Twisting the Zoning Pretzel

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Tonight I asked the Council, once again, to reconsider cutting corners in the zoning process to push their “dense” development agenda.

Just as in this Spring’s approval of the new TC-3 zoning district (A Matter of Process: Greenbridge and Council’s Devolving Standard of Public Review), the Council is trying to slide through a far-reaching zoning modification to favor another RAM Development project.

RAM Development is the Council’s development partner in the ill-fated Lot $5 public/private partnership (a partnership where the public literally gets the shaft and RAM gets all the gold [Downtown Initiative: $500,000 here, $7.3 Million there, pretty soon we’re talking real money…]).

TC-3, which doubled the allowable density and increased the height limits by %50 of projects built Downtown was tagged to the popular Greenbridge projects approval but its real raison d’etre was to get Lot $5 over a SUP (special use permit) hurdle. What was clear, then, especially if you review secret negotiations, the Council’s negotiating team (Strom, Hill, Greene) failed to get RAM to commit to all the requirements the Council had asked for whether reasonable or not. The team had painted themselves into a corner, in a sense, because they had publicly stated they would not approve a SUP granting the height, density and other extraordinary specifications that RAM wanted (specifications tailored to enriching their bottom line at taxpayer expense) without a commensurate quid pro quo.

Empty handed, unable to get a deal which would satisfy their already announced SUP requirements, they created a new zoning district, rammed it through without extensive public review and applied to their own pet project – Lot $5 – to close the deal.

Tonight the Council proposed using the same tactic, in this case twisting an existing zone (Residential-Special Standards-Conditional Zoning District) developed in 1999 to promote affordable housing, so that they could apply it to another RAM Development project – The Residences at Grove Park of which I have written about several times.

Over two years ago, in fact, I asked Council to be as Caesar’s wife – beyond reproach – when dealing with other projects from their business partner RAM Development.

Carefully tailoring a zoning ordinance modification that, as our own Planning Board said “appears to be in direct response to the proposed Residences at Grove Park developments and therefore may not be well suited for other areas of town”, doesn’t instill confidence in the integrity of our zoning process.

Why does this project, which wipes out 111 affordable housing units and replaces them with 300+ luxury condos get this particular special treatment?

Here are my prepared remarks (which I tried to consolidate as, once again, the Council collapsed two public hearings into one possible confusing tangle):

What we have tonight with these proposed zoning modifications is a set of vague requirements with no backing metrics. Essentially, you are being asked to loose the “specialness” of the Residential Special Standards zone.

The original intent of RSSC zone was to promote affordable housing.

Tonight’s proposal is all about a 3-fold increase in density to satisfy your development partner’s, RAM Development, desire to maximize their profits in selling more luxury condos at the community’s expense.

But, like the Council’s decision to pass TC-3, modifying the RSSC opens the doors to all developers to follow your business partner’s lead. Without the specific, measurable standards, it will be quite difficult to measure if the promises made in granting a zone are actually carried out.

#1. Promoting affordable housing.

This Council has more and more accepted in lieu payments over actual square footage. How will this project be any different? Is there a commitment to accept 26 units? And based on RAM’s own projections, in no way are these units as affordable as the existing housing stock.

#2. Promote sustainable transportation.

What, specifically, is so much more extraordinarily different in RAM’s 425 Hillsborough proposal than existing transportation conditions? Nothing. Without setting specific goals or guidelines, how will we ever know?

#4. Protection of the natural environment.

RAM’s project, as currently designed, has significant impacts on the health of Bolin Creek. During the buildout and occupancy of these condos, significant changes – changes not accounted for in the current plan – will negatively affect the surrounding and downstream environment. There are already sanitary sewer issues along that part of the system, where’s the request to study the impact of Hillsborough 425 on that system?

#6. Protection of adjacent neighborhoods. [I made an aside to Sally Greene since she had raised concerns about the appearance of UNC’s Innovation Center fronting MLK,Jr.: …this is a big project..it will be the visible entranceway to our Downtown…it will loom above the historic neighborhoods behind… ]

Like TC-3, the proposed modifications are pushing an agenda that will have far-reaching effects on adjacent Downtown neighborhoods. Pass the modifications and you are opening up the flood gates to radical changes at odds with Chapel Hill’s current character. Let’s give the public a full opportunity to understand the breadth of these changes.

