High Speed Internet: We’re on Our Own…

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Google has chosen Kansas City, Kansas as their partner in deploying 1 gigabyte/second network services to the community. Chapel Hill applied with some gusto several years ago for the “honor”. At the time I argued that while it would be nice to have the financial backing of Google, Google’s reticence in discussing privacy, security and local control made a possible deal problematic.

The Town continues to limp along with its joint fiber optic deployment project with NC-DOT. What is missing, still, is any real effort by the Council to form a community-based advisory group for leveraging that public investment in high speed networking to attract economic development or increase access throughout our Town’s neighborhoods.

Maybe with Google off-the-table we will finally put the attention into the fiber project I called for over 9 years ago when I started pushing for municipal broadband.

Downtown Development Framework: Compact, Connected, Anchored and Green

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

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.

Radical Shift in Vision For Downtown

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

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.

Brother, can you spare a quarter percent?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

The Orange County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) opened up discussion this evening of putting a %0.25 increase in local sales tax before voters in November (Levy of a One-Quarter Cent (1/4¢) County Sales and Use Tax [PDF]).

The tax, if approved, will bump our local sales tax to %8 with all the additional proceeds going directly to the county (it seems like it was mentioned several hundred times that the municipalities would get NADA from the increase). Best estimates, and only if a pending state bill is passed, has the county reaping in $500K in 2011 rising to $2.4M in 2012.

I spoke before the BOCC on the issue – raising a few concerns, suggesting a possible course of action.

I acknowledged the Commishes quandary in filling the current $9.4M hole in the County’s budget and the near certainty of dealing with an even deeper one in 2011. I recognized the appeal in making a seemingly small increase in a tax that is spread across a wider arc than property taxpayers. I understood it probably seemed an easier sell especially given the recent turmoil over our hefty property revaluations and the failed attempt to create a land transfer tax.

I also pointed out even though it doesn’t apply to food or medicines that the increase represented an additional burden on those folks living here who can least afford it (the characterization in the press that “what the heck, it’s only a few more bucks week!” really bothers me).

By its nature, it is a regressive tax.

Given that increased burden, I asked the BOCC to commit in as legally a binding way as possible, to dedicating the new revenue to funding the rapidly growing demand on social services. That revenue should bolster the existing commitment and go well beyond this year’s baseline (not to rely on it, as many counties have with the NC lottery and education).

Steve Yuhaz and a few other commissioners suggested throwing this modest amount of money – $2.5M at best – at the schools or pouring it down the current economic development rat-hole.

Spending $2.5M on needed social services would have a much more profound effect than adding to the considerable school system overhead or to funding economic incentives during this downturn. And it’s the right thing to do given the rather dire outlook for next year.

Other than clearly dedicating the use of the funds, I also asked for two additional provisions:

  • that the tax increase be time limited – maybe 3-4 years at most – in order to emphasize that this wasn’t a case of avoiding fiscal discipline but a response to some very difficult circumstances
  • that the public be given plenty of opportunity to weigh in.

At the conclusion of the topic it was clear that public input beforehand will have to come quick – June 15th to be exact.

Some quick observations/comments.

Several counties, like New Hanover, were used as success stories for the referendum. New Hanover, of course, has much lower property taxes and with its tourist draws has much greater outside revenue flows. Orange County’s increase will be borne mostly by Orange County residents.

Comments by several commissioners that this broad 1/4 percent sales tax would bring revenues in from residents not currently “paying their fair share” made very little sense given that a pretty good chunk of the existing %7.75 sales tax paid by all residents ends up in the county coffers.

It was also strange how quickly the discussion settled on two options – raise sales taxes or property taxes. The obvious third option – raise no taxes – didn’t make it onto the table.

My suggestion to time limit the measure didn’t get traction. Long time NC residents probably recall that a fair portion of the existing %7.75 sales tax was supposed to be “temporary”. Like many of the current “usage fees” and other tax burdens, government claims on our income tend to take on a life of their own and rarely get rolled-back (at least on middle and lower income folks). The rates might get adjusted but the real outlays stay the same or increase.

It’s hard to dodge the appearance that raising the sales tax rate has more to do with an inability to prioritize spending than fiscal discipline when the increase has an open-ended expiration date.

Sales tax revenue is sensitive to prevailing economic conditions. Without a dramatic upturn in the economy or a steep expansion in the County’s commercial tax base – both unlikely in the near future – the dependability of this revenue stream is not sufficient to fund core services.

Finally, the oddest arguments of the evening circulated around the reason for raising and the commitment to restrict the expenditure of the funds. Many commissioners argued (and then voted for) a course of action that essentially boiled down to this: put the referendum on the ballot with little public discussion and then invite the community to speculate on what the funds are to be used for and how firm the obligation to spend them accordingly will be.

Strange inversion.

I pushed for public participation first, a clear statement on the use of the new revenues (I lobbied for human services first, debt reduction – as County Manager Clifton pointed out – a good second) and a legally binding obligation to use the funds for that specified reason.

That way the community would have a clear idea early on as to what they would be asked to vote into being.

Feels like, at least at this point (with June 15th weeks away), public participation is an afterthought.

Southern Village: So Long Six Stories

Monday, November 17th, 2008

One of the projects on tonight’s agenda was D.R. Bryan’s six story Southern Village hotel. The hotel was to be plopped down in Southern Village’s central “square”. At 75+ feet, it would tower over the nearby United Methodist Church.

Local residents were concerned that this 6 story project wasn’t human-scale or compatible with the existing surround. I fully agreed.

“We value the human, pedestrian-scale of our existing ‘Village’ and believe the mass and scale of a 75-foot building set diagonally from the United Methodist Church is incompatible in proportion to the neighborhood area,” the petition said.

According to the Chapel Hill News OrangeChat, the project has been pulled from the agenda awaiting a supposedly more palatable 4-story variant.

They have a new plan that is four stories, they announced last week. The new plan also closes Abedrdeen Drive to create a plaza connecting the hotel to the community’s village green and stage.

OrangeChat also noted that one of Bryan’s partners, a Southern Village resident, opposed the project. Ben Waldorf, former Mayor Rosemary Waldorf’s son, signed the petition challenging the project.

You might also remember that Rosemary recently suggested providing direct economic incentives (cash) to fill all the empty commercial properties around town. No indication as of yet if cash incentives will be required to fill this new hotel.

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