Density, traffic driving Central West discord

tgrubb@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • The back story

    Chapel Hill residents spent a year writing the 2020 Comprehensive Plan for how the town should grow. It designated six “small focus areas” for more community input.

    Central West, which covers roughly 100 acres near the Estes Drive-MLK Boulevard intersection, is part of the South MLK small focus area.

    The Town Council appointed a 17-member Central West Steering Committee to create a plan. Six options are on the table now: four official committee maps, an alternative map from a minority group of committee members, and a sixth plan the committee co-chairs wrote after talking with individual members.

    The alternative map proposes low-density, mostly residential development.

    The Steering Committee did not allow the map in a recent open house. A town planner said the committee didn’t have time to review it and was only ready for comment on the four official maps.

    The minority group on the committee, with support from some neighbors, has accused some committee members, town staff and a consultant of blocking opposing views. They asked at least three times this year for an independent facilitator to mediate committee meetings. Town legal adviser Matt Sullivan led last week’s meeting.

    The committee isn’t trying to suppress ideas, according to town staff. Members reviewed the first version of the alternative map and asked consultant Rhodeside and Harwell to weave some of its ideas into the official maps, staff said.

— With less than two weeks to go, a citizens group that got nearly a year to decide how a neighborhood should grow doesn’t seem any closer to figuring it out.

The Central West Steering Committee spent more than an hour Thursday debating how intense development should be at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-Estes Drive intersection and whether a minority group’s less-dense plan for roughly 100 acres has had a fair hearing.

Committee member Firoz Mistry wondered why the plan needed to reflect the entire town’s desires when neighbors would be the ones most affected.

Town Council member and committee liaison Jim Ward said the group has listened carefully to everyone, but a very vocal minority continues to push a plan the others don’t support.

“I’ve been disappointed with the process,” he said. “It’s been a struggle, and I think we can do a whole lot better with this.”

Realtor and resident David Morgan was more blunt.

“There are some factions in this committee that are just hell-bent to not see anything done. For the most part, it’s because they live in the area. I understand that,” he said. “However, I think this is a major intersection, and if it weren’t for (Horace Williams Airport), it would have been developed before now.”

Mapping the future

The council appointed the 17-member steering committee of residents, landowners and community representatives in December to map out a future for several largely undeveloped lots. The report is due Oct. 1 to the town’s Planning Board. A public hearing is set for an Oct. 21 public hearing; the Town Council could vote in November.

The committee has one more meeting to choose from among six potential growth maps and identify how tall and dense buildings should be, whether they should be used for residential, retail or office space, and how new roads can relieve the already busy MLK-Estes intersection.

Town legal adviser Matt Sullivan, a trained facilitator, led Thursday’s sometimes-tense meeting, at one point shouting over residents with opposing views.

The committee voted 10-4 at the meeting to restart the discussion using a new plan from committee co-chairs Amy Ryan and Michael Parker. The two talked privately with individual committee members after a Sept. 10 public event and mapped the common themes they heard.

Suggestions included a mix of three to five stories streetside, and five to eight stories farther back; and areas next to to existing homes being set aside for greenways, lower density, a mix of housing and civic buildings.

Committee members and town officials said there’s a lot of common ground, from safe bike and pedestrian paths, green space and complementary developments to concerns about traffic and environmental damage.

Minority concerns

A small number of committee members, backed by neighbors, has warned that higher density could mean a lower quality of life, dangerous roads and damage to the environment.

They designed their own plan with shorter and fewer buildings, and single-family homes, townhomes and senior housing along Estes Drive, east of UNC’s future Carolina North campus. On the northwestern Estes-MLK corner, they put two-story retail and office space. Several parks were scattered across their map.

The full committee refused to display the alternative map at the Sept. 10 open house, so the residents showed it to more than 200 people outside in the parking lot. Committee member Mickey Jo Sorrell said a revision is in the works.

Residents inside the open house put green and red dots beside their likes and dislikes on the committee’s four official maps (not including the minority committee members’ map or the cochairs new plan). Town planner Megan Wooley sad Thursday the top three concerns were traffic, development compatible with existing neighborhoods and the effect on stormwater.

All four maps had more red dots than green, especially in areas showing taller buildings, and none got a high number of likes, Wooley said.

Morgan said he saw people at the open house moving and removing dots from the map. The town also has concerns and isn’t including those results in their upcoming report, Wooley said. They will include 477 resident responses to a separate survey, she said.

Julie McClintock, a committee member and co-author of the alternative plan, said some people may have been confused by the town’s maps.

“It was hard to tell what they meant, because there was important content missing,” she said.

For example, the maps show possible uses and building heights but not how many buildings might go in an area or their square footage, McClintock said. “There’s not a lot of difference between the different maps,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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