Solve budget woes through growth, not cuts

 An article in the Chapel Hill News on Sunday gave me pause on the candidates for the Chapel Hill town council. When asked to speak on town spending, all resorted immediately to either vague plans for reductions or, astonishingly, proposals to charge for transit, which is by far the most effective service Chapel Hill offers.

Instead of deciding which items to cut, the candidates for the council should commit to a pro-growth agenda. Rezone the entire downtown core as TC-3-C, and consider removing the height cap for downtown. Allow people to build along the planned light rail corridor to Durham. Expedite the review process so every proposal doesn't get dragged down in years of bickering.

Unlike many cities in the country, Chapel Hill continues to attract new residents. And yet, there are dozens of lots in the downtown corridor that are poorly suited for such a prime location (parking lots, auto repair businesses, funeral homes). If we make it easier  for people and businesses to be in Chapel Hill, we won't have to worry about cutting services. 



MLouis,At a time when many are saying cut, cut, cut - you're suggesting to cut the deficits by growing.  It's an interesting approach that I hope you'll share, not only through questions suggested for OP's online election forum, but by participating in Chapel Hill 2020.  If Chapel Hill can't be creative enough and innovative enough to solve its problems through less than orthodox means I don't know who can.  If you haven't been participating I hope you'll do so.

The growth decision usually seems to pit long-term residents against new residents. New folks come here and want a highly urban environment. Long-term residents live here because we like(d) the small town environment. Change may be inevitable, but throwing out everything that those who helped build this environment that so many want to enjoy seems like a contradiction to me. If you wanted to live here because of what it is(was), why do you want to change it so drastically?

It's been my experience that people who move here as adults want the town to stay just as it was the day they they got here - especially if they came here for college and have such strong memories of that time. (Mark Chilton wrote a great post about this phenomenon in 2009.) In talking to people who grew up here, like myself, we are sometimes the most open to change. We've already seen the community go through several different modes and we know it's not any less Chapel Hill now than it was 30 years ago, although it's certainly a different Chapel Hill. I know that I personally am very ready to see a healthy urban Chapel Hill in the next 10 - 20 years. It certainly beats the alternative of being a stagnant bedroom community, dependent on cars when the gas runs out.

You are defining drastic change as being change manifested in the physical form of the community. Many of us who are more comfortable with physical changes in the community

1.  do not find these physical changes to be drastic.

2.  are far more alarmed by the demographic changes in the community, and what those changes imply for the future.

The high and rapidly rising costs of living in Chapel Hill and Orange County more broadly have created a dynamic where for twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who want to remain in the area and put down roots, a far too regular experience is watching more and more good friends pack up and move away (usually to Durham) because they cannot afford to live here.

There's the moving/going away party, the well-meant promises to keep meeting up, and then the inevitable realization a few months after they leave that even a 30-minute drive is more than a modest degree of separation, and that your sense of community has been diminished by more people you enjoyed seeing on a regular basis being priced out of town.

The slow expansion of the housing stock in the area has kept supply low in a high-demand community, and the result is typical of  a market of any scarce good- very high prices. Policies which deliberately try to limit physical change to the town that continue to accelerate housing costs make the community more exclusionary of young families of modest to area median income, and their immediate predecessors, young singles in the same economic brackets.


Does anyone remember, "With traffic comes bagels"?Linda Convissor

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. In an atmosphere where most people agree on all the national issues, it's helpful to discuss the local ones that have a greater impact on our daily lives.George C, I will attend the community meetings as soon as I have time. For now, I've decided to contribute to this blog (which I've read, off and on, for years) instead. FYI, I lived in Chapel Hill from 2003 to 2005 as a master's student, and am back here for another two to three-year stint. Many times, the voices of transient residents are not heard in college town politics, even though they contribute much to the life of the town itself.Terri, the long-term/new residents debate is always present, but I think it's important to remember that "no change" has a cost just as signficant, perhaps moreso, than "change." For example, while it may be easier to project ones nostalgia on an empty building or lot, the price of the nostalgia is substantial, both environmentally (growth happens in the suburbs instead) and economically (the empty lot doesn't create jobs, or housing).Also, I think it's important to be clear that I'm advocating growth in the urban core, and other already dense areas, not more growth in the suburbs, and certainly not the destruction of rural areas for development. There's no ten-story building that's as much as an eyesore as a new neighborhood of single-family houses.

I came back because after living in urban environments, I wanted to be in a smaller town. I'm not opposed to change, but I balk at rezoning the entire downtown and removing the cap on building heights. There's change that enhances a community and then there's change that totally redefines. Evolution vs revolution. The older I get, the more I prefer evolution.

