Traffic Returns to Normal on Estes Drive After Wreck

****UPDATE: Traffic is flowing normally once again on Estes Drive.****

A wreck on Estes Drive has shut down traffic in both directions, multiple motorists have told WCHL.

One witness reported that emergency crews were on the scene.

The accident appears to have occurred between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Phillips Middle School.

There is no word at this time from Chapel Hill Police regarding the severity of the accident.

This story will be updated as any new information is made available.

Estes Drive, Light Rail, BRT On Town Transportation Agenda

Interested in biking? walking? busing? light railing? just getting around in general?

Next week, the Town of Chapel Hill is holding a pair of public meetings on the future of local transportation.

The first will be on Tuesday, February 9, from 5-7 pm in the first floor conference room of Town Hall. It’ll be a “drop-in” session (you don’t have to be there for the full two hours) to gather public feedback on a trio of proposals for new bike lanes and multi-use paths along Estes Drive from MLK to Caswell, to make biking and walking safer and easier. The Estes Drive project grew out of the Chapel Hill Bike Plan and the Central West Small Area Plan; it will be a $2.3 million construction project, with most of the money coming from federal funding. (Town planners are gathering feedback to develop a final proposal for the Chapel Hill Town Council, with a vote planned sometime before the Council breaks for the summer. Construction itself is slated to begin later this year.)

Get more info on the meeting, including a look at the three alternative designs for Estes Drive.

The town is also holding a meeting on Wednesday, February 10, on various topics related to public transit including buses, bus rapid transit, the ongoing North-South corridor study, and the future of light rail. This meeting will take place in Town Council chambers (also in Town Hall) from 7-9 pm. The town’s Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board is hosting the meeting; board members will use public feedback to provide future recommendations to the Town Council.

Chapel Hill Long Range and Transportation Planning Manager David Bonk discussed both meetings this week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.

Water Main Break Near Fordham Blvd (15-501) and Estes Dr.

8:45 p.m. Update – All lanes of Fordham Boulevard are now open. OWASA reports that the repairs are complete.

12:30 p.m. Update – The Orange Water and Sewer Authority reports that the repair of the water main break may be completed by late afternoon or early evening.

7:45 a.m. Update – One northbound lane of Fordham Boulevard (15-501) was opened a little after 7:30 a.m. Wednesday according to Chapel Hill Police Public Information Sergeant Bryan Walker. Heavy delays should still be expected in the area of 15-501 and Estes Dr.

Story originally posted October 8, 2014, 6:35 a.m.

Both northbound lanes of Fordham Boulevard (15-501) are closed around Estes Drive due to a water main break that occurred Wednesday morning.

The break occurred on the north side of the intersection. Chapel Hill Police officers are diverting traffic away from the area and OWASA crews are on the scene repairing the break. It is not known at this time when the road will be reopened.

MLK And Estes Drive Residents Pan Central West Plan

CHAPEL HILL- More than 200 people came out Monday night to voice their concerns about the draft plan for the future of the intersection of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“I am not against development,” Chris Hakkenberg told the council. “I am however stridently opposed to the aggressive and myopic plans that have carried the day thus far in the Central West process.”

“I feel like in some respects, this is a size nine foot going into a size six shoe,” said Elaine Marcus.

“This plan, in short, is not ready for prime time,” said Alan Tom.

The three were among nearly thirty speakers at the public hearing, most of whom criticized the small area plan created by the Central West Steering Committee.

The 17-member committee was convened nearly a year ago, and since them the group has met more than 30 times and hosted 10 public outreach sessions prior to submitting the small area plan.

The plan lays out potential land uses for the 97 acre area, calling for a mix of commercial development and housing in three to five story buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, with the density and building height decreasing along Estes Drive.

The plan also focuses on the need for bike and pedestrian pathways to access the two nearby schools. The committee recommends widening Estes to five lanes at the intersection with Martin Luther King, but tapering down to two lanes for much of the length of the road.

Amy Ryan, Town Council candidate and co-chair of the Central West Committee, said the improvements could mean less traffic at the intersection even with more drivers on the road.

“What they are telling us is that the level of service in morning and evening are not worse than they are today, and in some cases will be improved with some of the mitigations,” said Ryan. “The delay times are generally at a minute or less at peak times.”

The plan was approved by a two-thirds majority vote by the committee, but a small minority rejected the plan, saying it was too dense, with too few details on the possible impacts of growth.

But Ryan argued that’s not what the process was meant to produce.

“Our job was not to produces a specific site design for this area,” said Ryan. “Rather it was our job to have a vision for positive change.”

