Commentary

Firoz Mistry: Goals for Central West apply to all Chapel Hill

August 20, 2013 

As Chapel Hill prepares to elect four new members for its Town Council, we should ask the candidates how they plan to maintain and improve the quality of life for Chapel Hill residents.

On the Central West Steering Committee, we have been charged with developing a small area plan for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-Estes Drive area. I have repeatedly seen issues which apply not only to Central West area but the rest of our town. My discussions with my neighbors at the committee meetings and in their homes show that they share similar concerns.

We should ask our candidates how they plan to address these issues.

• Quality development to preserve Chapel Hill’s character: We need development that complements our existing areas and provides the services required by its current and future target population. Important issues I have heard from residents are safe walk zones to school for their children, reliable daycare facilities, affordable after-school and summer activities, safe parks within walking distance of their homes for their children, and high-quality senior citizen housing for their aging parents. Chapel Hill can address the need for affordable housing by designing a diversity of housing including attractive single-family houses on smaller lots, townhouses, and condominiums, with facilities for young and old, well blended with its existing neighborhoods.

• Need data-driven development: Chapel Hill must take an analytical approach to designing these new areas. No business would build a store or shopping mall without extensive research, yet we design neighborhoods with much less. Currently we sketch pie-in-the-sky schemes and then keep our fingers crossed that it will all work out. This approach results in low occupancy rates in our housing and retail assets.

• Expand and responsibly manage Chapel Hill’s tax base: We should attract the newer companies in areas including biotechnology, information technology, data centers, research centers which are currently located in RTP and Durham. Chapel Hill should offer the same attractive terms offered by its competitors. That is how it will attract young professionals, convince its graduates to stay and also provide employment for its existing population. That is how Chapel Hill will expand its tax base. Yes, Chapel Hill can and should be “open for business.”

• Support and redevelop our struggling retail businesses: While we should explore locating retail at major intersections across town, thus allowing easy pedestrian and bicycle access, Chapel Hill should address the failing retail areas first. We should not be too hasty to tear up the few green areas left in our town and put up more retail. It is depressing to walk through deserted University Mall, Ram’s Plaza, failing shops in Southern Village and Franklin Street. We owe it to our town and our business owners to help them rejuvenate and maybe redevelop those areas for mixed use. Chapel Hill should preserve the green, and rejuvenate the brown.

• Keep Chapel Hill green and environmentally sound: Chapel Hill is renowned for its lush greenery. The recent intense flooding which we experienced is a clear warning sign that we are not preserving and maintaining our natural resources wisely. The town should work with landowners to preserve these resources, and help them identify and jointly finance the revitalization of struggling areas. Such thinking is win-win for all, and is truly advancing the interests of all citizens of Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill does not have to throw out its reputation as a wonderful livable town, in order to become a vibrant, green, diversified, fiscally responsible and attractive place for young and old residents alike.

Firoz Mistry has lived in Chapel Hill for the past 16 years. He works as a consultant to the biotechnology industry.

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