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.



Northside Memories

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

A couple excellent student driven articles on Northside appeared this week.

Carrboro Commons’ Megan Gassaway published this article which reviews the history of the Northside community through long time resident Ms. Keith Edwards eyes.

Too often local media focuses narrowly on the business of carving up the community rather than providing a broader context – injecting the human dimension into the story – which better informs the wider community on why folks living in Northside mourn its passing.

Courtesy ReeseNews

Reese News,UNC School of Journalism & Mass Communication’s Digital Newsroom, leverages the power of the multimedia ‘net to give voice to 10 community members’ concerns in their story The struggle for a neighborhood.

It’s no secret that Northside isn’t the neighborhood it used to be.

The change is visible in the increased diversity of its residents and the ten-story high-end condominiums that tower across from the traditionally working class neighborhood, where massive duplexes are replacing single-family homes. Change is also evident in  the growing tension and frustration of residents in a neighborhood plagued by the effects of gentrification.

The pressure for development is taking its toll on the historically black neighborhood, and the town is struggling to balance the need to grow with the needs of neighborhoods like Northside.

Since 2010, the town has been working with the Raleigh-based consultant KlingStubbins to develop a Downtown Framework and Action Plan, which could revise and redevelop parts of downtown Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas.

The downtown proposal could have significant effects on Northside. In its current draft, the framework suggests building new road connections and parking decks in areas where homes currently stand. It also underscores certain areas of Northside as prime for redevelopment.

Well done folks!

Want a bit of additional perspective on the development pressures facing Northside?

IndyWeek reporter (and former Daily Tar Heel editor) Joe Schwartz put together another excellent overview last June (2010): Greenbridge: A new chapter in a tense history .

Greenbridge, as reported by the Chapel Hill News, faces its first foreclosure hearing next Tuesday. This Sunday they promise a further exploration of not only Greenbridge’s problems but other Downtown developments putting pressure on Northside, Cameron Ave. and Pine Knolls neighborhoods.

Change is going to happen. The question is how the whole of our community can benefit from that change. Articles like these help create a broader perspective, one that has been missing so far, in the discussions over development policy Downtown.

It is critical that the nearby neighborhoods play a vital role in determining their own fates. Until their voices are heard and their neighborhoods are treated like living, breathing communities rather than convenient parcels of land for future development, our development policy is as broken as Greenbridge’s financing.

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.

No Green For Greenbridge

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Looks like the rumors I’ve been hearing for the last few months are true, the much touted Greenbridge project is in deep financial trouble. The high-density development (which has saved Downtown according to the local Chamber of Commerce director Aaron Nelson) hasn’t been able to sell units and pay its construction bills according to today’s N&O.

Most of the “successful” sales have been the moderately priced affordable units. Those are the same units Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward wanted a report from staff on to verify that they were serving the broader community instead of housing well connected community members or graduate students. Most of the current sitting Council enthusiastically endorsed Greenbridge, creating a new Downtown zoning district and then granting variances on density and height above and beyond the new zones limits, because they bought into this new model of development.

With the Town’s similar joint project with RAM Development (West140) just underway, now would be a good time to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from Greenbridge’s difficulties.

Affordable Housing – Preferences and/or Priorities

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Big agenda this evening. I also commented on the proposal for creating a range of housing options as a consequence of implementing the inclusionary zoning ordinance.

Other folks commenting included Anita Badrock, Operations Manager of the Community Home Trust and Rob Reda, the local director of Habitat for Humanity.

For the last 6 years, I have argued that our Town’s growing reliance on in lieu monies to sustain the affordable housing program was short-changing the community’s desire for more living space – especially family-oriented homes.

I understand the occasional need for in lieu payments but as the Council scrambled to create the missing housing maintenance fund – that need seem to drive some unhealthy compromises made in approving projects like East54. It is far past time that the Council finds a way to fund the affordable housing program in a more consistent and predictable manner.

Tonight’s proposal moves our Town one-step closer to that vision – codifying an emphasis on square footage – today’s housing – over accepting funds that rarely translates into affordable living space. I want to thank the Council tonight for making a substantive shift in policy that squarely prioritizes homes over programs. Thank you.

While tonight’s recommendations represent a distinct change in course, I believe we can improve the proposal to help us meet both the needs of our current community and diversify access further.