Residents opposed to the work of the committee have circulated a lower-density citizen’s plan, as well as a petition asking that the council vote to adopt the plan be delayed indefinitely.

And some on the council, including Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison, seemed inclined to consider the request.

“If it does take longer, it should take longer,” said Harrison. “This discounts none of the work of the committee, which I think has been excellent and the citizen’s plan as well is a nice piece of work. But I just want to say that right now I am willing to extend the time if that’s what it takes.”

Nonetheless, council member Gene Pease told the assembled crowd the town faces tough choices about growth and taxes in the near future. He asked residents to make room for commercial development.

“I don’t know the answer, except we have to accept some commercial,” said Pease. “You’ve been trying to define it with your citizen’s plan, the committee’s trying to define it, but we have to find some way to find some middle ground or our taxes are going to continue to go up services will be cut and we will be pushing out the people that create a diverse community. This will become a bedroom community if we’re not careful.”

The Central West plan goes to the Town Planning Board for evaluation before returning to the Town Council for consideration on November 25.

Central West Goes Before Planning Board, Disagreements Continue

CHAPEL HILL – Members of the Chapel Hill Town Planning Board said Tuesday that they were pleased with the plan drafted by the Central West Steering Committee, but wanted more clarification on several issues. Members of the Steering Committee itself, though, weren’t so happy with the plan.

The Committee’s plan was a draft version of uses and heights for proposed mixed-use development in the area which is near the intersection of Estes Dr. and Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd. The plan also included recommendations for bicycle and pedestrian amenities.

The draft, presented partially in map form, was received fairly well by the Planning Board. Jason Baker said he was “pretty pleased” with the plan, and said he believed the bicycle and pedestrian improvements would be “fantastic” for the community and would help to mitigate traffic.

John Ager said he believed that changes along Estes Dr. were inevitable.

“I take issue with some of the points that have been made by members of the public because I think they are obsessing about the immediate problem and are not looking at the big picture,” Ager said. “There’s a lot of argument about will Estes be widened or not. It will be widened in my opinion.”

The work of the Central West Steering Committee has not been easy since it was undertaken in December of 2012, and at times, the meetings have been contentious. Ager said the committee lacked a “strategic vision” which was what made the task of the Obey Creek Steering Committee go more smoothly.

Planning Board Member Del Snow said she was not pleased with the work done by the consultant, who was brought in to provide the committee with technical expertise.

“As I said before, I feel that the tempo and style of this small area plan was set by the consultant when they came in with the maps first,” Snow said. “I’ve always been a big proponent of having the data to back up what you have proposed. That, in itself, troubles me.”

Neal Bench, Chair of the Planning Board, contended that something was going to happen to Estes regardless of what the committee presents to the Council. He said he would rather it happened sooner than later.

Four members of the Central West Steering Committee, who have formed their own unofficial subgroup, said they can’t endorse the “official” plan.

During the public input session, the four members presented their own map, which they said better addressed how development will affect traffic. They also criticized the official plan for failing to include community feedback.

Committee Co-Chair Michael Parker rebuffed that claim. He said that the Committee held four community events, hosted walking tours, and offered a public survey.

“I think we tried as hard as we could to reach out and be reached out to,” Parker said.

Parker and fellow Co-Chair Amy Ryan led the effort to formulate the map that was presented to the board. After several other versions were on the table, the map was drawn-up based on one-on-one meetings that Ryan and Parker held with their fellow members. Ryan said the goal was to find trends among suggestions put forth by committee members and incorporate them into a new plan.

“One thing that I like about it is that it squarely addressed the traffic concerns which are important for people in the area, and it also leaves things open to developers to have flexibility about how they do things,” Ryan said.

The plan wasn’t well received by some neighbors in the area at a previous meeting who believed the new plan had even less detail than previous versions and featured “no definition on impact to the community.”

Chapel Hill Resident Heidi Chapman was one of six people, included the four unhappy members of the committee, who spoke to the Planning Board during the public comment period. The other was Maria Palmer, who praised the plan and the work of the committee.

“This is an attempt to present something to the Planning Board today. It does not represent the public’s view,” Chapman said. “The public made it very clear at the Amity Church [event] and also in the survey that they did not like any of the plans that the consultant had come up with and the plan that the two chairs had come up with is even more intense.”

Steering committee member Mickey Jo Sorrell began the presentation of the dissatisfied subgroup.

”I want to make it clear that this group of four is not against urban development when it is appropriate in the right places,” Sorrell said.

The group presented their revised map, which includes what they call more in-depth traffic analysis. Julie McClintock said it better explained how the development could impact the neighborhood.

