June 20, 2013 letter to Council

Re: June 24th Business Meeting: Milestone Progress within the Central West Focus Area

Dear Mayor and Town Councilors,

Executive summary:
We are eager to see that the Central West Planning process succeeds and we request that the Town Council support these improvements to the “community driven” process you endorsed last October.

  • Perform thorough transportation analysis of Estes Drive functions for auto mobility and safe pedestrian travel in the walk to school zone before other work proceeds.
  • Improve outreach to key constituents and the public
    –  Schools’ community
    –  Public housing residents
    –  New ways for the public to give input outside of meetings
  • Provide more direct access to give iniput outside meetings.
    – There is no mention of CWFA on the Town’s home page, or via the 2020 links.
    –  Record all public comment on one web page that can be easily found
  • Encourage the Steering Committee to deliberate on major issues, considering further information and public comments, before pressing forward with more concept maps.
  • Provide a neutral facilitator to the Steering Committee to ensure that their discussions remain focused, include all the committee members, summarize the differing viewpoints, and result in more decisions.
  • Arrange for a walk through the land scheduled for redevelopment (both N and S of Estes Drive) to put development proposals into a realistic topographical and environmental context.

Background and supporting information:
The objective of this letter is to demonstrate that members of the Chapel Hill community are invested in the Central West Focus Area (CWFA) consultation planning process and eager that it should succeed as the future model for planning in Chapel Hill.  It is in that context that we share with you some thoughts on successes to date, and concerns that could keep us from accomplishing our shared goal.

It is important to remind ourselves that the Central West Impact Area is much broader than the 60 acres that are under consideration for development.  This is currently a vibrant area with:

  • 2 wonderful, yet almost at capacity schools – Estes Hills Elementary and Phillips Middle
  • A fantastic new library with community space
  • YMCA community sports center and base for many youth camps and activities
  • A population of around 10,788 people, living in $1bn of assessed value residential property, within 18 established Chapel Hill community neighborhoods
  • An established church, with an associated commercial day nursery and scout troop ventures
  • The soon to be built Carolina North campus of 3mn ft2 for professional education, research and start-up incubation
  • 2 major traffic corridors MLK and Estes Drive, (both of which are currently subject to heavy congestion)
  • An environmentally sensitive and valuable area of old growth forest at the center of Chapel Hill

All of the above distinguishing characteristics create a unique area in the center, of Chapel Hill.  This is not Downtown and is not a greenfield site.  The context of the area therefore makes it an appropriate setting for only a selection, not all, of the many proposals that arose from the 2020 process.

What does the community believe to be important here?

  • Safety for children to walk or bike to school in the walk to school zones of the two schools on Estes Drive.
  • Avoid overburdening Estes Drive with additional traffic to keep it safe and passable for school buses, local residents and commuters to Carolina North.
  • Build a development that is compatible with the professional mission of the Carolina North campus and compatible with the characteristics of the established residential / institutional area.
  • Honor an environmentally sensitive area, with steep topography, beautiful creeks, and rare ancient woodlands in a way that preserves this area as an outstanding legacy for future generations in Chapel Hill to enjoy.

Your charge for the focus area and steering committee (Appendix 1) has provided an inspiring vehicle for empowering Chapel Hill citizens and workers to contribute to the growing vision for development of their town.

What is working?
Many good things have come out of the process:

  • People are volunteering many hours of their time to the process, (both members of the Steering Committee and the public). Increasing numbers from all over Chapel Hill are attending Steering Committee meetings (40+).
  • You have appointed a diverse Steering Committee with broad representation, including interests from all over town.
  • The collaborative accordion consultation framework, which has worked so effectively to produce the draft principles and objectives, and gave rise to the submission of an alternative citizens concept map (Appendix 2) which will undergo further revisions as part of this process.
  • Opportunities for public comment at each meeting (although these sometimes go unrecorded and leave no scope to contribute for those unable to attend).
  • Information about the process, and meeting materials are shared with the public on various websites.  (It would be more helpful, however, if these were consistently posted to a single site, which could be more readily found).

What needs to be improved?
There are some barriers to success that need to be addressed for future progress and refinement of the consultative model, drawn up to be community driven with staff support.

