Neighbors oppose draft development plan for Estes-MLK area

tgrubb@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

— A conversation Monday about how part of Chapel Hill should grow called into question how neighbors who oppose a draft plan are being viewed.

More than 100 people spilled out of the meeting room and into a hallway at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. The Town Council is holding some meetings there while the first floor of Chapel Hill’s Town Hall is being renovated.

Roughly 30 people spoke about two plans on the table in Central West – a roughly 97-acre area surrounding the Estes Drive-Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection. Many urged the council to support the less-dense citizens alternative map over an official Central West Steering Committee map.

It also was the first meeting at which the council used its new policy of limiting public speakers to two minutes instead of three when more than 15 people are signed up. Some speakers grew angry or refused to stop speaking when they ran out of time.

The 17-member Central West Steering Committee was appointed last year to work with the community and plan how the area should look in the future. The committee delivered an early draft Monday to the Town Council.

The plan could bring up to 270,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, plus 620 residential units, to 97 acres at the Estes-MLK Boulevard intersection, committee co-chair Amy Ryan said. Buildings up to three stories could front streets, stepping back to four stories. Taller buildings are possible on steep slopes south of Estes Drive.

Ryan said the committee’s goal is a framework that developers can use to make specific plans. It’s a good plan for the town and the neighborhood, she said. It also advocates for a stormwater master plan and preserving the tree cover.

A splinter group of four committee members and residents submitted the citizens alternative map, which offers less retail and commercial space in exchange for more single- and multi-family homes. It also creates several parks and includes senior housing south of Estes Drive.

The group decided to draft its own map after complaining its ideas weren’t getting a fair shake and the committee, a consultant and town staff were pushing for a denser plan. Residents also are concerned about traffic, pedestrian and bicycle safety and stormwater.

Several officials, including Parker and Ryan, have said the minority group’s ideas have been considered but defeated in a supermajority vote.

Council member Gene Pease said commercial development costs the town less and contributes more to its tax base than residential projects, but no one’s ever interested in having development in their backyard that helps pay for services. No one’s ever asked him to cut services or raise taxes either, he said.

“I believe unless we don’t allow some commercial development throughout all of the town in the areas it deems the most appropriate, we’re going be pushing lower-income people and the elderly out of the community, we’re not going to have the affordable housing, and our services will have to be cut or taxes are going to have to be significantly raised in the future,” Pease said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski asked what’s wrong with the citizens map. It offers more affordable housing, addresses environmental issues and develops the area fairly for landowners, he said.

“I, for one, get really angry when I hear my friends of whom there are many in this room for whom I have the greatest respect because they deserve it ... described as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard),” he said. “I’m amazed that term is allowed be used. It is in every way pejorative. It effectively says you are so focused on your narrow self-interests, you people, that you can’t possibly see the broader good.”

Kleinschmidt agreed the community dialogue could be better.

“We need to make sure we all articulate the best way we can what our interests are and the change that might occur,” he said. “We’re all kind of in this together, people, and I hope that we can turn down some of the acrimony. It’s getting tiresome, and the problem is that its distracting from the points I hear you’re trying to make.”

The plans face several advisory board reviews, including a second Planning Board hearing Oct. 29. The council will continue the public hearing Nov. 25.

Council member Ed Harrison said he was willing to give the committee more time. The citizens plan makes some sense on Estes Drive but not necessarily on MLK Boulevard, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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