The Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce were invited last fall to submit their goals for Chapel Hill’s Comprehensive Plan for publication on the Town’s official Chapel Hill 2020 blog. Although we were not personally invited, the editors of OrangePolitics decided to compose our own list of goals and priorities, which we have submitted this morning for publication on the Town website. What's YOUR vision for Chapel Hill's future?
The comprehensive plan is Chapel Hill’s guiding vision. In the past it has been used to guide land use policies and other programs, and in the future it is expected to also directly influence the Town’s budget. It has never been more important to articulate a clear vision of a Chapel Hill in which we all hope to live. As much as we love Chapel Hill, and look back fondly on the days we first came to know this wonderful community, we also accept the fact that more people fall in love with this town every day and growth is an inescapable part of our future. The choice before us now is not whether to grow, but how.
Many general principles are broadly held by most residents in and around Chapel Hill. It’s good to protect the environment, to have a diverse community, to teach our children well. But where we don’t all agree is how best to make these things happen. The Comprehensive Plan needs to address these difficult issues if it is to be of any use in guiding future decisions. The hard discussions about these areas of difference have been notably absent from the 2020 process, but we are ready to have them. To that end, we offer the following suggestions as starting points for real conversations about our future.
Sustainability and smart growth
- Create a networked community that enables people to efficiently get anywhere in town. Support transit and walkability by prioritizing construction of sidewalks, bike lanes, and greenways that feed into major transit corridors to decrease driving and encourage healthy, active lifestyles.
- Support transit use by focusing development in corridors that are well-served by transit. Ensure enough critical mass of residents, businesses, and other destinations to sustain transit. Concurrently, the Town should improve walkability in residential areas by permitting limited neighborhood-scale development outside of transit corridors and centers.
- Preserve the rural buffer and strategically located open spaces. To do this efficiently, the Town should collaborate with other government entities to best utilize the resources we have left, target places for infill redevelopment, and create public spaces that connect the community.
- Rethink the suburban mind-set of the current zoning and Land Use Management Ordinance. Consider new tools, such as form-based zoning, and new processes, such as modeling software and web-based forums about proposed development, with the goal of helping the Town better articulate what it wants to see and giving developers more guidance and predictability in the review process.
- End the ineffective Neighborhood Conservation District program, which unfairly off-loads development into less privileged neighborhoods, and implement a Town-wide program to help residential areas maintain character and cohesion while experiencing change and infill.
- With a captive audience of students and workers, and a compact, pedestrian-friendly layout, downtown is the prime location for focusing denser, transit-friendly development. The smart growth principles listed above should be especially focused on our town center.
- Preserve the walkability of downtown by continuing to privilege pedestrians, bicycles, and transit over automobiles and parking.
- The proposed Downtown Development Initiative holds much potential for Chapel Hill, but to best serve the Town and increase public support, the plan should undergo a process of community education and feedback so key refinements can be made.
- Increase wayfinding signage, maps, and online tools to help people use our downtown. This should include better directions to parking, but also signage that promotes car-free transportation. Raleigh’s new walking signs are an example of a low-cost way to make navigating downtown easier for visitors.
- Downtown parking is rarely at capacity and should primarily be for visitors. As transit service increases, phase out rental spaces in Town-owned downtown parking lots. Encourage those who currently rent spaces to use the Town’s park-and-ride lots.
- Rethink the Land Use Management Ordinance to better regulate taller, more urban buildings and land uses. Add criteria to better deal with daylight impacts, street-level pedestrian and cyclist experience, connections to other buildings, infrastructure, transit services, and environmental impact, to name a few.
- Identify and implement solutions to the problem of absentee ownership of vacant commercial buildings. Vacant and underused buildings reduce the sense of value of the whole community and send a message that no one cares about downtown.
- Re-establish an advisory committee to help guide town policy and monitor the University’s development of Carolina North for the duration of its build-out and beyond.
- Ensure the satellite campus is not designed and built primarily for cars by advocating for land-use patterns that are compact, walkable, and mixed-use. Keep future fixed-guideway transit options open by preventing development that would preclude or discourage future use of the rail line.
- Create more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly linkages between the main campus, downtown, and Carolina North, in addition to frequent and consistent transit service.
- Seek opportunities at Carolina North for development of affordable housing for staff and/or students.
- Encourage the University to create space for an educational garden to provide produce for low-income residents and teaching and research opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and community members.
Diversity and social justice
- Continue collaborations with Orange County and the Town of Carrboro to extend sewer and water to residents of the Eubanks-Rogers Road Neighborhood, create a community center, and mitigate the effects of the landfill and illegal dumpsites.
- Discourage gentrification with new tax abatement programs to keep low-income residents in their homes, and delay increase in taxes until the property is sold.
- Continue to implement the Town’s Affordable Housing Strategy, and seek new ways to create and sustain affordable housing for a wide range of income levels. Create housing strategies for both owners and renters, in recognition of the fact that demographic changes and the University’s growth will lead the number of renters in Chapel Hill to increase. Collaborate with the University and UNC Hospitals to develop and provide housing for their employees.
- Strengthen the ability of the Community Policing Advisory Committee to independently investigate and address potential problems. Seek strategies that will improve actual public safety while reducing incidents of inappropriate use of police force and racial/ethnic profiling of immigrants and people of color.
- Continue and expand the Good Neighbor Initiative to improve cohesion in diverse neighborhoods.
- Implement economic development strategies that look beyond retail, and develop better strategies for sustaining small, locally owned businesses and attracting new businesses to our community. Consider a revolving loan fund for start-ups and businesses needing bridge capital.
- Encourage microbusiness, such as home-based business, consulting, gardening, and food trucks, by reducing barriers to their operation and providing resources to assist and connect entrepreneurs.
- Bring publicly accessible high-speed Internet to more places to encourage new media companies and foster a connected culture.
- Embrace the creative class with events and campaigns that tout the creativity and open-mindedness of our community. Encourage development of small-scale business around the arts, music, food, and other cultural amenities. Embrace our character as a young town.
- Work with other local government entities to establish a countywide economic development body that can view our interconnected economies holistically.
Open and accountable government
- Although the Town has made great strides in improving public communication, it also has neglected one half of the conversation, which is listening to people. New programs and collaboration with other local governments are needed to build transparency, trust, and understanding of local government.
- Utilize modern tools for citizen interaction. The Town website should act as a meeting place for people to learn about and discuss issues openly, to both observe and be a part of government processes (such as development review, budgeting, or long-range planning), and to climb the ladder of engagement toward public service.
- Help residents to get the information they want about events, decisions, regulations, and more by reaching people where they are—whether at a neighborhood playground or online. The Town should work to make all public data more open, accessible, easily searchable, and standardized to make it easier for residents and the media to find, understand, and use the information that belongs to us.
- Work to better engage different communities in local government by recruiting and training advisory board members, holding public hearings in different venues and formats, making useful information more available online and offline, and creating opportunities for meaningful online interaction between residents and community leaders.
- Establish a new advisory board to address the broad issues around how to more effectively reach out to all Chapel Hill residents and get more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, involved in local government. For example, this committee could advise staff and the Town Council on online and offline communication strategies, shaping and facilitating more effective public meetings, improving the usability and functionality of the Town website, helping residents get information, use of social media and mobile technologies, and best practices in open government. In addition, board members would act as ambassadors, helping to make Town resources more accessible and relevant to diverse constituents, and also by bringing good ideas back to the Town on behalf of the community.