  • Concept plans have been proposed before any analysis has been undertaken of the impact and study area. New maps bear no relation to the limited capacity of Estes Drive.
    –  We repeatedly hear the unsupported statement that “higher  density development will ease congestion” without addressing the critical issue of safety around the two schools.
  • It appears that the consultants and town staff are steering the process, not the Steering Committee.
    –  The Concept plans drawn up by the consultants are not related to the principles and objectives (still in draft) drawn up by the Steering Committee and community.
    –  Too much time is devoted within meetings to presentations by the consultants of their latest concept plans, at the expense of subsequent time for Steering Committee discussions on critical issues.
    –  None of the 8 concept plans developed to date by the consultants have been subjected to debate and agreement as a whole group by the Steering Committee, and yet they have been presented to the public as if this was the case.
  • Steering Committee meetings would benefit from a neutral facilitator to encourage input from all members, summarize discussions, agree on action points and build consensus before moving onto the next agenda item.
  • Feedback from the community to the Steering Committee is dealt with inconsistently and this has undermined public confidence in the process.  (This issue was best addressed when Megan, in one meeting, read out feedback comments to the SC as they were working on objectives).
  • There is no good mechanism for a two-way flow of information between the SC and members of the public who are not able to attend meetings.
    –  Currently the only way to actively participate in the consultation process is to attend a 3-hour Saturday morning workshop or a 2 – 3 hour Steering Committee meeting over the dinner hour.
    –  Where are the other tools for two-way consultation that the Town promised?
  • How can we ensure that the Steering Committee and public are making informed choices for developments in the Central West Focus Area when they are doing so without knowledge of decisions in other focus areas?
    –  How can this information be made more accessible to all?
    –  How can information be more widely shared about the agreed plans for the phased development of Carolina North?
    –  Add a direct link to these issues to the Town of Chapel Hill’s home page and 2020 links.
    –  What else can the town be doing to attract public interest?

In summary, in order to ensure the future success of the consultation process adopted as a planning model within CWFA, time needs to be taken to review and evaluate what has happened so far and then to implement improvements to better integrate the community voices as per the charge.

Many people in Chapel Hill seem unaware of the details of the Carolina North development, and fewer still appear to have any knowledge of the focus areas or accordion approaches.  What else could be done to publicize this work and more actively engage Chapel Hill citizens and workers in these discussions?

Within the CWFA, all proposed development needs to be evaluated under the lens of the safety of children walking to the local schools, minimizing further congestion on Estes and MLK, developing the area compatibly with Carolina North and the existing area characteristics and working within the natural constraints of the topography.

Thank you for considering our inputs.

With kind regards,

Debbie Jepson & Theresa Raphael-Grimm
On behalf of invested Chapel Hill citizens

Appendix 1 – Town Council Charge for CWFA, Steering Committee and Purpose.
Appendix 2 – The Alternative “Citizens” Initial Concept Plans, presentation, explanations and photographs.

Appendix 1 – Town Council Charge for CWFA, Steering Committee and Purpose.
(as on the Town of Chapel Hill website).

“Purpose and Work Product
The purpose of the Central West Focus Area process is for the community to provide their ideas and thoughts about the following:

  • Appropriate uses for the area (such as residential, commercial, office, mixed-use, etc.);
  • The form (what the area and buildings should look like); and
  • The intensity (how many new uses and buildings are comfortable for the area).

The community’s thoughts and ideas will form a small area plan which, if necessary, will be developed into new zoning regulations for this area. These regulations will help to ensure that the area is compatible with the community’s wishes.

The small area plan will combine visual images with descriptive text and include the reasoning, or the “why’s,” behind the plan, similar to the South 15-501 area plan, that analyzes conditions in the area and defines a vision for change that will help guide Town decisions.

Steering Committee
A Steering Committee has been developed with the following purpose:

  • Maintaining the integrity of the planning process
  • Insuring that the process is open and participatory
  • Receiving and integrate community feedback
  • Facilitating communication with the community

The Steering Committee will decide how to make decisions during their initial Committee discussions. A decision-making process that focuses on broad consensus is encouraged so that Committee recommendations are reflective of the many interests in the focus area.”

Appendix 2: The Alternative “Citizens” Initial Concept Plans.
The Citizens Initial Concept Plan that the Steering Committee will present to you on June 24th, was submitted as part of the consultation process.  It was produced with the broad support of people from 12 housing divisions, from Lake Hogan Farms in the west, to Englewood in the east, Timberlyne in the north and the Hillsborough Historic district in the south.  Many of the individuals live in 7 of the neighborhoods that are within the impact area. The concepts presented express the ideas of empowered community members for an alternative, lower density development that had not been reflected in the earlier concept maps being used within the consultation process. To help provide you with a better context for these ideas, I attach a copy of the presentation, explanation and photo’s that were shared with the Steering Committee on June 4th.   The map was intended as a discussion starter within the accordion process and will doubtless be revised for further consideration by the Steering Committee and community as we progress.

For a copy of the presentation please click here
For a copy of the map, please click here
For photo illustrations, please click here
Attach Copy of presentation made to Steering Committee on June 4t
Copy of Chapel Hill photographs
Copy of concept explanations
Copies of maps.

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