From Patty Krebs.

The Town Council meets Monday night to hear a progress report on Central West, an area deemed suitable for major development, like it or not if you live on Estes Drive, Huntington Drive and nearby neighborhoods or if your children go to Estes Elementary School or Phillips Middle School. Instead of relying on citizen input in planning for this area, the Town has hired an out-of-town planning consultant, at a taxpayer cost of over $100,000. The out-of-town consultant has presented several draft development maps that indicate an unfamiliarity with the topography and social context of the planning area.

Central West is the first of six “future focus areas” covered by critical land use planning for our Town. This area comprises only about 80 acres near the intersection of MLK, Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive, east of MLK and north and south of Estes. But although the area is small, changes in it will have huge impacts on nearby residential areas and nearby public facilities, not only the schools but also the Y, Amity Church and the new Chapel Hill Public Library. Just across MLK is the new UNC campus, Carolina North, with 800,000 square feet of construction and 1780 employees in the first phase of development.

The Town Council appointed a diverse and knowledgeable Steering Committee for Central West and charged them to develop a plan by December 2010, with extensive and continuous public input. The Committee has almost reached agreement on the guiding principles and objectives for the plan.

But serious problems have developed that need timely attention if the Town’s investment in this planning effort is to succeed. First, the Town’s consultant has presented several draft development maps for the area that fail to recognize the context of the planning area. Whatever happens must be compatible with Carolina North, the schools, and those who live and work nearby. The plans put forward by the consultant don’t even follow the the guiding principles and objectives developed by the Steering Committee. Second, up to now the Steering Committee has not yet had a real dialog as a group on what fits best in this area. All their time has been taken up by staff presentations and procedural matters — much of it busy work..

Citizens have put forward these big issues.

  • The safety of children who walk or bike to the two schools must be a central planning goal.
  • The plan for Central West must take Carolina North into account and assure that development complements the new campus, which is a future economic engine for Chapel Hill.
  •  Estes Drive must not be so overburdened with traffic that it is not safe and passable for school buses, residents, and commuters to Carolina North.
  •  As Dwight Bassett said in a recent speech, this planning area is too small to become a complete urban center. Other areas in Chapel like downtown and the 15-501 corridor do have the potential to be dense urban centers.

Two things must be done to rescue this planning effort.

  •  The Town staff and the consultant have pushed ahead with development maps that don’t fit this area. The Steering Committee needs to call a halt on the maps until the underlying issues are better understood, specifically transportation and traffic, housing needs, and realistic Town needs for new retail and commercial space. Then the decision on what best fits in Central West can be made. This data review must be done on a Town-wide basis, rather than by looking at one small part of the Town at a time.
  •  The Steering Committee, the Town staff, and the consultant have been trying, but have not found a way to start talking to one another productively. An energetic and objective facilitator is badly needed to get things moving.