June 18, 2013 The Town Council has designated five areas of town for potential higher density, including Downtown, Ephesus Road area, Obey Creek, Glen Lennox; and finally Central West. When approved these plans under development will add up to thousands of square feet of new office and retail for the Town.
In December 2012, the Town Council appointed a diverse group to be on a citizens’ committee composed of developers, residents and institutional representatives, such as UNC, the School Board, and the YMCA to guide the community discussion and to make recommendations for the Central West area. The Committee is tasked to take draft decisions out to the public using an “accordion model” and make final recommendations to the Council in December.
The Central West Impact Area is large and runs north/south from Homestead Rd on MLK south to Mt Bolus, and east/west from Seawell School Rd. on Estes Extension to Franklin St. Carolina North in located within this area and will, when complete, rival central campus in size, 3 million square feet, but with a different mission, one of entrepreneurship and graduate studies. While construction is delayed, we can expect 800,000 square feet, 1525 parking spaces, and 1780 employees when the first phase is complete, possibly within the decade. These approved plans must be factored into planning recommendations
What progress has the Steering Committee made? The Committee is nearly half way done its one year schedule with a major report going to the Council on June 24th. It seems unlikely the final plan can meet its schedule to send recommendations and a plan to Town advisory boards by October. On the pus side, the Committee can take credit for nearly agreeing on a list of Guiding Principles and Objectives that seem well thought out and cognizant of the special qualities that characterize our Central West area — two schools, YMCA, a new library and many residential neighborhoods happily located near these important institutions.
The principles recognize the limited capacity of Estes Drive. One of the hallmarks of the Carolina Development agreement is that as the campus is built out certain transit improvements are required. Estes Drive has limited capacity to carry more cars. Those who regularly travel this road know that it is not unusual for the MLK/Estes intersection to wait over 5 light cycles during peak hours. Whatever recommendation the Steering Committee makes about land intensity and use, traffic must keep moving on this important road. There is no magic bullet that will make it possible for the majority of people to ride the bus and the 2040 long range transportation plan does not expand Estes. Widening roads generally don’t cure traffic problems and would cause more dangerous school crossings.
Little progress has been made on the mapping concepts. The Consultant and staff adhered to a rushed schedule of introducing concept maps based on interviews with the property owners involved, in advance of completing the principle discussions. Committee members have not discussed together or agreed on the basics of what a plan should contain before they were presented with example concepts. Citizens speaking during the public comment periods have called for a more deliberate process that would clearly take into account the community comment. In response to the three high intensity maps presented to the public on May 18th, citizens objected to those maps, and presented their own lower intensity widely-supported map on June 4th during the public comment period in order to provide an alternative for the committee discussion. That has not yet been scheduled for discussion.
The Consultant presented the most recent map on June 11th. Visualize a map with a built-out Carolina North, moving eastward across the street to 5 story buildings on the corner of MLK and Estes, and transitions to 3 story apartments down Estes Drive on either side of Somerset, and then to two schools surrounded by dozens of residential neighborhoods. This can be viewed on the Town website.
Key issues identified by citizens during the public comment period are: Estes Drive must be safe for school children and pedestrians. The planning process offers an opportunity to make Estes a safer street.
• Whatever is permitted for the undeveloped property must respect the safe passage of walkers and cars on Estes Drive.
• Call for traffic studies and data to establish the carrying capacity of Estes Drive.
• Community members want a low intensity option to be considered by the steering committee.
• Central West recommendations must take into account town wide needs. We need to know what type of economic development will help the Town the most – not just “All development is good development”.
• Since each of the 5 active Focus Area have vastly different geographic and environmental conditions, their impacts must be considered individually.
• Need for a skilled facilitator to help the group build consensus on agreed directions.