Central West Citizens for Quality Growth
October 17, 2012
Based on conversations with citizens from the Central West Focus Area, Alan Tom drafted this mission statement. The statement was revised and edited by those who live in the 12 neighborhoods which are in this focus area and we invite comments.
Working from the premise that high “Quality Growth” is desirable for the Central West Focus Area and ultimately for all of Chapel Hill, we identify and describe five considerations which make such quality growth possible:
- The Character of an Area – Determining the best ways to integrate higher density developments into our traditional single family neighborhoods, soon to be joined by Carolina North
- Need for Development — Analyzing the need for development to reduce the risk of building out excessively, resulting in commercial and apartment vacancies and a declining Town image
- Cost Effectiveness – Making sure that new development really produces more tax revenue than the costs such development imposes on infrastructure and Town services
- Transportation – Attending to implications of new development for automobile traffic, bike travel, and pedestrian safety, all within the context of the traffic to be generated by Carolina North
- Environmental Impacts – Anticipating and remediating the effects of new development on storm-water run-off, including the impact of storm-water diversion on downstream neighborhoods.
Addressing each of these considerations, while evaluating development proposals, makes it possible for development projects in our area to be of high quality, which in turn fosters the quality of life for the entire community of Chapel Hill.
The Central West Citizens group is composed of homeowners and renters from over ten neighborhoods in Chapel Hill. Membership is open to any person who endorses the view of “Quality Growth” which follows.
While preparing this statement of our core beliefs on development in the Central West Focus Area, we found a blog which indicated that our orientation is misunderstood. This blog suggests that our interests are narrow in scope — essentially limited to guarding our neighborhoods — and that we are anti-development in orientation.
We admit to having great pride in our neighborhoods but also believe that our concern for high quality growth is good not only for our neighborhoods but also for all of Chapel Hill. Our view is longterm. We are conscious that in the not-too-distant future our location adjacent to Carolina North will place us in the center of the northern gateway entrance to Chapel Hill. New development in our key location, therefore, must be of the highest possible quality.
Introduction. Fifty years ago the vicinity around the intersection of Estes Drive and Airport Road (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) was on the perimeter of the single family housing surrounding the University. Some roads were not yet paved. Over time, as the university and the medical center expanded, more single family homes were built on half-acre and up to two-acre wooded lots that eventually covered the hills around Eastwood Lake, both sides of Estes Drive from Franklin Street to Phillips Middle School, and the high land in the Mount Bolus area, with a few apartments and some commercial properties extending along Airport Road.
About 25-30 years ago, as the Town’s rate of growth accelerated, the whole community had a long dialogue about the downside of sprawl: increased driving distances, more cars on the road, more pollution, and so forth. There was general agreement that the Town should focus on infill and increased density. Land use planning and special use permits reflected this revised thinking; newer housing developments in the area are on smaller lots. Now we are a mixture of single family housing and apartments, along with some commercial development, but the dominant tone of our overall area remains single family housing.
Today we are at a critical juncture as a number of high density developments are being proposed for our Central West Area; other proposals are sure to follow; and four undeveloped properties on the south side of North Estes are currently for sale. We – the residents of the Central West Area — are homeowners and renters who have come together to address the situation we now face – what is the proper approach for the continuing development of our area. As a group, Central West residents are dedicated to the “Quality Growth” of our neighborhoods and our Town.
This statement, of course, raises the question of what we mean by “Quality Growth” and what implications our concern for “Quality Growth” has for our neighborhoods and our Town of Chapel Hill. We believe that the following five considerations are an excellent basis for evaluating the quality of proposed developments. “Quality Growth” occurs when there is a focus on:
• Character of an Area,
• Need for Development (demand analysis)
• Cost Effectiveness (of development)
• Transportation (broadly construed)
• Environmental Impacts (of development)
These five considerations identify when development is the intelligent choice for our neighborhoods and our Town.
To explore these considerations further, we provide detail and examples about how these five considerations can work to help us identify “Quality Growth” proposals when we see them. We use examples primarily from our focus area; however, other examples could be drawn from the Town as a whole.
Character of an Area. Our area is soon to be affected by a new presence – the creation of Carolina North. As planned, this campus will be welcoming and stately; it will add to the beauty and attractiveness of the community. But we do not know what the future holds for the surrounding area. Will Martin Luther King Boulevard along Carolina North ultimately become a second Franklin Street? Will North Estes Drive and Extension be totally overcome by the future flow of traffic? These and other questions have yet to be answered, but we do believe that if development is prudently pursued our homes can be part of a new vital urban area, with Carolina North at its center.
For this reason, our home values may well increase, but only if the area remains attractive, traversable, and safe. To insure that successful development is achieved, we are prepared to work directly with landowners interested in the development of their properties if these landowners are committed to pursuing development that enhances the overall appeal of our neighborhoods and the safety of our corridors. We can and must work together to find an intelligent balance between retaining and enhancing the extraordinary, livable quality of our single family neighborhoods and the benefits and amenities that infill and higher density development can offer. We owe it to ourselves and to our future generations.