OK, but I don't think anyone is seriously proposing rezoning the entire downtown and removing the cap on building heights except perhaps this blogger, who I don't even know. (ie: Could be anyone, a developer, the chancellor, you, me, etc.) Can't help but note the irony when people who live outside the city limits (and therefore don't help pay for the town's planning, infrastructure, services, etc.) want to have a say about what happens in our downtown. Especially given the cost of sprawl at the edges of our community. 

I can't help but note the irony of someone who is on the 2020 communications team voicing such an opinion that is so exclusive. From what I've read of the 2020 process, they are asking for opinions, inclusive of those like me who work, play, and shop in town but can't afford to live in town. It seems like your personal view is at variance with the planning team intent. 

Terri, there is a huge difference between not being able to buy a house in Chapel Hill and truly not being able to afford to live in Chapel Hill. I understand the issue you are raising (and as someone who cannot afford a home in Chapel Hill, agree with it), but there are many people who are priced out of even renting an apartment in town. Buying a single-family house is a privilege, not a right.That said, I do hope that you will participate in Chapel Hill 2020 so that we can think of strategies to help increase the diversity and afforability of housing (for both homeowners and renters). My table at the last meeting had a very spirited debate about housing issues, and I hope that it is something that continues to be at the forefront of the visioning process. 

Having an opinion of my own about growth in the future is hardly at odds with helping other people express their own ideas about whatever concerns them. Much as I may personally discount some of your opinions, Terri, they have every bit as much of a place in the Chapel Hill 2020 process as mine do. This type of dialog is exactly what CH2020 is about and you are quite right that people who interact with Chapel Hill in any way are very welcome to participate. I certainly hope you are coming to the  meetings. The next one is tomorrow night at East Chapel Hill High. I am on the outreach committee for CH2020 and my main concern is engaging people who can't or won't come to meetings by bringing opportunities for input, sense-making, and feedback to them in their own communities, whether they are low-income neighborhoods or online networks or busy childcare centers. (Suggestions are welcome!) 

This hits on my pet peeve about Mark Zimmerman's column in the Chapel Hill News; the column always contains a blurb at the end stating that he owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He ran a successful campaign against the Orange County transfer tax in 2008 from his home in Durham, and his Re/Max franchise (which has a satellite office in Chapel Hill) has been domiciled in Durham for at least seven years. The satellite office pays business tax of $800.00 a year to Chapel Hill, so year after year the column runs-- the latest being about the next election, in which he will not vote.

I shouldn't let it irritate me, but it does.

Deborah Fulghieri

Terri--Which urban environments do you find undesirable? Whenever people criticize proposals for urban density, they refer to past experiences elsewhere, but I've never understood what was negative about those experiences.  Also--if we had more residential buildings downtown, you would be able to afford to live here, which I imagine would greatly enhance your quality of life. Too often, I think local authorities abuse the zoning process to pursue their own narrow, conservative, anti-growth initatives. We should instead use zoning to foster growth, particularly in areas that are already dense. I think any conversation about town services needs to also include discussion of plans for the town's growth.

I've lived in downtown Atlanta, Tallahassee, St.Louis, Indianapolis, and Norfolk. While I enjoyed aspects of each, especially the freedom to walk or ride my bike instead of drive, the noise levels, the feeling of removal from nature, and the constant feeling that everything was moving very fast just got to be too much, especially the noise. When I first moved to Chapel Hill and lived in Northside in the 1970s, we had scarlet tanagers in the backyard, and I could walk and ride my bike without constantly looking over my shoulder anticipating wacko drivers. The second time I returned to Chapel Hill (1988), I could still enjoy those same benefits, although growth had really started to change things by then.When I returned the 3rd time in 2001, housing prices had become a joke and the traffic was so awful I wouldn't have considered riding my bike as a sole means of transportation anymore so living in town was no longer an attractive option. Of course, I could have chosen to live in an apartment or a condo, and I made a concerted effort to find one that had sufficient soundproofing and access to garden areas. I probably drove the realtor crazy doing sound checks in every condo unit on the market. In the end, the desire for quiet and garden space pushed me out of town (where I continue to ride the bus daily).Over the years, the towns and the county have predicted how much growth the community can support. Decisions, such as water supply, have been made based on those estimates. Other decisions, such as the balance between commercial and residential, have occurred without concerted planning. It would be interesting to me to have the planning departments each develop some kind of visual display that shows the timing and extent of build out based on their current models. Maybe those 'narrow, conservative, anti-growth' initiatives you reference have a basis in realistic planning and perhaps they don't. But anytime you start talking about change, it's good to look at the benefits and the consequences so that everyone has an option to buy-in or opt-out, don't you agree?

