Commentary

Ken Larsen: Town’s empty promises

April 8, 2014 

A galvanizing event occurred in my life last October 20. I attended a pitch by Chapel Hill’s economic development officer, Dwight Bassett, on the proposed Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment project (EF).

I had always been apathetic about town politics. The Dwight Bassett pitch cured me of my apathy. As I listened, I became increasingly skeptical. EF was a project that would erect seven-story buildings and new roads on a nearby flood plain. Dwight contended that such was necessary to “broaden the tax base,” improve traffic flow, make the area more aesthetic, mitigate current stormwater problems, make the area more walkable, and address affordable housing.

Since that October presentation, I’ve done a lot of study of the EF project and documented my findings on my personal website at bit.ly/1dZybSu

Nothing that I have learned since October has given me any optimism about the project.

•  Stormwater: None of the proposed EF stormwater funding is earmarked to address flooding issues outside of the EF district. Town Council member Ed Harrison has told me that the low-lying and frequently flooded houses in Briarcliff (built in the late 1960s) should never have been built, because by 2014 standards, they lie in a flood zone. Meticulous Ed is correct, because on today’s FEMA maps, those properties do indeed lie in flood zones. However, so also do many of the EF parcels. How do you spell “hypocrisy”?

•  Affordable Housing (AH): E-F will bulldoze Park Apartments (a bastion of affordable housing albeit rundown) and replace it with much higher-priced condos. This is called “gentrification.” To avoid the embarrassment of not providing any affordable housing, the town has contracted with a nonprofit organization named DHIC to build some on town-owned property. That sounds noble, but it has two serious flaws: The town sold DHIC 8.5 acres of Town property for $100 to cement the deal, and the number of affordable units being built is only a fraction of those to be bulldozed at Park apartments.

•  Taxes: The Town Council has preached that they need to “broaden the commercial tax base.” However, the first couple of phases of EF redevelopment will be primarily residential. The council is also trying to secure funding from the county to make EF profitable. It isn’t otherwise. Couple this with giving away 8.5 acres of land for $100 and borrowing $ 10M (with Town Hall as collateral), the town is placing itself in a financial quagmire. Property taxes will most assuredly have to be raised to cover these missteps.

•  Zoning: Chapel Hill has always prided itself in embracing public participation as part of the development processes. In recent years developers have lambasted Chapel Hill’s process as being byzantine and time consuming. In an effort to assuage the developers, our town leaders have decided to swing the pendulum to other extreme for EF. They are on the threshold of adopting a version of something called Form Based Code (FBC) which has minimal public participation and minimal regulatory protections.

•  Walkability: EF is touted as making EF more walkable. Unfortunately EF will clearly become less walkable as new streets will be added. Also, no pedestrian bridges or tunnels will be built to cross the more heavily trafficked Fordham Boulevard and Franklin Street.

•  Traffic Congestion: One of the goals of EF is to alleviate traffic congestion. The new roads appear to do just that; however, any improvement will certainly be short-lived as 1,000 new housing units are added.

Believe the EF hype if you wish, but it’s all empty.

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