Need for Development. How quickly development is needed in Chapel Hill depends on whether the kind of development being proposed makes sense in light of current demand for such development; we are calling this kind of assessment “demand analysis.” A typical demand analysis for commercial space should look at what commercial space is needed, what similar development is already approved but not yet built, and what existing commercial space is currently vacant. The same kind of demand analysis can be performed for other kinds of development, ranging from undergraduate student housing to single family apartments. Ironically, such demand analysis data are amazingly hard to come by; one would think that the Town of Chapel Hill – or the local Chamber of Commerce – would have data on currently available space, but we have not succeeded in locating comprehensive data on the vacancy rate, Town-wide, for commercial and apartment space. Assessing the demand – particularly the future demand – for space is difficult, but it must be attempted if we are to achieve “quality growth” for future development in Chapel Hill.
“Quality Growth” occurs when demand analysis is a central focus in assessing the need for commercial and housing development. In our part of Chapel Hill, such demand analysis needs to pay special attention to the anticipated demand vis-à-vis Carolina North whose future unfolding has already been approved by the Town in the form of a development agreement. We know that the “apron” surrounding Carolina North will have enormous and varied demands made on it over the next 20-30 years, yet some potential developers with properties on that apron do not seem to be considering how their prospective developments might fit in with the growth of Carolina North.
Cost Effectiveness. Towns which grew up – as did Chapel Hill – with a predominant focus on single family housing and only a modest amount of commercial development typically face pressure to raise local property taxes. High property taxes are never popular, and many towns and small cities look to increased development as a way to broaden the tax base. Thus Chapel Hillians should always ask: Will this particular development generate more tax revenue than the costs imposed by the increased demands on town services and infrastructure, particularly on the road system which is already stretched to capacity in some parts of Chapel Hill? Longer term, we must also consider the increased pressure new development places on everything from the OWASA water supply to enrollment in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools.
“Quality Growth” occurs when a developer is able – and actually does – demonstrate how a particular development project is a net plus for the overall financial condition of Chapel Hill. Such estimates require developers to complete additional work – particularly for new businesses and apartment complexes – but obtaining any development approval should be conditional upon this work being performed in advance with results that are persuasive.
Transportation. Chapel Hill developed with a road structure well suited to single family homes spread around a downtown core area. As the Town grew, it became increasingly clear that this web-like road structure placed capacity constraints on automobile traffic that does not occur in communities with a more grid-like road structure. Roads such as Estes Drive (North and Extension) that were designed to connect neighborhoods have evolved into cross-town arterials which often lack attention to biking and pedestrian safety and to other alternatives to automobiles. Additionally, the traffic generated by an ever increasing number of vehicles on these roads is a direct result of incremental approvals of development along these corridors; this increased traffic has generated a variety of traffic bottlenecks.
“Quality Growth” occurs when the constraints of our road structure are recognized and addressed prior to (or certainly concurrent with) new development proposals. For example, the Town employed this concurrency principle when negotiating the Carolina North Development Agreement. As Carolina North is built out, the University will be required to make improvements to the existing transportation system. Applying this principle of concurrency means that at times it is not prudent to proceed with a development proposal due to our inability to make needed changes to our transportation system. At other times the nature of a development can be altered in consultation with the affected neighborhood interests which understand at a personal level the likely traffic implications of a particular development.
Environmental Impacts. While a variety of environmental impacts are possible, storm-water run-off is one of the most pressing. Water quality and creek ecology are dramatically affected when trees are removed and those same areas paved over as part of new developments. With the percentage of paved areas increasing over the years, storm water is less able to be absorbed into the remaining ground to replenish groundwater supplies. As a result, urban creeks can become raging torrents of water which both cause erosion and carry sediment into water bodies, compromising both water quality and stream habitat.
“Quality Growth” occurs when the Town pays close attention to storm-water impacts during the concept plan stage before proceeding with a development that could result in unforeseen downstream impacts. Town storm-water ordinances and Jordan Lake rules must be applied to all new development to avoid costly mistakes. Greater densities in development pose particular challenges as a certain amount of unpaved land area is needed for storm-water control. The most aggressive controls should be employed when multiple commercial and apartment development are being considered because of the large number of impervious surfaces they typically employ. Additionally, a proper storm-water impact study should consider how storm-water is redirected through existing neighborhoods as new developments are introduced into the area. The cost to mitigate unintended storm-water run-off needs to be included as a cost of implementing the proposed development.
In conclusion, the above five considerations illustrate how we are dedicated to the “Quality Growth” for our area and our Town. Our interests are long-term; we have purchased homes with the desire to stay here for an extended period of time. However, we do worry about the short-term perspective so many – but not all — potential developers seem to hold and the reluctance of some developers to engage area residents in helping them plan the use of their property so that the result is both profitable to them and appropriate to the Central West area. We are ready to engage.
So with this perspective, we look forward to participating in the impending study to produce the Central West Small Area Plan. We invite any resident – homeowner or renter – to join us to work within the framework of the five considerations which support our vision of “Quality Growth.” Making these considerations central to the Town’s small area planning may increase the effort a potential developer needs to gain approval for a proposed development, but in the long run following these principles will help ensure that “Quality Growth” is achieved and reflected in the neighborhoods and that the Town can augment its tax base.