#3. “Promotion of a healthy downtown and healthy neighborhood commercial and employment centers;”

Does this mean displacing the hard-working folks from what little remains of privately owned affordable housing stock and replacing them with rich retirees and wealthy student havens? What guarantees do we have that the residents of these 300+ luxury condos represent greater economic reward for Downtown? Like Lot #5, do we expect RAM’s targeted demographic to increase employment Downtown? Or will, given the cost of these units, will the workers commute to RTP – defeating the transportation initiative?

[Another aside in reference to RAM’s point mans statement that only 3 non-student leasees live at Town House] As far as the 100 students you will displace. I’ve known folks living at Town House…students…they work in our community….they have jobs….] (this trivialization of the student population of Town House just shows how RAM Development feels about Chapel Hill – it’s a fattened goat – with a sleepy goatherd – ready for the roasting].

What is so special about this project to justify a modification in the zoning laws to allow not only your business partner but every other developer wishing to cash in on Chapel Hill’s diminishing cachet from making the same vague assertions? Once you open the door, you cannot favor RAM over others – unless you want to invite lawsuits.

Which brings me to my final issue with tonight’s proposal.

This is the second time this Council has been asked to modify zoning regulations to favor their business partner RAM Development.

The first time, with TC-3, the majority of this Council were willing to open the door to long-range negative changes Downtown – radically allowing increased density and heights Downtown – with the costs passed on to us – the taxpayers.

The appearance of favoring RAM, your development partner, once again calls into question the integrity of the Town’s zoning process.

If this project is so special as to require modifications, let it be under the current zone. Make RAM make the case – cross every T and dot every I – and set specific, measurable requirements for granting variances so that the public remains confident that one, they are getting a good deal and two, that favoritism played no part in the final outcome.

Councilmember Mark Kleinschmidt said I was “being mean spirited” highlighting that this is the second time that a proposal was made to modify the law – the zoning ordinance – to favor the Council’s business partner. I wasn’t being mean-spirited, I was being frank.

What would I do differently?

I agree that the RSSC needs to be updated to reflect current density expectations. Would I go from .4 to 1.10, not without an escalating scale of extraordinary requirements and not outside the original intent – to foster affordable housing. For great rewards, go great responsibilities.

What about higher density, transit-oriented developments? I would take another stab at creating a new zone, as the Council failed to do this Spring, that captured the requirements – and as importantly – set specific measurable metrics – for a new zone. I would then invite community input – have outreach events as UNC has done with Carolina North – and then hold extensive public hearings to “sell” this new zone to the public. No more of this under-the-table gamesmanship.

What about adding the six new comprehensive plan related requirements as proposed by staff to this new zone? Great idea if it can be done to foster appropriate in-fill development throughout Chapel Hill.

What I wouldn’t do, and what I really hope our Council stops doing, is to attempt to make far-reaching, potentially harmful modifications to our Town’s zoning ordinances, without informing and educating our public.

A Matter of Process: Greenbridge and Council’s Devolving Standard of Public Review

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

I haven’t been reticent in my criticism of the process Council used recently to manage the approvals for Greenbridge, the environmental uber-project and possible end of the traditional Northside neighborhood. Adopting a new zone, TC-3, developed and refined during the months bridging Thanksgiving to Christmas, within the context of Greenbridge’s approval ill-served our citizens.

Claims, most notably by Bill Strom, that Greenbridge’s TC-3 is somehow unique (video coming soon) and folks won’t have to worry about another use will be tested all too soon.

Most of the Council members are aware of the public discussion and scrutiny of the 90′ limit and 1.97 density ratio. Unfortunately, the minimal opportunity citizens had to respond within the public hearing process didn’t reflect those hard learned lessons. Only two citizens spent any of their 3 minutes of public comment suggesting the impropriety of making a major change to Downtown’s future geography within the narrow context of Greenbridge. Doubling the density, raising the height limits by %30, with the SUP establishing a height precedent fully %50 above the previous 90′ will carry serious consequences for “human scale” Chapel Hill. Now that door has been opened, does anyone truly believe developers on our doorstep will not press for even more consequential change?

