Chapel Hill council approves Estes-MLK growth plan

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 27, 2013 

  • Planning Board amendments

    The Chapel Hill Planning Board, which advises the Town Council, made seven recommendations related to a Central West – Estes-MLK – small area plan. The council adopted the recommendations Tuesday, along with a growth plan for Central West.

    The focus area is one of six small areas of town identified as having development potential in the town’s 2020 growth plan. The Planning Board’s conditions were:

    • Complete a townwide study of traffic conditions before allowing anything to be built

    • Examine closely the potential effects of stormwater runoff

    • The town and UNC together should find ways to meet local affordable housing needs

    • Take a closer look at the potential effect on the Bolin and Booker Creek watersheds

    • Maintain the existing tree canopy

    • Keep the number of traffic lanes on Estes Drive at a minimum to support pedestrian and bike safety

    • State more clearly and in stronger language why the MLK-Estes area should be developed

  • Learn more

    More information about the Central West small area plan and the community discussion that led to its approval is available at bit.ly/18niSR8.

— The Town Council approved a road map Tuesday night for how 97 acres surrounding Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard should grow.

The approved Central West small area plan was crafted by a 17-member steering committee working with the community for roughly 11 months. It allows up to 270,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, 620 new residential units and buildings up to three stories along the streets, stepping back to four stories. Taller buildings might be built along steep slopes south of Estes Drive.

Council member Sally Greene said the steering committee followed a “good process with a thoughtful result.”

“In sum, I think that this plan gives us a good way toward what we want in the next step toward implementing 2020,” she said. “I know it doesn’t please everyone. I think we’re trying our best to work with it and move it to the next level.”

Council member Ed Harrison successfully proposed adding a few amendments, including one from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board that every project include some green space and seven from the Planning Board that address stormwater, traffic and other concerns.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said adopting the Planning Board recommendations with the plan is “a great compromise.”

“When we do a townwide traffic impact analysis, if it turns out that the people who were arguing it’s going to create more congestion on Estes are right, well, we’ve still got this plan,” he said.

In a nod to worried neighbors, the council also acknowledged an alternate citizens plan that offered more parks and homes and less commercial space and density. The alternate plan, brought forward by four steering committee members, never got enough committee votes to be officially considered.

The Central West plan will be added to the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan and help guide town staff and developers through future proposals. The council would have to approve the usual permit and rezoning applications before anything is built.

At the northeastern Estes-MLK corner, development also will depend on when UNC closes Horace Williams Airport, lifting the airport hazard mitigation zone.

The meeting drew more than 60 people, about half the number at a Nov. 18 council meeting. Roughly two dozen people spoke, including newly-elected council members Maria Palmer and George Cianciolo, and town advisory board and steering committee members. Resident Alan Tom said an online GoPetition had garnered at least 260 signatures supporting the alternate plan.

Several residents warned the committee’s development plan has the potential to negatively affect existing neighborhoods and schools, cause environmental damage to forests and Bolin Creek, and worsen Estes Drive traffic and bike and pedestrian safety.

The Planning Board highlighted traffic and stormwater risks that could mean additional costs for the town and its residents, Mark Weisburd said.

“In any event, it seems imperative that the council takes no action at all on the (small area plan) until the factors identified by the Planning Board are studied and those studies are given careful reflection. Acting too quickly to approve Central West may well saddle the town with a fiscal white elephant,” he said.

Council member Jim Ward said one option could be requiring proposed projects to complete traffic and economic-impact studies.

That way “we know ahead of time that any development in this area would be revenue positive, and that if it didn’t pass that litmus test, we weren’t interested,” he said.

The council will consider how to gauge a project’s economic benefit, along with other outstanding Central West issues at future meetings.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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