Questions could slow Chapel Hill growth plan

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2014 

  • The story so far

    The Town Council approved a plan in June 2011 to redevelop the largely commercial, 123-acre Ephesus-Fordham focus area northeast of Elliott Road. The district – now 190 acres – is one of six future growth areas in the town’s 2020 Plan.

    Code Studio consultant Lee Einsweiler worked with town staff to draft a “form-based code” based on the small-area plan. A code establishes multiple designs that developers can use when planning new buildings, parking lots and landscapes.

    Town staff members would approve or reject most projects, although the council could add a public review. If the new code is approved, the council also would rezone several dozen properties.

    Einsweiler, town staff and others have been talking with the community since September 2012 about the proposed changes. Although most people agree the district’s strip malls could stand a facelift, there have been intense disagreements about the amount of growth planned and how it might affect the whole town.

    Critics point out the plan lacks important details, such as how to avoid worsening problems with stormwater and flooding and how to handle increased traffic townwide. The town’s plan to pay $10 million in stormwater and road improvements with higher sales and property taxes from redeveloped projects also has some residents worried.

— Unresolved questions about the planned Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment zone could delay a March vote, Town Council members said.

The draft “form-based code” covers 190 acres south of Franklin Street, between Elliott Road and Legion Road at the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. Ephesus-Fordham is one of six areas identified for development in the town’s 2020 Plan for future growth.

The code lets developers choose from multiple “forms” for designing new buildings and their surroundings. The town manager and staff would have the final say on proposed developments, although a Community Design Commission review and approval process is recommended.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said nothing would change until every part of the plan is approved.

The council took the unusual step of hearing public comment at its work session Thursday night. Council members said they share concerns about unresolved issues, from stormwater and economic benefit to how to pay for districtwide improvements.

Booker Creek, which runs under Eastgate shopping center, should be restored, Council member Maria Palmer said.

“We want, 20 years from now, for somebody with vision to say, OK, we’re going to daylight the creek and put these amazing apartments and fancy restaurants and a little park. It’s going to be a focus and a place where people want to go on a Sunday afternoon,” Palmer said.

Council member Ed Harrison said softer transitions could ease some “pretty abrupt” changes in building heights – from a 45-foot maximum near existing homes to 90 feet in the core.

The town might be able to offer incentives for amenities it can’t require, such as affordable housing and energy-efficient buildings, he and others said. Everyone wins with energy-efficient projects, resident Tom Henkel said.

“The owners of the buildings, because they have a better building, can charge higher rents, but because the operating costs are lower, the tenants will end up with net lower costs,” he said.

Council member George Cianciolo joined critics in calling for more information about how the town would pay its debts and get more benefits from redevelopment. Resident Ken Larsen gave the council a lengthy table of residents’ concerns and recommendations.

Landscape architect Scott Murray said he supported the draft code after trying it out on different clients’ projects.

“Is it perfect? No, it doesn’t have to be, but it does work in the real world, and it’s time to get on with it,” he said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said he visited two vibrant cities with form-based code, but Chapel Hill residents are right to worry about how the district could look and whether it will be only a few huge apartment buildings, he said.

Developers might do residential projects first, but the town will get out of the code what it puts into it, said Code Studio consultant Lee Einsweiler.

Czajkowski said that’s why it’s vital to work with the schools to figure out how many families with school-age students could be coming.

If “we’ve got to build another school or two, we could create another economic scenario that is significantly worse for the town than better,” he said.

Town Hall loan

Critics have said the town is rushing the changes. Town Manager Roger Stancil said the June flood that damaged Town Hall presented a unique opportunity to pay for $10 million in stormwater and road projects that will make the district work.

The town is using Town Hall as collateral for a $10 million loan to renovate the building, do smaller projects and help pay $8.8 million for new Ephesus-Fordham streets, sidewalks and roads.

The plan also includes $1.2 million in districtwide stormwater improvements.

Business management director Ken Pennoyer said higher tax revenues from redeveloped parcels would help repay the debt. The town also could use bond money, development fees and revenues from a new stormwater district tax on commercial property.

The town could borrow from its debt fund in a pinch, Pennoyer said.

Ward also suggested a transit tax. Chapel Hill Transit will start to wither under increased pressure and without new money, he said.

“At the same time I say that, it’s a critical piece of infrastructure that the university’s counting on and a large number of people in our community, not affiliated with the university, are counting on. Our whole land-use plan counts on it,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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