that cost estimate have
been published 7 business days prior to the approval meeting.

6) until a financial impact statement, including additional costs, borrowings and wider effects
on the Town’s financial well-being has been developed.

7) until the estimated financial impact and methodology, data and assumptions going into that
evaluation have been published 7 business days prior to the approval meeting.

It also appears that the underlying geology of Lot #5 might be rockier than expected. If this is so,
Council should also postpone further approvals pending an evaluation of increased costs to the
developer and taxpayers of Chapel Hill.

Considering that an expensive environmental remediation might significantly and adversely impact our
Town’s finances, and, in combination with Lot #5’s current taxpayer obligations, possibly necessitate
either a substantial tax increase or reduction in services or both, the fiscally prudent course of
action is to wait until the facts are reported and the conclusions reviewed by the wider public.

Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of giving the public at least 7 business days of
notice. Our citizens are already concerned about the trajectory this project has so far taken.
Some of the greatest concern has come from financial, urban planning, environmental, energy and
commercial real-estate experts.

Let’s give our talented citizenry the opportunity for a careful, measured evaluation of the
Town’s reports and extend the courtesy of providing a reasonable amount of time to draft a

Rushing the project forward without disclosing further anticipated financial obligations does
our citizenry a disservice.

Thank you,

Will Raymond

I’ll post the response as it comes in.

Lot #5 Development: “…up through the ground come a bubbling crude…”

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Well, not quite “black gold” or “Texas tea” but it appears that more “refined trouble” is brewing under Lot #5 (MAP).

Chapel Hill’s taxpayers will have to wait for next week’s official lab confirmation but, as of today (Mar. 20th, 2007), initial field tests of some of the nearly 30 core samples show “interesting” signs of contamination.

Hazardous waste remediation involving the fractured geology below the lot could prove to be quite expensive – launching the total taxpayer commitment to just south of the $12.5 million of equity that RAM Development, the Town’s private partner, is contractually obliged to contribute.

Of course, RAM will easily recover their equity and make millions on the deal. The fine folks of Chapel Hill will get an expensive hole in the ground.

Folks started calling on the Council to pull their heads out of the sand and do this environmental assay over a year ago, well before entering final negotiations with RAM Development. Council members Jim Ward and Laurin Easthom, before voting against the Lot #5 proposal, strongly argued that the “known unknown” of contamination deserved evaluation before signing the deal.

Unfortunately, caution, that night, was overridden by the zeal for the deal.

Another expensive “known unknown” lurking in the wings has been the cost of digging two stories below Lot #5’s current grade. I work across Church St. and recall the difficulty the developers of my building had with “the ROCK”. “The ROCK” underneath Chapel Hill’s Downtown has been the bane of many a stalwart developer. UNC has spent millions over the last few years tussling with “the ROCK”.

An incidental consequence of the technician’s drilling cores during this current environmental assay is a better understanding of the parking lot’s underlying geology. The optimism the Town showed – expecting to escape the vicissitudes of other Downtown developers – needs to be tempered by the measured reality of the last few days. It appears, again pending a final report, that “the ROCK” on the Franklin St. side of the lot is roughly 10′ below current grade tapering to 20′ on the Rosemary side.

If you live near Downtown, I suggest an early run to the store for ear plugs before blasting begins 😉

Lot #5 Development: Two Pictures 1,000 Words Apart

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Looks like this will be the last Spring I watch these trees bloom…

and the last year I’ll see Chapel Hill’s Downtown signature church steeple from the second floor roost of where I work.

Cline Associates Concept Plan Drawing for Lot #5

Corner of Church St. and Frankin St., Chapel Hill, NC – Mar. 18th, 2007 [MAP]

Not quite “Where’s Waldo?” but, to twist a phrase from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like “reality”.

I remember when many of these trees were planted, have watched them develop over the years. I wonder how long I’ll remember their flowering? The memory of those wonderful gateway trees to University Square and along Franklin, since replaced by the green poles of the Church St. signal lights, are still firmly rooted in my mind, maybe these too will persist.

Lot #5 Downtown Development: Do you smell gas?

Friday, March 16th, 2007

As we know, There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns.
That is to say we know there are some things We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

— Donanld Rumsfeld, Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Well we know that Rumsfeld was is a jackass.

What the majority of our Town Council didn’t want to know when they rushed forward on the Lot #5 juggernaut, was the extent of the hazardous waste remediation required to make the site suitable.

Oh, they knew that there had been at least one former gas station on-site.

And they knew that during a previous assay an environmental tech had taken an unauthorized sniff of the dirt that revealed gas fumes.

But rather than taking the prudent step of testing before committing to the Lot #5 boondoggle – making this all to known unknown known – to use a Rumsfeldian turn of phrase, the majority stuck their heads firmly in the sand and instructed the Town Manager to move ahead.

Kind of like Bush and Rumsfeld in Iraq. Jump first, measure the consequences later. And we know how effective that has been.

What’s the big deal?

Beside making a decision that has already undercut our Town’s moral authority to set the highest caliber of environmental standards it has exposed our taxpayers to a potentially stiff financial penalty.

