Commentary

Jean Ranc: The emperor’s long black coat

March 21, 2014 

On returning to Chapel Hill after being away since '09, I was shocked by all of the changes for the worse ... along the West Franklin-Rosemary corridor and by the further decline of East Franklin downtown. And I was particularly puzzled by what I was hearing: Everyone seemed to be in a trance, repeating over and over, “due our financial crisis, we must redevelop our town to expand the tax base.”

Or maybe they'd been anesthetized and believe that after this massive makeover, they'll wake up looking like Ava Gardner and Clark Gable ... rather than finding themselves in a sterile habitat that only a Ken and Barbie could love.

So I felt like the kid who sees, not “new clothes,” but that the Emperor is naked.

Then at the Town Council work session (3/6/14), when someone objected to the Ephesus-Fordham proposal to build 7-story buildings along Franklin Street on the present Whole Foods-Staples parking lot, the Emperor disagreed. It seems that when he’d lived across the street from Staples, he would have much preferred to walk past 7-story buildings than what is there now (that is, pandering to the developers, for whom higher buildings = higher profits).

So Saturday, I walked over to take a look. Just as I thought, he'd once lived in that up-scale townhouse development known as Franklin Grove, which is set above and well back from the street with a lovely stone retaining wall along the sidewalk, And on the Whole Foods-Staples side of the street, there is also a green swath of grass with some great tall and also smaller trees plus even some daffodils blooming ... to buffer the parking lot. In fact, it’s almost identical to the slides shown earlier that evening: depicting an ideal layout for parking next to commercial development.

Then in the Sunday paper, one of those Franklin Grove townhouses was listed for sale at $575,000 and another for $750,000. So given that he had lived in such luxury, the Emperor must find it hard to grasp the fact that if the form-based-fast-track-code is approved and the affordable rentals on Ephesus Church Road are demolished, as soon as, the Town Czar rubber-stamps the whole EF Re-development: the inhabitants may be left homeless.

But Not to Pause! the Emperor proclaimed, after some Counselors expressed concern and urged caution over the risk of Faith-Based-Financing & Pawning the Town Hall to secure a $10 million loan to Pave the Way for Redevelopment. Onward to the March 24 Vote! he proclaimed (again pandering to the Developers who want Fast Action) ... because it won't take effect the next day anyway! (However under pressure, the Emperor has since declared that the vote will be postponed.)

I was so disturbed, that after the meeting adjourned, I rushed to confront him but he had already donned his long black overcoat and was on the run ... explaining over his shoulder that “the developers are breathing down our necks and we have to stay ahead of them.” But, I wanted to say, they wouldn’t be if you hadn’t hired a Super Salesman with a $270,000/year budget to sell out our town by such means as: www.openforbusiness.biz and trips to Venezuela? to bring back a 13-screen movie multiplex to our University Mall.

However as the Emperor fled, his Assistant stepped up and countered my concern in a patronizing tone, “we understand that some people have difficulty with change.” I could have argued that, in truth, I’m something of a gypsy who thrives on change and that I would have loved a really classy building at 140-West rather than the pile of boring brick boxes we got in exchange for our town parking lot ... but we were persistently interrupted by cell phone calls from the Emperor (wherever he was?) while his Assistant responded each time, “I’m still talking with a citizen.”

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