“If the biggest issue of developing this area, the biggest constraint is traffic, why would you not want to deal with it?” McClintock said.

The group also presented a report summarizing what they believed to be the shortcomings of the official plan.

“The traffic and number of trips analysis, I think you will really see is really presented way beyond what the majority of the committee has put forth,” Tuttle said. “I think it is very important for the Planning Board not to let this process move on to Town Council with out having that same kind of analysis presented.”

Firoz Mistry echoed Tuttle’s assertion.

“Anyone who travels on it [Estes Dr.] today knows that every evening, the traffic backs up all the way to the Library, so it is really a disaster already,” Mistry said.

McClintock added that she felt the committee had failed to also address storm water issues in an area that is prone to flooding.

Topics to be discussed at the committee’s meeting on October 3 include traffic performance measures, storm water issues, and street character vision.

The Steering Committee will return to the planning board on October 15 with final draft of the Central West Small Area Plan.

The committee will continue its work until November 25, when it reveals a final plan to the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Central West Makes Progress, Many Still Skeptical

CHAPEL HILL – The Central West Steering Committee has formulated a plan which focuses on several points that it will present to the Chapel Hill Planning Board Tuesday. This comes after last week’s meeting when the committee could not reach an agreement on a single item. Still a portion of the committee members and neighbors weren’t content with the process.

For the first time in the history of the Central West Steering Committee, a motion passed unanimously Tuesday evening as committee members applauded the consensus.

“It is time for us to make decisions. We’ve met for nine months. I think it is time for us to put some marks on paper with some decision making. We will then send it to the Planning Board and get public comment,” said committee Co-Chair Amy Ryan.

Matt Sullivan, the meeting’s facilitator, said that the topics up for discussion were development use; height; and bicycle and pedestrian amenities. By keeping the meeting’s agenda from getting too broad, the committee was able to make progress before sending suggestions to the Town Planning Board.

Other motions were approved as well, such as limiting building heights to three stories in the small area plan, and including additional proposed lines on the map, denoting possible off-road paths. A motion was almost passed to restrict building heights to three stories along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., south of Estes Dr. However, it was decided to delay a vote on the matter in order to include feedback from the Planning Board.

For nine months, the committee has discussed possible land uses and building heights for new development along the Estes Dr. corridor. Six maps have been considered in total, featuring mixed-use development located near the intersection of Estes Dr. and Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. The plans are variations of residential, office, institutional and higher density housing development proposed in the area.

The sixth map, formulated last week by Committee Co-Chairs Ryan and Michael Parker, was based on one-on-one meetings with their fellow members. The goal was to find trends amongst suggestions put forth by committee members and incorporate them into a new plan.

Neighbors like John Morris said that he believed the new plan had even less detail than previous versions and featured “no definition on impact to the community.”

Alan Thom, who lives on Caswell Road off Estes Drive, spoke during a public comment session. He said he believed that the committee was “nowhere near ready” to present a final report the Planning Board, adding that the group had spun in circles since work began.

“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 that was a first draft and starting point for discussions, to a being an action item, was an astounding change in direction,” Thom said.

Some Committee members, like Julie McClintock, have questioned the new map, arguing that it goes against the concerns of neighbors who will be impacted by more density.

“To me, we haven’t had a conversation and a consultation on this map,” McClintock said. “It was really brought to us last week. It reflected apparently individual conversations that had occurred. I didn’t see anything on it that reflected my views.”

Committee member Dave Tuttle said he felt that public opinion had been neglected as well.

“This process of what we are really supposed to do is to maintain the integrity of the planning process and ensure that the process is open and participatory,” Tuttle said. “We also should receive and integrate community feedback. I think we have failed miserably.”

Town Planner Megan Wooley said public comment was always included in the committee’s action minutes.

Committee member Lucy Carol Davis added that the plan wasn’t a final version, rather a composite collection of suggestions made so far.

“Again, we are not trying to approve a development project here,” Davis said. “We are trying to set the direction for the kind of development that we think would be appropriate in this area.”

Though this was the committee’s last meeting before presenting to the Planning Board, the group’s work will continue until November 25, when it reveals a final plan to the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Topics to be discussed at the committee’s meeting on October 3 include traffic performance measures, storm water issues, and street character vision.

A representative of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Board, Jared Simmons, said that moving forward, the committee needed to consider density in regard to transit operations.

“I think the most important thing we need here is that we need the proper density level to support transit infrastructure,” Simmons said. “If we underdevelop it, then we are going to be wasting money and no one is going to ride the G-Route and the Cross-Town Route. It is not going to support the proper transit infrastructure.”

The committee presents its newest plan to the Transportation Board this Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in the Public Works Building on Millhouse Road.