The “rah rah” growth folks on Council like to say this ridiculously bad Lot #5 deal with RAM Development won’t cost the taxpayers one pretty cent – except for the hundreds of thousands for required consultants, disrupted city services, staff time, etc. – until the Town’s 161 parking spaces are complete.

The problem? Our taxpayers are on the hook for any hazardous waste remediation – remediation that will have to paid for now. The cost, considering the geology, could run into the multi-millions of dollars.

That’s millions of dollars out out of our taxpayers pockets, this year, for one huge mistake. Millions that won’t go to increasing our Town’s commitment to abating chronic homelessness or increasing social services. Millions that might mean the difference between having an aquatics center or losing our quality bond rating.

On a slightly positive note, it looks like some of our Council took my and others concerns to heart.

Most likely too late to squeeze of the deal without some kind of fiscal damage, Town is going ahead with the environmental assay they should’ve done first.

Good news? We’ll find out the broad outlines the environmental damage.

Bad news? We’ll have to start paying millions of dollars this year to cleanup the mess.

Worse news? If this initial assay isn’t done properly or is oriented to quell criticism rather than measure the extent of the true problem – well, the taxpayers of Chapel Hill better be prepared for the “death of a thousand cuts”. Not an unlikely scenario given RAM Development’s halving the scale of the project – keeping the cost roughly the same – and extracting a 15-fold greater financial commitment, $7.5 million so far, from the Town.

This cleanup, if it follows the trajectory of similar projects I’ve been part of, will probably cost quite a bit more than originally anticipated. It will be the gift that keeps on taking.

Hang on to your wallets folks, we’re in for a messy ride.

Parking Lot 5 to Close for Test Borings

The Town of Chapel Hill has hired a contractor to conduct environmental assessments of a site that is selected for a proposed $75 million three-section building complex combining condominiums, retail, and parking on Town-owned Parking Lot 5 in downtown Chapel Hill.

The environmental assessments, to be conducted by Environmental Consulting Services, Ltd. (ECS) will require closing the parking lot located between Franklin and Rosemary Streets at the intersection of Church Street.

Municipal Parking Lot 5 will be closed from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 17, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, March 18, and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 20. All vehicles must be removed. Accommodations will be made for individuals with leased parking spaces. Call the Town’s Parking Services Coordinator at 968-2835 for more information. Motorists may find available parking at the Rosemary Street Parking Deck, 150 E. Rosemary St., Municipal Lot 2 at 100 E. Rosemary St., or Municipal Lot 3 at 415 W. Franklin St.

The environmental assessment will include a geophysical study to determine if underground tanks are present, as well as up to 30 test borings of the soil. While the Town has conducted previous environmental studies, this week’s assessment will provide a more detailed examination of the soil conditions of the site. Engineers will evaluate and describe site hydrogeological conditions; determine the location, type and concentrations of contaminants; and determine the requirements for remedial action based on the applicable regulatory environmental guidelines.

Negotiations with Ram Development Co. are under way since the Council authorized Manager Roger L. Stancil on Feb. 12 to execute the development agreement. Issues for negotiation have included energy efficiency construction, parking for affordable housing, and environmental considerations. Reflecting its commitment to environmental stewardship, the Town has pursued additional information on the site’s environmental conditions as negotiations continue.

The Town has completed an earlier environmental assessment of the Parking Lot 5 site. Following this phase one study conducted by ECS on Aug. 18, 2004, engineers recommended a ground penetrating radar survey be performed to determine if underground storage tanks are located on the site. Next week’s survey will determine if such tanks are located on the site. ECS also performed work on Oct. 27, 2004, and April 13, 2005, for additional explorations to evaluate the depth to rock in Lot 5 as part of the design analysis for underground parking.

Citizens may review information on the Town website about the Downtown Economic Development Project at http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/projects/dedi/

I’ll be looking forward to the timely release of these reports and plan to review them in detail.

I also will be calling on Council, as I have before, to stop any further movement on this project pending the results of these tests. To give our residents a chance to catchup and reflect on the consequences of “digging a deeper hole”.

Surely they deserve to know how much the hazardous waste remediation is going to cost before having their Council further the process.

My guess, based on the rushed, imprudent and unfortunate decisions the majority of Council have already made on this project, they won’t stop the juggernaut.

Downtown Development: Feb. 12th Council Debate

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

[UPDATE:] The video below streams from my site – here’s the Google Video that streams faster.

Here’s the complete “debate” Council held on the Lot #5. Note how quickly the expedited SUP application was approved.

Downtown Development: The LEEDs Trade-Off, AIA 2030 Up Next

Wednesday, February 14th, 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.

Downtown Development: Feb. 12th Citizen Comment

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

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.

Godzilla vs. Bambi::RAM Development and Chapel Hill

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N&O Feb. 9th, 2007

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

What happened to Phase II?

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

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

Downtown Development Intiative: Thank you Sir, May I Have Another?

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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.

Downtown Development Intiative: Easthom, Ward on Hazardous Waste Liability

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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”.

The Sad Story of Council’s Downtown Development Initiative

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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 Lot 5 Memorandum and Notes: Update I

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Confidential documentation of Downtown Development Initiative.

Downtown Development Initiative: Listen and Learn How Negotiations Went Awry

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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.



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