Increased Density is the Right Choice

This column originally appeared in the Chapel Hill News on Sunday, January 25.

By Travis Crayton & Molly De Marco

In 2014, “density” might well have been the word of the year in local government in Orange County.

Much of the debate about development in our communities boils down to preferences and emotions about the scale and density of proposed projects. (How tall? How many new units per acre?)

In 2015, the density debate is likely to rage on. But what is it about greater density that evokes such strong opinions?

Change in any facet of life is hard. When it comes to change in our neighborhoods, this is especially true. We become accustomed to a particular way of life and patterns of behavior, and we find comfort in these routines. But sometimes change is necessary. As a community professing to hold progressive values, such as environmental sustainability, socioeconomic diversity, and livability, we sometimes should embrace change to uphold and live out these values.

That means increasing the density of commercial and residential development. A commitment to no change is a firm commitment to change the very people who make up our community by forcing young and lower-income residents out and welcoming only those who are wealthy and older. There are several critical reasons why this is the case.

First, allowing for greater residential density in some areas will increase the supply of housing available in our community. The rural buffer has prevented sprawl and the environmental degradation that accompanies it, and development policies have made adding new housing difficult. As a result, home prices and rents have gone up and up and up, pricing many people out of our community. Greater residential density will add supply to help meet the increased demand in our housing market, causing prices and rents to stagnate and fall. Increased density can help address the major affordability problem we face and help us to preserve and grow the diversity of our community.

Second, allowing for greater density in commercial and residential development will enable valuable members of our community to live and work right here in Orange County. Many of us might have originally chosen to live in Chapel Hill/Carrboro because of the high quality of life, exemplified by a vibrant student life, arts and music scene, and abundance of unique, local businesses. Yet, as home prices and rents have increased, the people who offer us these amenities have been forced to live elsewhere, taking their contributions to our community with them. Without a critical mass of density in downtown and other strategic areas of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, many of the local businesses we love struggle to stay open or are forced to close their doors because they simply don’t have enough customers located nearby.

Third, increased density will actually improve the quality of life for our entire community, particularly if we plan for density well. Greater density improves walkability by locating services and amenities near residential areas, allowing for healthier lifestyles, greater economic returns, more vibrancy, and a more sustainable path forward for the future of our towns.

Concerns that developing greater density will negatively impact the quality of life and affect the character of our community are misplaced. If anything, forestalling greater density will negatively impact both of these things. Our county is a great place to live because of the vibrancy provided by people who will get priced out if we cannot reduce housing costs.

When we talk about our quality of life, we must ask, “Quality of life for whom?” Rejecting denser development will not improve the quality of life for our lower-income neighbors; rather, greater density provides more housing opportunities in the right locations to improve their quality of life.

And when those who oppose greater density talk about “maintaining the character of the community,” what is it that they actually mean by that? It seems to us to be code for maintaining a community of aging, suburban-style houses designed to attract only one type of people and families.

Our community values compel us to embrace local planning policies that promote greater density. Achieving greater environmental sustainability, socioeconomic diversity, and livability means getting serious about our planning processes, observing the externalities they have created, and working to foster an inclusive, diverse, forward-thinking community.



I don't think this destroys your entire argument, but it does bother me when you say the rural buffer has prevented sprawl.  That may be true in OC, but with 30,000 employees driving into town every day from outside OC (and many residents regularly driving outside to shop), it is also true that the sprawl is just further away and thus there is no environmental benefit from the buffer.

Imagine if the rural buffer had not been established. Would the employees driving from out of Chapel Hill no longer be driving becasue they would be happily living where the rural buffer is? What would have been located there? Would we be better off with shopping centers, businesses, apartments, and denser housing developments there? Would large areas resmble the 15-501 corridor?  Do we derive any benefit from the trees that are there? Do we derive any benefit in regard to water quality? Does the proximity of the  natural world in the rural buffer affect our mental & physical health? How much affordable housing would actually have been built?  Is the rural buffer the primary reason why people drive in from out-of-town to work in Chapel Hill? Are there other aspects to this issue that could be addressed that would impact this number? How would the absence of the rural buffer affect our local water supply? And possibly more importantly, our local control of our local water supply?

Thank you Travis and Molly for your thought-provoking perspective. 

Perhaps the most critical element of your argument lies in the following: "increased density will actually improve the quality of life for our entire community, particularly if we plan for density well". 

I totally agree. And by planning well for density, I argue that we should assign density to locations and corridors that are integrated with the rest of Chapel Hill-Carrboro's street network.  It's no secret that with our abundance of cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets, our area is putting ever-greater pressure on those roadways that do provide connections within and between towns. Thus, when planning for greater density, we must also consider the parcels' access to our street network and destinations beyond. Should we assign increased density along disconnected streets (cul-de-sac and dead-ends), we run the risk of introducing many unwanted side effects along the few corridors that are connected to the rest of the street network. Such side effects include: exacerbated traffic congestion along connected corridors; threats to equity and quality of like via increased traffic noise, pollution, and degraded mobility and access; and increased probability of speeding and therefore crash risk (i.e., when motorists have fewer options to travel between places, it often takes them longer to get to where they want to go, which means that they're more likely to speed when given the chance). Let's be thoughtful with our necessary manipulations of density; let's "plan for density well."

From one who grew up in an area of Queens, know as Oakland Gardens or as residents liked to call  it Bayside, My parents left the soon to change from the worst neighborhood in the Bronx to Queens in 1960, where Queens was nothing pretty much was farmland, golf courses and cemmentaries, The tallest building in town as was then and still is an Apartment complex known as Windsor Park  Apartments.The amount of stories was 6 . I can feel confortable with a 5 or 6 story buiding in Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas. Gary  Kahn

It’s refreshing to read this rational, facts-based perspective on why creating pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods in strategic locations is the best approach to solve Chapel Hill’s challenges and is most aligned with our values. 

For too long, this discussion has been dominated by those few citizens for whom any meaningful change to any part of our town's fabric never quite measures up to their “community character” standards.  Let’s unpack the No Change Gang’s arguments:  First, they claim the density required to create places where homes, stores, restaurants and offices are close enough to be within walking distance is, “out of scale with what’s there now.”  In Ephesus Fordham, for instance, what is there today is scaled for only one purpose:  Parking lots.  The fact is, if you want to create a place where people can walk from their homes to the store, to restaurants, or to their office, those things need to be closer together than they are in car-oriented strip malls.  You can’t stick with a “scale” designed exclusively so people can park their Buick as close to the front door of Whole Foods as possible.   

Second, they claim density is bad for the environment.  There is no debate that more people on less land means less impervious surface (i.e. strip mall parking lots) to generate stormwater run-off, fewer car miles traveled to spew carbon into the atmosphere, and more land preserved for wildlife and recreation.   The No Change Gang would then argue that that leaving the land undeveloped would be the best choice for the environment. 

So, they’re against creating density where we already developed the land as stip mall parking lots, and they’re also against creating density on undeveloped land.  One can’t help but wonder if the No Change Gang’s real motivation isn’t preserving “community character” or “the environment”, but rather keeping Chapel Hill all to themselves and keeping new neighbors out.    

Personally, I enjoy meeting new friends.


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