First, instead of expressing a preferences express priorities. What’s first, second, third when it comes to the goals the Town is trying to achieve? As far as off-site housing, please make it more acceptable than cash.

Second, while I understand Robert and Delores concerns about moving housing stock, there should be a bias towards providing a different mix of housing – housing for our workforce – housing for folks – like my wife and I – who wanted to get their foot-in-the-door and establish long term roots in the community – housing for folks who already have deep roots in Chapel Hill – many who have served our community for decades – who want to or are being forced to downsize into more modest housing but want to and deserve to stay here.

That means units larger than 1 or 2 bedrooms in the Town Center. That means housing uniquely oriented towards an aging population. You responded to the same call with the Lot #5 project and created a broader mix there….if the Town needs to invest to make that happen, let’s build in a mechanism to do that…

I was encouraged by Council member Ward’s recent call to review current utilization of the affordable units provided by developments like Greenbridge to see if we are meeting the goals our Town has set forth. As he put it – to tell if there’s a bias towards grad students over others.

Third, to create a framework for deciding when off-site housing is preferable and should be prioritized. This framework would give specific guidance to developers for determining when such provision makes sense. I believe we can agree, in retrospect., that Greenbridge’s initial offer to provide housing off-site was probably the superior choice. I understand and fully support diversity efforts but as the character of development in Chapel Hill changes I believe that off-site units represent a choice that can better meet the needs of the wider community in some circumstances.

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.

WCHL Commentary: Library Expansion Next Year or Lot #5 Project, Not Both

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Ron Stutts and WCHL 1360 invited me to do a commentary on a Chapel Hill issue.

I chose to speak out on the fiscally imprudent idea that we can “have our cake and eat it too”.

Run this and the following four year’s budget numbers, look at anticipated impacts – funding Town retirees’ health-care, fixing Police Headquarters, meeting our clean water responsibilities under the Lake Jordan compact, the doubling in demand on our social services, etc. – and it becomes clear – we can walk away now from the discretionary Lot #5 project – at little additional cost to the taxpayer – or do the Library expansion next year.

We can’t do both.

Thanks to Ron and crew for somehow squeezing 10 pounds of commentary [MP3] into a 5 pound bag. Amazing!

Jan. 25th the Council considered two projects with major financial impacts – the Library expansion and the problematic Lot #5 private/public development project.

After discussing their options at length, they decided to postpone approval of the Library expansion pending a more thorough review of the Town’s spending priorities during the Town’s normal budget process which, by the way, kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 3rd.

This was a reasonable and prudent course of action given the serious fiscal condition of the Town, the weakened economy, continued expectations of poor revenues and Council’s touted commitment to public participation.

Unfortunately, the Lot #5 project didn’t get the same level of concern.

The Town’s debt has doubled to $55M over the last 5 years. It’s been used to fund necessary and discretionary capital improvements like the construction of the new Aquatics Center – which at about $7M was almost on budget – and the Town Operations Center – which at $52M went roughly $10M over-budget.

Supporters claim the typical household will ONLY pay $40 more a year but that $40 only covers the increased cost of operating the Library and not the cost of discharging the $16M bond debt.

The Town Manager says that as we payoff existing obligations we can issue new bonds without increasing taxes. This might be true through 2011, but as the Town’s finance director pointed out, from 2012 on the construction debt pushes our overall debt very close – maybe even exceeding – the level necessary to keep our Town’s AAA bond rating.

At that point a tax increase is certain.

The Town Manager’s analysis is also rather one dimensional – challenges like the Town’s rapidly growing unfunded retirement obligations – projected to be as much as $56M or replacing Police headquarters – $10M if Council had purchased Dawson Hall – were not considered.

So what about Lot #5? Lot #5 requires 8 to 12M taxpayer dollars and represents the Town’s greatest, riskiest discretionary fiscal liability.

Part of the sales pitch for Lot #5 was the supposed need to stimulate development Downtown.

With Greenbridge nearly built and other Downtown projects on the way it’s clear that we didn’t need a stimulus. In fact, directly across Franklin St. the University at University Square is already putting forward a much more interesting, integrative proposal which better fulfills the goals of the Lot #5 project – and at little cost or risk to our taxpayers.

