Report to the Citizens of Chapel Hill

October 1, 2013

Report to the Citizens of Chapel Hill

 Re: Development Plans for Central West  (The area north and south of Estes Drive on the east side of the intersection of Estes and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard)

 This report has been prepared by four members of the Central West Steering Committee, charged by the Town Council to develop a plan for the future development of the area along Estes Drive near the intersection with MLK Boulevard.  After many months of work, we believe it our responsibility to report on behalf of our fellow citizens that the plan currently favored by the majority of the Steering Committee is inappropriate for the planning area and will have harmful consequences for Chapel Hill.

 This report makes the following key points, which are explained in further detail following this summary:

1.  We support development at Central West that respects the constraints of its location. See our proposed draft plan attached.

2.  We support more intensive urban development in Chapel Hill where it fits into our community. Downtown and the 15-501 corridor are the most promising locations for this kind of development.

3.  The four plans for Central West development drafted for public review all caused the MLK-Estes intersection to be rated F for failure, meaning that the intersection could not handle the additional traffic to be generated. The Town’s traffic analysis is based on some implausible assumptions, making the problem even worse than presented.

4.  The Town’s analysis shows that to maintain the current level of service on Estes Drive (highly congested) when Carolina North and Central West are in operation, Estes Drive would have to be widened to seven lanes. Of course the Town could choose to live with more congestion and an F rating.

5.  After citizen comments overwhelmingly rejected the four plans developed by the Steering Committee, the Committee responded by developing a new plan that could allow even more dense development and traffic than the four criticized plans. The new plan has so little detail that its effect on traffic cannot be analyzed.

6.  The Town has analyzed how much additional tax revenue development at Central West would bring in, balanced against the additional Town cost of services for this new development. Because the Town’s model leaves out as much as one third of the costs, the net benefits of this development are much less than touted.

7.  The effects of the proposed dense development on stormwater and flooding have not been studied adequately.

The Steering Committee got off course due to errors in leadership by the Town planning staff and the Town’s consultant. The Town’s planning consultant started work by presenting examples of dense urban developments from large cities from all over the US, demonstrating no understanding of the context and the planning issues of this specific part of Chapel Hill. The consultant and the Town staff presented many complicated development plans to the Steering Committee before the Committee had even begun to discuss the nature of this area in the context of the whole Town and what principles should guide its future. The consultant’s work was costly to the Town and actually impeded the efforts of the Steering Committee to become a functional group seeking consensus. Driven by trendy ideas rather than by practical common sense, the consultant’s proposed intense urban development of this small area came to be seen by some as the key to making Chapel Hill a more modern Town and balancing its budget with new tax revenues.

Unfortunately, this small area can not deliver on all these unrealistic hopes. It is far too small to become a center of urban activity and atmosphere in itself. Also it is too far from the parts of Town which do have a real potential to become urban centers, such as downtown and the 15-501 corridor.  But this unrealistic concept gained momentum, and as the work of the Steering Committee evolved, the Town staff and the consultant developed four plans for public review, designated A1, A2, B1, and B2. These plans called for from 1700 to 2300 new residents, plus large office and retail developments in the Central West planning area. 

When the Town staff analyzed these four plans, it became clear that they are completely unworkable. According to the Town, these plans add from 7000 to 18,000 daily auto trips to the already gridlocked MLK-Estes area. The Town’s analysis showed that the additional traffic from the new Central West development will cause the MLK-Estes intersection to be rated F for unacceptable traffic delays for all four plans, and will require “traffic mitigation strategies”, which means major road widening.

Despite these dire conclusions, the Town’s assumptions are implausible and significantly understate the traffic loads. For example, the Town assumes a 2% rate of traffic growth for the first three years of planning, which then drops to half this rate for the next seven years. This reduced growth rate after three years is not consistent with Chapel Hill 2020 or Long Range Transit Plan projections.

The Town’s assumptions about traffic patterns generated by this new development are also highly questionable. The Town projects that the new residents of Central West will make only 25% of their vehicle trips on Estes and 75% on MLK. But because most of the vehicle access to Central West is from Estes, trips on Estes will surely be much greater than 25% of the total. Further, the Town postulates that there will be this large share of automobile trips on MLK because so many of the residents will work on the main campus and at UNC hospitals. But at the same time, the Town inconsistently plans for most of these residents to use the bus rather than driving, because of the limited, expensive parking on the campus and at the hospital. Finally, this high allocation of new traffic to MLK is not convincing, given that University Mall, the Post Office, the Library, Eastgate, Whole Foods, Ram’s Plaza, and Carrboro are all accessed via Estes.

The Town’s transportation planner developed a number of possible mitigation measures for the new traffic that would be generated by the four plans, including widening Estes Drive at the MLK intersection in increments up to seven lanes. Some Town leaders have criticized mentioning the seven lane possibility as alarmism. They say that the Town will only consider widening to five lanes. But the fact remains that the seven lane option has been put on the table by the Town staff, because seven lanes is what is required to handle the new traffic at the current service level when Carolina North traffic arrives. If intensive development in this area is permitted and traffic becomes intolerable, no one can guarantee how wide and pedestrian unfriendly this intersection may become under a future mayor and council.

