The congested, confusing and, forgive me, somewhat unlovely intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard are on the brink of change. And the change we see there may have a ripple effect throughout not just the town but Chapel Hill’s planning process as well.
The area, defined in a Small Area Plan a few years back, is on the cusp of re-development. I live in a neighborhood adjacent to the area and thus, like many of you, I pass through it several times a day. It would be a great surprise if anyone found it charming or welcoming in any sense. It depicts the worst of what I call suburban sprawl, with endless parking lots, unbroken by signs of life. The major roadways that cut through it do not invite pedestrian traffic, to say the least.
There is always chatter about pending development plans in Chapel Hill so if you don’t know what makes this one different, I’ll try to explain (briefly!): For the area defined by the plan, the code requirements would be written prior to specific development requests. This would enable any developer to know what the town wants, before spending lots of time and money trying to find out. This is the opposite of how commercial development is currently handled in and by Chapel Hill.
I’ve attended a few meetings where the public is introduced to how this pre-coding (definitely a made-up term) can allow the town to set a vision of how a neighborhood or any area will look. By predetermining requirements such as sidewalks and building height and even windows and doors, we can have a sense of the end result, rather than a quilt, stitched together in a piecemeal process. We can even create a more village-y feeling with the proposed addition of streets to create blocks to make the area more walkable.
In Chapel Hill’s current process, every individual development has to apply for its own special permit and the extended haggling that accompanies many of these applications costs everyone money: the developer, certainly, but also taxpayers as town staff is on duty throughout each step no matter how many.
I’m not suggesting Chapel Hill (or any town) shouldn’t regulate what it wants to look like but few will disagree that our current system has had a chilling effect on the kind of growth that would buttress our tax base. This limited-in-scope attempt to maintain control over development while removing the stuttering (lack of) progress currently in place is a great experiment.
The intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard is uniquely qualified to serve as the town’s pilot project for this type of planning. Why? It’s overall unloveliness, as described above. It’s already a commercial area and it doesn’t offer much that adds to the special character of our town. In my view, it can only get lovelier. Let’s give it a try!