Commentary

Michael Parker: A very good plan

March 31, 2014 

In the next few weeks the members of the Chapel Hill Town Council will vote on the Ephesus Road-Fordham Boulevard renewal plan. They should approve it.

It is a good plan, one that is the result of work by town staff and its consultants, supplemented by significant and ongoing citizen and advisory board input.

Important issues remain to be resolved, including streetscapes and stormwater management, but by the time it comes to a vote, it should be an even better plan, due to modifications likely to be made based on Planning Board feedback and council actions.

Make no mistake about it: It is a transformative plan in a number of important ways.

First and foremost, the town is specifying in detail what kind of development it wants, right down to the building appearances, uses, and streetscapes, rather than reacting to what developers happen to propose on a project-by-project basis. Over time, this area will be revitalized, with new residences; retail and commercial spaces; and public amenities, becoming almost a second downtown.

Second, the plan will allow for the investment of some $10 million in town funds into the area to remake the road system. New roads will be created and existing ones improved, not just for cars, but for bicyclists and pedestrians as well. Traffic flow will be improved and the impact of the new development ameliorated. The town’s investment will be repaid from the increased real estate taxes that the new development will generate.

Third, for the first time, our town will have a district-wide stormwater management plan. While it cannot address the problems experienced in some of the areas surrounding the district, it will ensure that stormwater from the district will be managed using state-of-the-art methods with no additional adverse impacts anywhere in Town.

Finally, and this is the aspect of the plan that may be causing the most concern among citizens, by using a form-based code to specify what the town wants, the plan provides for as-of-right construction. If a project meets all of the criteria specified in the code, it can be approved by town staff – with review for appearance-related concerns by the Community Design Commission – without going before the council.

Better outcomes

Chapel Hill has long subjected developers to an arduous, complicated, and often contentious process that culminates in council review. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked all that well for us. We continue to be the recipients of projects that are all too often mediocre at best. By specifying, in advance, what it is we want and providing an appropriate level of staff and CDC review, we stand a much better chance of getting projects that we actually want and like.

One caveat: if this plan succeeds as it should, it will pose a real challenge to the downtown’s attractiveness if nothing further is done there. One hopes that once this plan is approved, the council will build on the enthusiasm and energy being generated by Rosemary Imagined and approve the Downtown Master Plan.

To paraphrase Joe Biden, this plan is a really big deal. As such, it is no wonder that many town residents are concerned and fearful. It would be a surprise if it were otherwise. But we also need to recognize the many benefits that this plan provides and understand that our current way of doing business has simply not served us well. This is a very good plan, and the Town Council should approve it.

Michael Parker lives in Chapel Hill.

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