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. Continue reading


Survey Results Conclusive

The Town provided an on line survey on the Town web site for the benefit of any citizens who could not come to the Amity Community meeting. Residents from all over Town participated. The response was unusually high, with 477 Town residents responding. The public was not given a chance to comment on the Citizens’ Plan, a significantly less dense plan. The results demonstrated that most Chapel Hill citizens did not like the high density maps the Steering Committee had selected.

Respondents were asked to rate four plans as 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.

This post tells what happened next.

What happened after the September community session?

After the Community Input session at Amity Church and the Town sponsored survey, many felt that community members had spoken clearly that the four maps brought to the meeting brought too much intensity and traffic to the area. The session was attended by over 230 people, despite a Back to School event the same evening.  Although the Committee had voted against allowing the Citizen Map to be presented at the workshop, copies were distributed outside the door.  Lively conversation made up for fairly primitive displays of red and green dots. Although the Citizen Plan had not been invited to the party, it was the most popular guest.

In the Report to the Citizens of Chapel Hill four members of the Steering Committee explain why they favored the Alternate Citizens’ Plan over the Committee Plan.

The following week, the Co chairs decided on their own to go back to the drawing board on the concept map.  Amy Ryan and Michael Parker initiated private meetings with every committee member where they sought views of what should be on a map.  From these meetings grew a new hand colored map – a separate but collective view.  At the  September 24 Steering Committee meeting, members were invited to make individual suggestions for the new map .Over 55 recommendations were articulated and listed as possible changes.  The co chairs followed up with motions and the committee voted on some of them. Many suggestions were left on the table, not discussed, and never revisited. 

Some steering committee members expressed disappointment that the new map lacked the good traffic analysis done previously on A1 – B2 maps (the ones that had been taken to the workshop).  They said the Council deserved a map that would show where density should go in order to estimate the impact on traffic.  They also pressed for setbacks, lower heights and density in order to reduce new expected traffic on Estes from Carolina North and other new development. Alan Tom closed this meeting with an articulate summary of the year’s progress in Central West.  See Alan’s remarks.

Alan Tom’s remarks to Central West Steering Committee

Just last week, the Steering Committee (Action Minutes for September 19) voted to use the map recently developed through individual conversations with Steering Committee members “as a first draft and starting point for the Committee’s discussions.”

Tonight that same map appears on your agenda for final action because, as noted in the agenda directions, “the Committee needs to send a plan to the Planning Board for their review on October 1st ….”  Even by the twists and turns that have become a defining characteristic of the Central West Steering Committee, the abrupt switch in one week from a map being “a first draft and starting point for … discussions” to being an action item is a astounding change in direction.

The reality is that the Steering Committee is not near being ready to offer a final report that could be meaningfully reviewed by the Planning Board next week.  Let me capture major unresolved problems that are embedded in the map under consideration this afternoon (for reference, here is the map:

1) A key problem with the plan on the table is the failure of this plan to have a set of defensible performance standards for traffic and flooding, presuming that performance outcomes are to be part of the assessment for potential developments.

2) The plan does not identify square foot maximums for each developer (you can’t have both flexibility of building placement and no sense of maximum square footage and still have meaningful protection for surrounding neighborhoods).

3) The whole issue of Estes Drive is unaddressed in the plan under consideration, leaving it unclear, for example, the maximum number of lanes that  might be added as part of traffic mitigation procedures or precisely what features will promote the safety of school-age children and other pedestrians (part of this latter issue may be addressed this evening).

4) Yet to be discussed and resolved is whether senior housing can be appropriately placed on a ridge with nearby steep ravines in one of Chapel Hill’s last remaining near old-growth forests.

5) The southward extension of Somerset would entail it crossing a drainage area, both an expensive road to build and an environmentally questionable proposal.

6) While the map states that intensity decreases as one moves eastward on Estes, it is hard to see on that map how that claim is true.

7) Even though we now know that Carolina North is going to be phased in slower than originally expected, no provisions are apparent on the map for accommodating Central West development  to the phase-in of Carolina North.

These 7 unresolved areas — other people no doubt can add to this list — are significant, and it is not surprising that these areas are unresolved.  After all discussion of this new map has just begun, and the Steering Committee has only recently started to talk to one another in a serious way.  In the absence of a skilled facilitator and with a committee charge that has morphed periodically, the Steering Committee has seemed to spin in circles for much of the past 6 months.

When the Town Council established the Steering Committee membership last October, the Council made the committee membership broadly representative of the interests of the community, ranging from landowners to institutional representatives to residents of Central West.  This was a design to promote, if not compel, consensus, and the Steering Committee early on adopted consensus as a goal.

Now is not the time to shortcircuit that goal.  I urge you to persist and to work for consensus so that the interests of everyone around the table are preserved and the final small area plan has the support of all of you.

Alan Tom  September 24, 2013

Pictures from September Community Event

See more  Pictures from Event  by Maria de Bruyn

Image 1

Letter to Steering Committee

Four steering committee members, David Tuttle, Firoz Mistry, Mickey Jo Sorrell, and Julie McClintock, presented this letter to their colleagues at the September 4 steering committee meeting.  They requested that that this new proposal be discussed and that it be shared with the public at the September 10 outreach session at Amity Methodist Church. The committee declined to allow the letter at the workshop.  Not to be deterred, citizens gave out the letter at the door.

Members of the Central West Steering Committee:

We find that we cannot support any of the four plans now being considered by the Committee without significant change. This letter is not meant to discredit anyone’s hard work, rather it is intended to document our understanding to date about the inconsistencies of the current four proposed plans to our announced goals and objectives and to clarify the big picture concerns why we find these plans unworkable Continue reading

Consultant overruns contract

Stancil memo to Council, August 28
Durham Morning Herald article is here.
Krebs.public comment Aug 29

Letter to Editor, John Morris