Chapel Hill News Commentary

Commentary:  Central West Committee steering in dangerous direction

Sometimes people get led away from a common sense direction by misapplying fashionable ideas or getting lost in details.

Despite good intentions, this is happening with the Town’s Central West Steering Committee, with great potential danger to Chapel Hill’s future.

The town charged the committee with developing a plan for the area along MLK Boulevard near the Estes Drive intersection and east along Estes. An important requirement was citizen input.

The town staff and their consultant wasted time and ran up a big cost overrun by peppering the committee with trendy urban plans that showed no understanding of the context and real issues at Central West. The committee eventually developed four alternative plans, all with various amounts of dense commercial and residential development packed into this small area.

The public got an opportunity to see these plans in a meeting at Amity Church on Sept. 10. The town’s traffic analysis of the four plans showed that they all caused the MLK-Estes intersection to be rated F for failure and would require Estes  ReDrive at MLK to be widened to up to seven lanes, just to maintain the current unpleasant degree of congestion.

The town provided for public comment through a survey, which allowed the four plans to be rated like, dislike, or neutral. The results showed overwhelming opposition to the committee plans, with the strongest opposition to the two densest plans. The 477 respondents disliked these plans by 67 percent and 71 percent. The town planning staff tried to minimize this result by adding the neutral votes to the like votes, but even with this heavy thumb on the scales these plans were still overwhelmingly opposed.

The Steering Committee did not respond to public opposition by considering a course change, but developed a new plan that was so lacking in detail that it could not be evaluated for traffic impacts! This plan shows mixed use and multi-family development for almost the whole area, so it could allow even more dense development than the four plans rejected in the town survey.

With the determination of the town staff and the committee to deliver a plan according to the predetermined schedule, the committee deliberations have become chaotic. On Oct. 8, the committee was informed that a new plan was being developed by the staff and was not available. Yet the committee voted to send this “plan” – which they have not seen and for which no traffic analysis is yet available – on to the Planning Board!

For comparison, Weaver Dairy Road has been widened to six lanes at the intersection with MLK. This wide road shoots fast traffic east on Weaver Dairy, making it difficult and dangerous to get out of the Timberlyne center. The Central West Committee’s current direction implies this same kind of widening of the Estes-MLK intersection, but in this case the fast traffic will be funneled right past two schools.

Chapel Hill is becoming more urban, and in the right places this is good. Downtown along Franklin and Rosemary streets we have many innovative developments, such as Greenbridge,140 West, Shortbread Lofts, and the new University Square about to break ground. The town is also developing a plan for the Ephesus-Fordham area, which has immense potential for redevelopment, served by 15-501 and Franklin Street. These two areas have the density, road and transit infrastructure, and walkability to work as lively urban centers.

But Central West has a different character, with the severely limited capacity of Estes Drive, the two schools, the public library, and 18 surrounding neighborhoods. The Central West area is too small and limited in infrastructure to become an urban center. The committee’s plans will not create a new downtown, but just a small blob of Atlanta surrounded by a traffic nightmare. Instead, we need a common sense plan that will fit the reality of this area.

We members of the Central West Steering Committee do not support the committee’s current direction. We support a mid-density plan for the area drafted by citizens that will allow useful community improvements and a good return to the owners of the undeveloped land, but which will not endanger the schools and create an intolerable traffic gridlock. We continue to encourage our fellow citizens to get informed at, to go to the Council’s public hearing on Oct. 21, and to make your concerns known to our elected officials.

Written by Julie McClintock, Firoz Mistry, Mickey Jo Sorrell and David Tuttle

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