Central West Stalled

CHAPEL HILL – The Central West Steering Committee has 12 days to present its plan to the Planning Board, and not a single item in the plan has a consensus agreement.

The action item for Thursday night’s meeting of the Committee was to see which items in the plan—which has been discussed since January—could be agreed on. The first motion to vote on an item was finally called more than two hours into the meeting. A representative of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Board, Jared Simmons, motioned that the committee vote on the bike and ped plans that had been discussed, which he said he believed the group agreed on.

After close to ten minutes of discussion, the motion got lost, and co-chair Amy Ryan asked the Chapel Hill Police Department’s staff legal adviser, Matt Sullivan—who was brought in to be a facilitator of the meeting—to get the meeting on track.

“We have this meeting and the next meeting before we have to go to the Planning Board, and we have to bring them something,” Ryan said. “I’m hoping to bring them decisions, not just ‘these are things we’re thinking about’. So, if you could help us, maybe, move forward with that.”

“Well, I think he’s actually moving in the right direction,” Sullivan said.

More discussion ensued and the motion was removed with a different motion to make the bike/ped portion of the plan an agenda item for discussion at the committee’s next meeting.

With only 15 minutes left in the meeting before the committee had to allow for ten minutes of public discussion and adjourning, the second motion was called by land owner, Whit Rummel.

“I would like to make a motion that we accept the performance-based standards for traffic on development…on the basis that David and the staff can come up with a feasible way of approaching it,” Rummel said.

David Bonk is the town’s long range and transportation planning manager. He took time to explain that the performance-based standards are industry standards for these situations, and still the committee could not agree to vote on the item. Despite nearly reaching a vote, that item too got pushed to the next meeting with the request for more information from town officials.

Before opening the floor to public comments, Sullivan told the committee he is confident that it can come up with some items on which the members agree.

“I think it would be a shame that you invested all this time, energy, and effort to have it flounder,” Sullivan said.

A major hold-up for the committee is that there are now six proposals on the table for it to work on. The fifth map was presented last week by a group that expressed its items of concern were not being heard. That proposal was presented to the group Thursday and received mixed opinion.

The co-chairs of the committee also took the past week to meet one-on-one with almost every individual of the group to discuss the issues. The chairs then put the discussion together into a map, which the committee realized at the meeting ended up being a combination of concept A2 and B2. Both those concepts were heavily disliked by the committee.

*Update: Co-chair Ryan told WCHL on Friday that the goal of the one-on-one meetings was not to pick and choose what items from the four A and B concept plans were the best, but instead to just name the areas of concern and what they wanted to see in the plan. She said the performance-based standard will likely produce a less dense plan than the A and B concepts that were heavily disliked.

Last week’s public session saw more than 200 community members show up to give their input by placing a green dot on plans they agreed on and red dots on plans they were against. Town officials, members of the committee, and members of the public said Thursday there was evidence that people were seen removing dots and otherwise compromising the project, so the data was not submitted as official information.

*Update: Chapel Hill Housing and Neighborhood Services Planner, Megan Wooley, told WCHL on Friday that the dot exercise will be used, it’s just not going to be tabulated into numerical data. She said it was always meant to just be a visual representation.

The town survey received close to 450 entries and was given to the committee to review.

The Central West Steering Committee meets one final time before submitting a plan to the Planning Board. Tuesday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., the group will have to come up with something to present.

Pedestrian Killed At Estes Drive Intersection

CHAPEL HILL- A woman died Wednesday night after being hit by a car near the intersection of Fordham Boulevard and South Estes Drive. Chapel Hill police say Lisa Renee Baldwin, 41, of Chapel Hill, was walking when she was hit shortly before 8:30 p.m. Baldwin died at the scene of injuries related to the accident.

WCHL will have more on this story as details become available.

Central West Group Struggles Ahead Of Fall Deadline

CHAPEL HILL- Next Tuesday Chapel Hill residents will have a chance to check in with the Central West Steering Committee to review maps laying out possible land uses and building heights for new development along the Estes Drive corridor.

But the 17-member group is at odds over which maps the public should see and what the maps actually represent. Mickey Jo Sorrel told fellow committee members she’s not comfortable with any of the current plans.

“I personally do not feel that these maps are a product that I have endorsed. We have voted on them a piece at a time and in groups, but they were created by consultants,” said Sorrel, speaking at Tuesday’s steering committee meeting.

The four versions currently under review were drafted by a consultant following committee discussions to provide a starting point for technical analysis.

