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.



Phase I 2011 Affordable Housing Community Outreach Wraps Up

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Today is the final meeting in a several week series of outreach sessions seeking community input to help formulate a new Affordable Housing Strategy for Chapel Hill. Staff sought advice from a broad range of local residents – from current affordable housing residents to professionals managing a wide variety of community programs.

Council, after a bit of prodding and plans spinning awry, wisely recognized there are some structural problems with our current affordable housing approach. Beyond acknowledging the need to rebalance our selection of affordable housing options, Council, on the heels of Greenbridge’s financial difficulties, has finally started to understand some of the inherent risks with their current policy (issues they were made aware of prior to their approval of Greenbridge, East54 and West140 luxury condo projects).

BACKGROUND The Town Council has directed staff to develop an Affordable Housing Strategy. In order to develop a strategy that is inclusive and reflective of the community’s concerns, staff has been conducting focus group sessions with affordable housing stakeholders as well as groups who may not be traditionally associated with the topic.

PURPOSE The purpose of this meeting is to obtain feedback from the community about affordable housing in Chapel Hill. This focus group session is being held for anyone in the community who would like to offer their input about the topic of affordable housing. For more information about this effort, please visit to the following website: http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=1657

I’ll be attending today’s meeting in order to get a sense of what lessons the Affordable Housing Technical Advisory committee has learned from our community over the last month.

Water, Water, Everywhere…

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

After a very long day and a very long evening. I finally got a chance to ask Council to take a more measured approach to approving OWASA’s proposed modifications to the agreement controlling access Lake Jordan’s water.

The proposal might have appeared technical in nature but, at the heart of it, had policy ramifications impacting our community’s environmental commitments, fiscal health and pledges of sustainability.

Unfortunately Council, by a 7 to 2 vote, passed the resolution tonight without reviewing those wider issues and doing due diligence.

What might the future hold then?

1) Non-emergency use of the 5 million gallons per day (5MGd) to meet unsustainable growth patterns.

Current utilization is 6 to 7 MGd per day. No justification was made for doubling our water usage profile by tapping Lake Jordan for new non-emergency uses. Sadly, Council decided not to limit water allocations to clear emergency conditions.

UNC has already stated several times that it is keenly interested in securing this supply. If the new supply is only to function as an “insurance policy”, why that sharp interest?

2) As OWASA Chair Merklein put it so well this evening – there is only room for one more straw into Lake Jordan.

Any of the 5MG/d we draw down from Lake Jordan will have to come through either Cary’s or Durham’s infrastructure. OWASA clearly suggested that Chapel Hill will eventually rely on Durham’s “straw”.

Given that, I don’t think there’s any scenario involving long term draw downs through Durham which don’t incorporate significant additional costs to the OWASA customer base.

Why? As Durham has already signaled, as recently as 2008, it wants its Lake Jordan intake partners to participate in the financing and build-out of that new “straw”. If OWASA doesn’t directly underwrite its part of the project, it is hard to imagine that Durham and its other partners won’t charge a higher fee for water in order to recover their expenses. Either case, the fiscal impact was totally ignored this evening.

3) When OWASA’s 2010 Long Range Water Plan was presented to the Sustainability Task Force last year, we were told that supplies were sufficient for the next 50 years. The only “tight spot” were the years just prior to 2035 when the Rock Quarry reservoir comes online.

That point was reiterated this evening by Gene Pease, who spoke of a meeting he had just last week where he was told the same thing. The maximum anticipated shortfall is well less than 15%, very much less than the 5MG/d Council just approved, so why the hurry to move ahead?

OWASA stated approval was needed this year to secure the allocation, and I accept that, but that doesn’t excuse Council from putting some constraints on non-emergency allocations.

4) Water is required for growth. That point was well-understood when our joint community’s financed OWASA’s acquisition of a watershed that was supposed to meet our very long term needs. This community has fought hard – continues to fight hard – to maintain the best environmental standards within that watershed.

Council repudiated that tough fight this evening when they essentially agreed that OWASA could “borrow” as much as 5MG/d from Lake Jordan (an impaired water source).