Proponents of more dense urban development in Chapel Hill base much of their case on the need to increase Town tax revenue, which is certainly needed. In making development decisions, the additional tax revenue generated must be balanced against the added costs to the Town to serve the new development. The Town has used a model to estimate the amount of new revenue these four development plans would bring in over the added Town cost to support the new population and facilities. But the Town staff has acknowledged that this model has a major flaw, in that it left possibly one third of the Town budget out of the calculation.

For example, the Town assumed a significant number of new transit riders to and from Central West to reduce the total number of new automobile trips, but it did not account for the cost of the new busses, drivers and maintenance to move these new passengers. Given budget constraints at both the state and federal level, the Town will probably have to cover these new transit costs and will likely soon have to cover a much larger share of our growing transit expenses.

Other Town costs, such as bond payments, were also ignored in the tax versus cost calculation. So these four development plans might only add a net $100,000 to $150,000 annually to the Town’s budget, hardly enough to compensate for or remedy the severe traffic problems that can be expected.

The Town gave the public an opportunity to have a say about the four Committee plans at Amity Church on September 10. Frustratingly, the Town did not show the public the maps of the four plans with the building footprints and new roads proposed for this small area, which is surrounded by homes and schools. These plans were developed by the consultant and used by the Committee, but were not shared with the public. So to some extent, the public did not get to see what the Steering Committee is actually recommending. Over 200 citizens came to this meeting. Their reaction, as shown by notations and comments written in on the four proposed maps, was overwhelmingly negative.

The Town also provided an on line survey on the Town web site for the benefit of any citizens who could not come to the Amity meeting. The response was high, with 477 Town residents responding to the opportunity to rate each of the four plans as like, dislike, or neutral. The responders overwhelmingly disliked all four plans, with the two densest plans the most disliked. Plan A2 was disliked by 67% and liked by 17%. Plan B2 was disliked by 71% and liked by only 16%. The public was not given a chance to comment on a significantly less dense plan, such as the one which we four members had submitted to the Steering Committee.

Instead of taking the strong negative public response to the four plans seriously, the co-chairs of the Steering Committee have produced a new map, which could allow development with even more density and more traffic than the A2 and B2 maps, which were so overwhelmingly rejected by the public. This new map responds to public opposition by leaving out details rather than by considering a change of direction. The new map, adopted by the Steering Committee on September 24 to send to the Planning Board for review, lacks the critical information that would allow either the planning Board or the public to evaluate it. Almost all of the planning area is designated for mixed use or multi-family housing, with no indication of how much commercial space or how many dwelling units are included. Thus the traffic issue is dealt with by making the plan so vague that an analysis of traffic impacts is impossible! 

During the work of the Steering Committee, a troubling attitude toward citizen opinion has developed in some quarters. The Council appointed two landowners in the Central West planning area to the Steering Committee. They have vigorously advocated for development plans which would maximize their personal economic return, which is their right. But these two landowners have also questioned the legitimacy of citizen comments on the draft plans as expressed at Amity church, in the Town survey, and in public comment periods at Committee meetings. These landowners have said that because many of the negative comments have come from those who live near this planning area, that they are not legitimate, not representative of the “whole Town”. But it is absolutely appropriate for citizens to comment on things that affect their welfare. So we should expect that those who will be most affected by additional traffic at Central West, those who have children in these schools, and those concerned about pedestrian and bike safety on Estes should be motivated to be engaged, just as those most affected by the redevelopment of the Glen Lennox area were the citizens who were active in that planning effort. 

Stormwater and flooding concerns were raised at the Amity Church community meeting and at committee meetings, but have remained unaddressed. Because there are no details on the amount of impervious surfaces for roads and buildings in the new Steering Committee map, it is impossible to know whether stormwater can be managed on the site.

The Steering Committee members who prepared this report are not opposed to dense urban development in Chapel Hill where it fits. In the past few years we have seen many innovative urban projects along Franklin and Rosemary streets and more are coming soon. The 15-501-Franklin Street corridor from University Mall to the Blue Cross-Blue Shield building has immense potential for urban redevelopment, both commercial and residential. A small area plan has already been approved for a part of this corridor. These two areas have the infrastructure and accessibility to support larger populations and substantial amounts of commercial activity.

We Steering Committee members are not opposed to development in Central West either. But development here must respect the context of this area: an Estes Drive that is already overburdened, much more traffic already on the way from the 800,000 square feet of development already approved at Carolina North, two public schools and the library, for which safe and ready access is a top priority, and  many surrounding residential neighborhoods. New development at Central West must have limits on the number of new residents and on the amount of commercial space to avoid making Estes Drive impassible.

To demonstrate our vision for the Central West area, we have drafted a plan that will provide retail and office space near MLK, a small park and a community gathering space, a variety of housing, including housing for the Town work force and for moderate income families, and safe sidewalks and bike routes for school children and all residents. Our plan is limited to about 350 new residents and would add only about 4500 new auto trips per day, compared to 7000 to 18,000 new trips for the four plans developed by the Steering Committee. (The plan currently being forwarded by the Steering Committee to the Planning Board has no defined development limit and cannot be evaluated for traffic impacts, but it could generate even more than 22,000 additional trips.) Please see our alternative plan attached below.

Additional attachments include a topographical map and a Comparison Table of Concept Plans.

We intend to continue to work with the Steering Committee to advocate for a plan that is suitable for the Central West area. Because this issue is so critical for Chapel Hill’s future, we will also continue to explain and advocate our position in all available Town forums.

David Tuttle                       Firoz Mistry

Julie McClintock                Mickey Jo Sorrell             



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