The maps feature mixed-use development on the north side of Estes near the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection, residential development closer to the schools, and a mix of office, institutional and higher density housing to the south. Proposed building heights along Estes range from two to four stories, with five to eight stories suggested for some interior parcels of land.

But some committee members argue a fifth map should be included, namely a lower density version drafted by an unofficial subset of the group who say they can’t support any of the committee’s concept plans.

The alternative plan limits building heights to three stories, adds more single-family housing to Estes and leaves some interior parcels untouched. Supporters of the alternative plan say it is responsive to neighbors concerns about vehicle traffic, pedestrian safety and environmental conservation. Four members of the committee, including Julie McClintock, delivered a letter to the group asking that the alternative plan be presented to the public for feedback.

“There hasn’t been any real dialog in order to collectively come up with something that will also match what the citizens want,” said McClintock. “That was actually the reason the steering committee was formed.”

However, many on the committee worry that this alternate plan is too small in scale. Committee co-chair Amy Ryan said while she’s willing to consider a less-dense scenario, the alternate plan would be a missed opportunity to plan for increased transit usage and affordable housing in the area.

“I don’t think I would go as far as this because one of the real opportunities that I see in this area is we are on the major transit corridor in town,” said Ryan. “One of the goals the town is trying to do is we’re trying to get that transit ridership which will keep people off our streets. We’re trying to house more people who aren’t at the upper ends and maybe can’t afford a single family house. I think this is a really good place to try and do that.”

Others in the group took their criticism further. Whit Rummel, who owns undeveloped land on Estes Drive, said the lower-density plan lacked vision.

“What I’m really concerned about is if we go with something like this that has no center, no core, no heart, no vision, we have lost,” said Rummel. “We have lost what we came to do. We have been sold out by people in this neighborhood who want to keep it [zoned] R1. And that is not our vision.”

Nonetheless, McClintock said she plans to circulate copies of the alternate plan at next week’s community meeting with or without the approval of the wider committee. This drew the ire of council liaison Jim Ward, who urged the group to present a united front.

“We haven’t talked as a group about anything but those four maps in terms of having any kind of group discussion on it. I really would feel like you would be demonstrating very poor form if you pull out an alternative map that we have not had as a committee,” said Ward. “You may feel very strongly about it, but that is not the place to do that.”

The Central West Steering Committee is charged with creating a small area plan to be incorporated into the town’s revamped comprehensive plan. The group is scheduled to submit its final report to the town council in November.

While the committee wrestles with the scale of the project, the process has begun to draw fire from citizens and elected officials outside the group, after a recent email from Town Manager Roger Stancil showed the cost of the consultant’s work with the committee has jumped from $92,000 to $230,000.

Originally the town hired planning consultants from Rhodeside and Harwell to participate in four committee meetings and one community workshop. Now, that work plan has evolved to include 19 meetings, three community workshops and multiple concept plans.

The community will have a chance to evaluate the committee’s work next week at an information session at the Amity United Methodist Church at 825 North Estes Drive.

The session will give residents the opportunity to provide feedback on the planning principals, goals and concepts the committee has developed. Members of the public are invited to drop in between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday September 10.  The Central West committee will reconvene to assess the results of the community workshop on September 19.

Central West Group: Off-Road Bike Path A Priority For Estes

CHAPEL HILL- Residents involved in planning the future of the Estes Drive/ Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard area unanimously endorsed a plan on Tuesday to create an off-street bike path to help children get safely to school.

The proposed path could run parallel to Estes from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Caswell Road, allowing students at Phillips Middle and Estes Hills Elementary to bike or walk to school while avoiding vehicle traffic on one of Chapel Hill’s busiest roads.

Members of the Central West Steering Committee agreed the multi-use path would be the top priority for bike and pedestrian improvements to the area. They also called for bike lanes in the street, along with a sidewalk that runs the full length of Estes Drive.

Although committee members agreed turn lanes might be necessary in some places to ease congestion, the group rejected a plan to add a third lane all along Estes, saying that would widen the road too much.

Transportation Planning Manager David Bonk said the town has about $2.5 million in federal grant money available to bring bike and pedestrian facilities in the area in the next few years.

The group also discussed land use plans for the undeveloped parcels on Estes closest to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Currently, the Horace Williams Airport Hazard Zone prohibits those parcels from being developed, but committee members said once the airport closes, they’d like to see mixed use development with a focus on retail that serves the nearby residential communities.

Committee members stressed that whatever is built on the corner should complement the Carolina North campus eventually slated for the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The group is still in the early stages of land use planning discussions, with a goal of crafting a small area plan for the town council to review by December.

The committee will continue its work next Wednesday, meeting at 6 o’clock at the Chapel Hill Public Library.