Commentary: Time for fact-based look at what’s Ephesus-Fordham plan

May 8, 2014 

Esse Quam Videri (To Be, Rather Than to Seem)

Our state’s motto is a fitting hope for the Ephesus-Fordham “Renewal” Plan now before the Town Council. Those who have spoken out about the plan’s deficiencies and inconsistencies have been characterized as nostalgic backward-minded individuals resistant to progress. The reality is that a broad and diverse group of community members have invested countless hours in reading and understanding the details of the current plan, as well as researching best practices and real-life examples of how to successfully implement Form-Based Code in redevelopment projects. The community members seeking to improve the plan include engineers, attorneys, Realtors, business-people, college faculty, K-12 teachers, environmental scientists, as well as many town advisory board members.

The current plan’s proponents’ narrative is that Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chatham County, and other communities are eating Chapel Hill’s lunch, and that only growth can save our town. If this is the case, then how do you explain Chapel Hill’s continued desirability and accolades? There are plenty of less expensive, anonymous places to live in the Triangle and the broader mid-Atlantic region; however, many fortunate residents of Chapel Hill prefer to live here despite paying a high cost for housing and elevated taxes. The primary draws to Chapel Hill – the state’s flagship public university, UNC and its health care system – are not going anywhere. Four of the other major differentiators of why we all choose to pay a premium to live in Chapel Hill – exemplary public schools, natural beauty, diversity, and our unique small town character – are under assault from extractive economic interests.

We recognize that in order to spur redevelopment, there needs to be a range of lucrative investment opportunities; however, we should also make sure the community receives significant benefits in return. We should also retain the right to public review for the largest projects. Asheville’s version of Form-Based Code does this, but the proposed version for Chapel Hill does not.

The current Ephesus-Fordham plan provides an enormous increase in allowable density for development. It allows five to seven story buildings (mostly seven) over almost the entire 169 acres of the Ephesus-Fordham District. To make matters worse, the town is not only providing this entitlement to private landowners, but it is subsidizing it with $10M ($16M if you include the cost of debt service) of taxpayer funds.

Despite this huge incentive for development, the current plan contains no provisions for affordable housing, energy efficiency, public space, stormwater quantity controls, or mass transit. These are only a few of the missing elements in the current plan. Wouldn’t it be great if the plan created a public space for the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market, so it could relocate from the parking lot of University Mall, to a more people-friendly location?

Concerned community members have drafted a list of 40 proposed Form-Based Code improvements that are consistent with our community’s broadly accepted values. This list builds on the unanimous recommendations of the town’s Planning Board and can be reviewed at: ourtownchapelhill.org. This list of proposed improvements has been submitted to the Town Council. We await their responses.

Some of the items in this list may not be feasible, but many are, and have been inspired by work from other cities and towns, as well as the world’s best urban planners. Instead of an exercise in marketing spin and raw political power, let’s have a fact-based conversation about what’s actually in the plan, what’s not in the plan, and what can be added to improve the plan, so that everyone benefits – developers, business owners, and the community at large.

Before we invest $10M-plus of taxpayer money, increase allowable densities dramatically, and deny future public review, let’s make sure that the plan for what we will achieve is the best it can be, and that the town as a whole will benefit from a truly vibrant area of which we can all be proud.

Mickey Jo Sorrell is a member of the Central West Steering Committee. Diane Willis is a geologist and science educator. Brian Wittmayer is the town of Chapel Hill Sustainability Committee chair.

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