Linda Haac: The future is now

September 27, 2013 

Linda Haac


Residents of Chapel Hill and visitors alike might want to understand how our university town is being re-engineered. Wherever you stand on this issue, it’s taking place.

The flashpoint, currently, is the Central West Steering Committee, which has been generating lots of news lately, given consultants brought in from Arlington, Va., by the Town of Chapel Hill, have billed the town for $230,000, far above the original estimate. This has led to the usual round of accusations and counter-accusations, from neighbors and vocal community workers being called obstructionists to the Town Council’s elected representative assigned to work with the committee feeling he’s being called a “rat.”

In many ways, obviously, we’re still a small town.

But here’s the deal: We want to be much more. Therein comes the rub. The question never asked is: Do we need to be much more?

Whatever, we’re going full steam ahead. To get a feeling for how the town’s Central West Steering Committee went off track, it’s best to attend one of its meetings. A map shown at the front of the room spells out a prominent creek in the area under discussion, which includes the corner of Estes Drive and MLK Boulevard across from the future satellite campus of Carolina North and down Estes toward the new library. The map was produced, reportedly, by the consultant. The creek is identified as “Bowlin Creek.” No creek exists in Chapel Hill or its environs. The waterway is known as “Bolin Creek.”

This may seem a petty matter, but if you can’t get the names of places right, how do you know what’s involved with anything else about the place, from topographical limitations to community standards to realistic needs.

Moreover, there’s the committee itself made up of competing, often conflicting, interests: land owners, developers, business owners and residents. Participants are mostly strong personalities – and except for a few notable exceptions could use a refresher course in Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s hard to know what ground rules were set from the start, given a facilitator had to be brought in late in the process, which begs the question if the committee was set up to truly gain information – or for public relations.

This brings up a major point: Chapel Hill needs to listen more, as well as to respond more, particularly to ordinary people who call this “home.” The town needs less pushing forward aggressively of whatever new, or pet, idea is au courant.

It’s an open question if Chapel Hill is getting anything right. Franklin Street is suffering. Rosemary Street is being billed as the “Rosemary Corridor,” and becoming a canyon with high rises that dwarf small-scale businesses and houses. Weaver Dairy Road has been turned into a roadway that not only is potentially dangerous by the Timberlyne shopping center but also difficult to make sense of when you drive along. People are asking: Why did we pay for this?

What’s most troubling about the entire Central West exercise is how in our supposedly intellectual community we’re forgetting to challenge assumptions, no matter whether we’re for it or against it. We’re bogged down in building requirements. We haven’t arrived at a common vision.

Will intense urban development at the corner of Estes Drive and MLK Boulevard add to Chapel Hill’s vitality? Will it serve the people who already live there? Will seniors truly flock to apartment buildings meant for them alone, which may seem like warehouses for the upscale?

Our town’s closest vision so far comes from the cover of Chapel Hill’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, a drawing done by high-student Sarah Mitchell. It shows the university’s Old Well set against what appear to be modernistic, tall glass-and-steel buildings. Is this our future?

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