Given that the cost reductions that allowed RAM Development to lower their gold-plated condo prices haven’t been passed on to the taxpayer, that the number of pre-sold units hasn’t grown in-line with those price reductions, and that the Town still doesn’t know how it plans to borrow that $8 to 12M – now is the time to drop Lot #5.

Three years out – three contract extensions granted – no significant improvement in proposal.

What does this have to do with the Library?

We can have a Library expansion – hopefully starting next year – or we can have Lot #5 – we can’t handle both.

Contact Council – ask them to pull the plug on the Lot #5 project now so that we can take on projects that are more central to Council’s charter.

More information on my website, CitizenWill.org.

A middle finger to Northside

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

I wasn’t able to attend the spoken-word event concerning the corrosive effects of Greenbridge on Northside last evening, but according to the Daily Tar Heel, it stirred some sharp discussion.

UNC junior Kane Smego, who performed slam poetry at the event, described the project as two towers, “one 10 stories, the other seven — like a middle finger to the Northside.”

The Greenbridge promotional video added some controversy:

The video features interviews with black Northside residents recounting family history intermixed with narration about the proposed Greenbridge site.

Many of those featured in the video now say their words were taken out of context and misconstrued to seem as they were in full support of the project.

“I didn’t realize what I said was going to be used in that manner,” said Dolores Bailey, a Northside resident who was featured in the promotional video. “So that bothers me a lot.”

Delores (not Dolores) did support Greenbridge’s zoning application though she also wanted to carve out a better deal for the neighborhood:

Delores Bailey, a Northside resident, pointed out that Greenbridge could help but would not solve all of the problems in that area of Chapel Hill and/or Northside. She said the notion that preserving downtown is more important than preserving a neighborhood makes her “shudder.” Ms. Bailey said there were people in the neighborhood who did not understand that Greenbridge would be 10 stories high. She proposed putting half of the affordable units in the neighborhood, adding that this would address more needs. Ms. Bailey said that developers had listened, and that even though she had problems with the project she supports it because it is an attempt to work with the neighborhood and an understanding that some people will be living in its shadow. She stressed the importance of Greenbridge being respectful of the neighborhood and not making it feel shut out.

As far as that shadow, I argued that the socio-economic shadow this throws across Rosemary was not adequately discussed or evaluated (the physical shadow is pretty large also).

Alum08 at the DTH said:

It’s truly unclear what NOW is hoping to accomplish. This organization’s sole achievement has been complaining about something it does not fully understand. Additionally, this is all final and in the past. Why, as bright Carolina students, are we focusing on this instead of the future?

The future Downtown, at least as it is constituted by our current leadership, is high – high cost, high density, high buildings. The consequences, especially the long-term cumulative consequences, have not been adequately evaluated by our community.

Here’s a comment I left at the DTH:

It’s a shame that this dialog didn’t happen when the project was going through the approval process. I was one of the very few folks that stood up to challenge the project. I took a lot of heat for pointing out that this project would accelerate the gentrification going on not only into Northside but spreading South to Cameron, West to Pine Knolls, etc.

There are other shoes to drop here: the commercialization of Rosemary to the North, the cumulative impact of the Town’s Lot $5 project/Short Brothers project/University Square redevelopment on the nearby neighborhoods, the gentrification of nearby local businesses (how long will unsubsidized local business last as their rents rise or landlords redevelop to attract boutique shops?) and other corrosive effects of the high-priced/high-density vision our Council maintains.

Delores, as well as did other local leaders from organizations like the Hank Anderson Breakfast club, supported the project wholeheartedly. It was quite difficult to contest the social justice issue in the face of their support.

There’s a lot to like about Greenbridge, even as it sheds some of its “green” cred. I argued it was in the wrong place and that it would exacerbate the community displacements seen in Northside, Cameron and Pine Knoll.

Again, while Greenbridge is a “done deal”, there is still an incredible need to explore these other issues. I’m glad some other folks are taking up the challenge.

Characterizing Delores’ acquiescence as wholehearted is maybe too strong a sentiment but as I recall, in the end, there wasn’t a lot of struggle to get the final approval.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from last night’s event it is that our Town needs to look at improving our community outreach effort, get creative and more expansive, in order to build a broad consensus.

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.

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