CHAPEL HILL — The Town Council will wrestle with tough decisions about growth in the next few years.
Four of the nine people running for the council will make those decisions: George Cianciolo, Sally Greene, Ed Harrison, Loren Hintz, Gary Kahn, Paul Neebe, Maria Palmer, Amy Ryan and D.C. Swinton.
The town is going to grow, the candidates say. The question is how and where, without losing its small-town charm.
“We do want to plan for new commercial growth to balance out that tax base a little bit,” Ryan said. “Do we really need to sell the store to do that? I don’t think so.”
Chapel Hill faces challenges: limited, expensive land; state annexation laws and local decisions that control how and where growth happens; and the town’s approval process, which critics say is slow, complicated and costly, they said.
Much of the town’s undeveloped land has stayed that way, because it’s in environmentally sensitive areas or on steep slopes, making stormwater control critical, the candidates said.
High housing costs and property taxes also are a big concern, they said. While commercial development can help, economic director Dwight Bassett has said it probably won’t generate enough tax dollars to greatly shift the balance.
“If the planning were a little bit easier, if you didn’t have to move mountains to get something approved, I think (the high costs and taxes) would be avoidable,” Neebe said.
Palmer said it’s becoming harder for middle-income families to stay in Chapel Hill, in part because the council is micromanaging projects and has misplaced priorities.
“The perfect client knows what the needs are but lets the architect go crazy on paper, and then they start working together,” said Palmer, the daughter of an architect and civil engineer. “Let’s dream and do things that actually meet the needs of the community, and do it in a creative way that’s a plus for the town.”
Greene said it’s hard to move fast and get the right development.
“If you throw open the door, maybe what you’ll get will be good, but I think you need to plan it and really say this is what we want and go find people willing to give it to you,” she said.
A taller, vibrant town
The candidates support dense development around bus routes and rail stations, with safe bike and pedestrian routes. The Ephesus-Fordham commercial area is ripe for it, and the town’s proposed form-based code could be useful, they said. However, the town shouldn’t give up its leverage for affordable housing and other needs, they said.
Form-based code is a predictable checklist of zoning, building heights and designs for how projects relate that leaves most decisions to town staff. Consultants have urged taller, more densely populated commercial and residential buildings to get the most tax value from smaller lots.
All the candidates support buildings of up to six or seven stories in the Ephesus-Fordham area. In Northside, residents should be part of any discussion affecting that historically black, lower-income neighborhood, they said.
“There could be some important amenities there, like you might come up with the critical mass for a grocery store,” Harrison said.
Good examples of tall buildings are 140 West Franklin and The Franklin hotel, the candidates said, but East 54’s solid brick facade pushed up against the street shouldn’t be replicated.
Having young people who want to live and work downtown also is critical, Cianciolo said.
“They’re leaving to go to Durham or Raleigh, someplace they see as a little bit cooler, that they can afford to live in and have the types of living accommodations they want, which often are affordable rentals right where the action is, where they don’t have to get in their car much, if at all,” he said.
Harrison, Greene and Ryan declined to specify other places for tall buildings. It depends on the site and the project, they said. The remaining candidates said two to three stories would be right for major roads and on the edge of residential areas.
More commercial uses are possible north of town, the candidates said. Swinton suggested a town group might court green technology industries.
“I think if we show that Chapel Hill is willing to go out and seek them and bring in that business, and show them we’ve got great schools, and show them we’re doing all these things with bike and greenways, and have this great transit system that is continuing to improve, that that will attract businesses,” he said.
The town also has great potential on U.S. 15-501 – toward Durham and Chatham counties, the candidates said. Harrison said development around Blue Cross and Blue Shield near Interstate 40 and near future light-rail stations on N.C. 54 could be taller and more intense.
Kahn said Southern Village’s housing, retail and commercial mix is a good start for the proposed Obey Creek project across U.S. 15-501. The residential and traffic concerns there are common all over town, he said.
“That’s why we have all these committees right now, to listen to the community and hear what they want,” he said.
The town’s advisory boards also are a vital resource, Hintz said.
“Council members don’t have the time to investigate a lot of things and neither does the staff,” he said. “I think it’s really important that staff and council show that they value what the boards have done, and the best way to do that is implement recommendation in a timely fashion, and if they can’t be implemented, explain why.”