Given your desire for quiet, living downtown probably isn't right for you. But, if more development happens downtown, the town will be better positioned to stop suburban development, perhaps even purchasing more land for parks, allowing you to live in quiet and yet still be close to downtown amenities. If Chapel Hill grows at the same rate for the next decade as it did for the last one, roughly 10,000 new people will live here (57K total) in 2020. If even a half, or a quarter, of those new residents live in the downtown core, everyone will benefit. I agree that traffic is a problem, which I support eliminating parking requirements for new construction, and using parking permits to reduce the number of cars in Chapel Hill. Even a small charge for a parking permit in the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods (say, $50/year) will help reduce the car-owning population significantly. In D.C., a councilmember is proposing to permit new apartment construction on the condition that residents aren't allowed to have parking permits. Chapel Hill is already a very walkable, urban environment, and adding more car-free residents will only make it more so. In New York, Bloomberg's shown the benefit of giving over more of the street to pedestrians, which reduces accidents without affecting traffic speeds.My understanding, which may be wrong, is that the town council often ignores its master plan and recommendations of town planners in order to protect the interested of NIMBYish long-time residents (recent examples include the Greenbridge project, the proposal to build a bike path connecting Chapel Hill and Carrboro via Bolin Creek, and another mixed-use project near Meadowmont that was rejected a few months ago). While there are environmental costs associated with infill projects (turning a parking lot, for example, into an apartment building), these costs are lower than those imposed by sprawl. 

With the huge potential of Carolina North on the horizon, we have to learn to rethink what we call downtown. That entire area will one day be critical to an urban community - let's hope we have the foresight to see it that way.

I agree, but without a dense downtown it will be hard to sustain the transit services necessary to make the town function.  Focusing on growth in what is already perceived to be an urban center will be easier than retrofitting neighborhoods for denser living (which has been part of the problem with development in Northside), or building more Meadowmont-like projects in the burbs. Instead of turning 100 three-bedroom houses into six-bedroom houses, or forests into mixed-used megaprojects, we should be building more projects like Shortbread Lofts in the downtown core.

One of the major impediments to growth, such as building more structures, is lack of capital. Banks aren't lending like they did pre 2008. If that where different I think you'd see more construction. Even in Chapel Hill. Developers who understand smart growth will find a lot of support from current Chapel Hill and Carrboro governments. (I define smart growth as environmentally sensitive and energy efficient development that redevelops downtowns.)

Lack of capital isn't just stopping growth it's making it hard for ventures who own exiting buildings to stay solvent. When buildings go under they can put local property into the hands of out of town owners and disinterested banks.

All this said I'm not 100% in favor of new developments. I understand its value to our economy. I even support a few. But I think our entire economy has undergone a paradigm shift that isn't completely understood yet. It may not go back to the pre 2008 reality. (i.e. high growth and more global spending fuels our wealth generation.) We may have to make due with what we have... This could well be where creative innovation comes in.

Lack of capital is a problem, but imagine how much better off we'd be if some of these big projects had been able to get through the zoning process more quickly. Even if there were no new developments in the downtown core, we could still be using the space more effectively. Down the street from my house there's an empty lot that would be a great dog park, or vegetable garden, or pocket park. And yet, it's just an empty lot, waiting for someone to risk  capital and the time it takes to get something approved in Chapel Hill. 

My hope is that the 2020 process truly involves vision--not vision with a 1980/1990 lens, but vision based on the current reality. I'm all for affordable housing, and in the 1990s the chosen approach to achieving that goal was by forcing developers to include it in larger high-end development. Is it economically feasible to build, from the ground up, high rises in downtown and make all the units affordable? We have Greenbridge and Lot 5 as models of that theory, a theory BTW that the Occupy Wallstreet is protesting against. The same theory works well in Durham and other towns/cities because they have existing warehouse space that can be converted--they aren't building from the ground up. 

All the units in Greenbridge and 140 West are affordable?

What I was trying to say is that we got affordable units in Greenbridge and Lot 5 because the developer could offset the cost with the majority of units that were priced at what they called "market rate."

While I understand the sentiments behind including affordable units in projects like Greenbridge, I think a better approach would be to let people build the project with the highest capital return, tax those properties at the going rate, and, if necessary, use increased revenue to provide tax relief to long-term homeowners and build affordable housing. By making it difficult to build in Chapel Hill, the town council only encourages land values to increase and rents to rise, as demand outruns supply. People are priced out of many places, from cities like New York and Boston, to small towns like Chapel Hill, not because of a lack of places to live, but instead because of onerous restrictions placed on new construction by "preservation" groups, long-term residents and others who don't support growth.


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.