Worse, we don’t know what constrains OWASA from tapping Lake Jordan for “non-emergency” reasons. If Council or Carrboro approves one too many East54 type developments – is that considered grounds for purchasing resources to fuel inappropriate growth?

5) Finally, as Council member Jim Ward pointed out this evening, just knowing we can tap another 5MG/d makes it tough to sell even more stringent water conservation policies. An important negative feedback loop has been removed.

Tonight’s misstep, of course, is part of a wider problem which our community and, especially, its current leadership has yet to successfully grapple with – are there constraints to growth?

Are we willing to purchase resources on the open-market to fuel an unsustainable level of growth? What, exactly, are we willing to trade away in building our future?

Unfortunately, the answers this evening were loss of local control of our water, loss of community reliance on local resources, loss of a commitment to live within our own footprint.

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.

Multi-modal Design I Appreciate

Thursday, February 19th, 2009


Today’s Chapel Hill News carries an interesting story from Jesse DeConto on concerns circulating around the misfire (not to sugarcoat it) known as East54. The story, which was as much about how the “dense/tall growth at any cost” Council majority’s vision is running up against reality, as it was the anonymous “I could be in Atlanta or Charlotte” East54.

OK, even though I wasn’t thrilled with East/West Partner’s “virtualization” of Chapel Hill, I did credit them for committing to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) standards (though Council wasn’t clear on what to do if the project didn’t meet those goals).

But does that justify such a pedestrian (to be nice) heap?

I expressed my concerns about the trade-offs – minimal setbacks, in-lieu monies instead of affordable square footage, height on Highway 54, traffic patterns, etc. – but was in the minority as the project sailed through an orchestrated “public review” (count me in as one of East/West developer Roger Perry’s “vocal minority” that unfortunately points out that the current sustainability political palaver is parading sans clothes).

Though the story tried to be balanced, it appears, as reported here to have raised the hackles of a few folks.

I understand the realities of today’s news media but I really wish the CHN had spent a bit more time using the “wayback machine” to contrast today’s political posturing from the more “veteran” of the Council folks (including those up for re-election) with what they stood for when they were more than happy to push East54 (and Woodmont) right on through based on a strange read of sustainability.

More on that later.

Bill Strom, following his usual strategy of playing to his “expertise” in transportation, said

“It’s a change in the development pattern, but the guiding principle there is that it is at a regional rail stop,” said Strom. “In order to get federal and state support for these projects, you have to have density organized in a way that promotes ridership.”

Yes, approval of that pile of nondescript architecture, looming over the Glen Lennox neighborhoods and serving as the “de facto” gateway to Chapel Hill, was justified by a rail stop coming sometime mid-century.

This is what passes nowadays for cogent analysis.

In any case, I’d rather leap off the train ala “Slumdog Millionaire” than alight on East54’s commercial doorstep.

Is there an alternative I believe is better?

Sure. Look east to Durham’s new multi-modal public transit station which will serve the Bull’s ballpark, the “white elephant” (Durham’s County jail), Downtown Durham and the American Tobacco complex. Downtown shopping, the Durham Performance Center and Theater, the Durham public library and Arts Guild is not that far away.

The glass heavy design (not sure the role environmental concerns played there) would not be fitting for Chapel Hill but every time I drive by the construction site (finishing this month) it seems like the unfolding design complements Durham’s retrofitted Downtown. Of course, like other Durham projects, the budget was blown – not unlike Chapel Hill’s Town Operations Center.

Central. Convenient. Complementary to its urban environment.

More on Durham’s multi-modal transit station backstory from the Urban Planet forums.

East 54’s Virtual Chapel Hill

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Do you recognize the following scene?

This is East West Partner’s revisionist view of Chapel Hill as improved upon by their East 54 project. They have provided a cool animation of the eventual East 54 living experience.

One small problem.

Their Chapel Hill doesn’t match reality.

What is it about big time developers and their desire to re-conceptualize reality?

From what I hear, East West Partners are working hard on their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) certifications. East54 could be the first North Carolina development to leap LEED-ND’s hurdles. An accomplishment well worth noting if they run the whole race.

Isn’t that worth overlooking a little virtual retouching of Chapel Hill?

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