‘Form-based code’ could simplify Chapel Hill planning process

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

  • What’s next?

    The Chapel Hill Town Council will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road. This meeting is a regularly scheduled public hearing.

    To see the draft plan, go to bit.ly/1dfGpyM. More information about form-based codes is available from the Form Based Codes Institute at formbasedcodes.org and town consultant Code Studio at code-studio.com.

— Town staff, consultants and the community took more than a year to come up with a new approach to commercial and residential development east of downtown.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a draft “form-based code” for the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard focus area. A staff report includes a list of 60-plus properties scheduled for rezoning.

The area covers 123 acres between East Franklin Street, Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road, from the Village Plaza shopping center on Elliott Road to the town-owned cemetery on Legion Road. It is one of six focus areas identified in the town’s 2020 Plan as ripe for future development.

Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development officer, said the district could be redeveloped over the next 10 years to include up to 258,000 square feet of retail space, 280,000 square feet of hotel space, 368,000 square feet of office space and 1,084 apartments.

Some common questions:

What is form-based code?

Form-based codes have been around for a while, but it’s a new type of zoning for Chapel Hill. The codes address traditional issues – building size, uses and setbacks – but also give developers a guide for landscaping, building design and siting, parking placement and how buildings relate to each other. It gives the community a more predictable understanding of how land could be developed and simplifies the town’s project approval process.

Does the public have a voice once the code is approved?

It depends.

Once the code is in place, town staff will use it to approve or reject projects. The Community Design Commission could weigh in on projects seeking exceptions. Those meetings are open to the public for comment. Developers would continue to seek council approval for projects in other areas.

How tall could buildings get?

The proposed code allows buildings up to seven stories tall across much of the Ephesus-Fordham focus area. Buildings along the fringes of residential neighborhoods could max out at five stories. The lay of the land, environmental and financial limitations and other concerns will prevent most developers from building the maximum square footage and heights allowed, staff has said.

What about affordable housing, greenways, public art and other community values?

The council currently uses zoning as a carrot in negotiating with developers for affordable rental housing and other desires. Form-based code won’t meet every need, but town officials said it will generate tax dollars to pay for them.

The town has two affordable rental housing projects in that area. Developers of The Park (formerly Colony Apartments) have agreed to provide up to 65 affordable apartments in their redevelopment project. The town also is working with Raleigh-based housing nonprofit DHIC Inc. to build up to 200 affordable senior and family apartments on town-owned land off Legion Road.

What type of retail is expected and where?

The town expects a few parcels to be redeveloped quickly, including the site of a former movie theater near Whole Foods, University Inn, Quality Inn and the Park Apartments.

Two locations – the shopping center on Elliott Road and Rams Plaza – have potential sites for a big-box retailer, staff recently told the town’s Planning Board. Small and midsize retailers, similar to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, would be more appropriate elsewhere, staff said.

Taller buildings also are expected to increase the number of people working and living in the area, increasing the demand for local places to shop.

Won’t development make flooding worse in low-lying parts of the corridor?

The town is drafting a master stormwater plan for the area and looking at ways to finance the work, including a bond, using Town Hall as collateral for a loan and creating a Municipal Service District that would tax property owners and developers. The town has estimated its stormwater upgrade costs at more than $1 million.

Compact development also should boost environmental protections by reducing car travel and sprawl, and adding more green spaces, staff said.

What transportation changes are planned?

The town is working with partners – N.C. Department of Transportation, Chapel Hill Transit and others – to plan for new bus routes, pedestrian and bike access and streets. The NCDOT reviewed the small area plan in 2011, and the town plans to alert DOT when changes become necessary. An updated traffic study is planned by 2016.

Town staff also is talking with Chapel Hill Transit and the regional Triangle Transit about better bus service in the area. There could be future connections to other retail destinations, including New Hope Commons in Durham. The planned light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Durham will have a stop at the Gateway Commons, near the Blue Cross and Blue Shield building on U.S. 15-501. A bus-rapid transit line is another option.

Roughly $10 million in road improvements are planned and could be funded through bonds, debt and the new services district.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

Chapel Hill News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service