I recall Sally Greene, prior to being elected to Council, making numerous appearances before Council on OI-4 (the most probable zone for Carolina North) counseling not only greater public outreach but public education. She argued process, process, process and was obviously aware that a significant change in public policy demands a significant effort to build understanding.

Yes, the effort to build understanding can also build opposition. One might argue that the best “political” strategy “playing the approval game” is to keep your head down, limit public understanding and bull on through. Good strategy for a “player”, maybe, but terrible public policy.

Tonight, the Chapel Hill News’ breaks the story, on their ‘blog OrangeChat, that the son of one of our Council members sought to represent the developer of Greenbridge.

Sometime last fall, the son of Town Council member Bill Thorpe approached the developers of the Greenbridge condominium towers and offered to work as their public relations consultant.

Thorpe said his son, William Thorpe Jr., is a grown man and did not consult him before making the pitch.

UPDATE:
From today’s followup in the N&O

Thorpe said his son, William Thorpe Jr., is a grown man and did not consult him before approaching the developers. Thorpe said he only heard rumors that his son had asked for a $40,000 consulting fee.

“He was trying to get a contract with them, but I haven’t done anything with them,” Thorpe Sr. said this week. “It had nothing to do with me.”

Yes, we’ve seen our share of national problems with relatives representing interests before their elective relations but certainly this doesn’t rise to that level. Bill spoke of his son during the 2005 election, I don’t recall his saying he did PR. In any case, Bill made it clear his involvement was nothing to be troubled by: “I ain’t got nothing to hide,” Thorpe said this week. “I can tell you right now, I have not asked anybody for no money.”

[UPDATE] GeorgeC over on OPsays the Mayor and Attorney reviewed this, not the Council, yet the article and post both say “Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further…” Now, was that the Mayor using the royal “We” or did the Council know? I’ll ask either the reporter or a Council member next time I see them. If this was the Mayor acting as the lone “decider”, well, that’s a bit troubling in itself.

[ORIGINAL]
The Mayor and Council, it appears, reviewed the issue on discovering it:

Mayor Kevin Foy learned of the situation before a public hearing on the downtown condo project Jan. 17 and asked Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos for advice.

Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further because Thorpe Sr. was not personally involved. Foy said he believed that his colleague’s hands were clean in the matter.

That January 17th meeting was a key public hearing for Greenbridge.

This is most troubling. I can accept Bill Thorpe’s assertions about his son’s involvement. I can appreciate Council and (?) the Mayor responding immediately with a legal consultation and review.

What I can’t understand, and will not accept, is the absence of public disclosure.

Yes, the appearance of impropriety can sting. Trying to mitigate the possible embarrassment and pain of a friend and colleague is laudable. But these are public servants. Many of these Council members, one time or another, during elections or otherwise, have pledged to increase openness and transparency within our local governance. They (?) The mayor had an obligation to reveal, for Bill’s sake, in as tactful a fashion as possible, this story and not leave it to the 4th estate (Chapel Hill News)

The process of openness and transparency must be consistent to be reliable. The public trust demands and deserves disclosure.

And yet another lapse in judgment related to a development deal.

University Station: “Absurd” and “Absolutely Ridiculous”

Monday, February 19th, 2007

The University Station project – a development hugging the South-side of I-40 on Chapel Hill’s North perimeter – is up for review tonight (Feb. 19th).

Local resident John Doyle called Townhall to comment that the proposal was “absurd”, “absolutely ridiculous” and emphasizes that he’ll “make sure” any Council members approving the plan will not serve again.

John, 2007 is an election year 😉

Other citizens chimed in [PDF] on noise, traffic and other relevant issues.

Concern is growing about imprudent growth in our NW corridor – folks are starting to organize.

I’ll be interested to see if the “rah rah” growth wing of Council shows a bit more sensitivity – especially considering the increasing role their buddies at RAM Development are playing to the NW – this evening.

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