Getting to No

I read about UNC wrestling coach C.D. Mock getting fired recently over Nancy Oatescomments he made in his personal blog, and Town Council came to mind.

Mock’s son, a student at the University of Tennessee, had been accused of sexual assault in an incident that centered on whether sex had been consensual. Mock, in coming to his son’s defense, disparaged the “Yes Means Yes” campaign that has replaced “No Means No” at many universities, including UNC. Rather than have sexual assault hinge on whether one of the partners said “no,” intercourse can proceed legitimately only if both partners say “yes.”

The difference is subtle but important. Because when saying “no” is too uncomfortable, even when you are screaming “no” in your head and heart, the default mode is to remain silent.

Town Council doesn’t have the option of remaining silent in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes saying “no” can be extraordinarily difficult, far harder than not saying “yes.” Saying “no” can be more difficult still when you have a relationship or connection with the other party. What are the expectations? The personal responsibility? The implied agreement? What are the consequences of disappointing the other party? Of changing your mind? What constitutes a valid reason? Do you need a valid reason?

Think how much easier it is to say “no” to a telemarketer than to someone you’ve interacted with and shared information with in moving toward a transaction.

Town Council members show signs of this stress during votes on whether to approve developments. Obey Creek is a case in point.

Young Ben Perry took the lead in presenting the developers’ plan, until council members started asking tough questions. At those points, his father, Roger Perry, stood up and leveled a “don’t make me stop the car” glare at council members, who then clammed up. Who knew what, if any, threat existed, but council members apparently felt one and acted as if they no longer had the right to say “no.”

Council approved Perry’s mammoth plan, rather than consider either of two smaller plans that would net the same revenue for the town and greatly reduce traffic jams. The vote was 7-1; thank you, Ed Harrison for your resolve to represent the best interests of constituents.

The following week, The Edge developers came back before council. Adam Golden was spokesman for the developers, and his boyish demeanor was nowhere near as imposing as Roger Perry’s. And The Edge is the only project currently before council that Golden represents. Council members pushed back on aspects of The Edge that had not troubled them when similar issues appeared in Obey Creek.

Perhaps council was simply reacting to community outrage over the Obey Creek vote and had nothing to do with Golden’s lack of scowling and growling. But for me, it underscored how badly we need council members who have the strength to say “no,” even when it’s difficult to do.
– Nancy Oates

Off the radar?

My daughter and I set up our beach chairs on the top of the Wallace ParkingNancy Oates Deck last Thursday night, nervously, given the lightning that flashed all around us. Meg McGurk, director of the Downtown Partnership, assured all of us who had gathered to watch “Wall-E” that staff had been monitoring the storm cells on radar, which showed that the rain would pass south of us, and that other than a few sprinkles initially, we would be fine.

She had barely finished speaking when the torrential downpour began, chasing us back into the shelter of the parking deck and on home. Our route took us around a huge oak that had fallen across South Columbia Street near the Carolina Inn.

So the parallel was not lost on me when I returned home and read Sally Greene’s legal-brief-length blog post on why she voted for the developer’s preferred version of Obey Creek. Just like the Downtown Partnership staff who put their faith in an information source that led them to erroneous conclusions, so, too, did Greene.

A community member at last week’s public hearing on Obey Creek pointed out the obvious conflict of interest Roger Perry had in telling council members not to worry about traffic congestion, how much it would cost taxpayers or the downside of building in the resource conservation district. Just approve the largest plan, he said, because it would cost him $29 million to prepare the site even if a smaller option were chosen, and he needed maximum return because he had investors to pay.

I understand Perry already is shopping around the various parcels to flip to new private equity investors.

It would have been very helpful had Greene mentioned any of her reasoning in the six years prior to the vote and been able to engage with her constituents in her decision. Instead, all we can do is point out her flawed assumptions when it’s too late to correct them.

Greene says “we have a responsibility to the region to accept our fair share” of growth. I might be convinced if we were making room for some of those seeking modestly paid positions. But we’re cherry-picking the well-off, building housing only for the economic elite.

Greene makes reference to “an exemplary affordable housing strategy,” noting that Obey Creek will comply with the inclusionary zoning ordinance for any condos it might build. Since when is obeying the law “exemplary”? And of the planned 800 rental units, the developer will accept up to 20 Section 8 or Veteran Vouchers. Even with the government subsidy, he likely will not break even on them. He can console himself with the fact that he will collect top-dollar rent from the other 780 units.

Then there’s the notion that Obey Creek will be a transit-oriented community, though its million square feet of parking suggest otherwise and the town has no money to pay for buses there.

I’ve always held Greene’s intellect in high regard. Her missive disappoints.
– Nancy Oates

We haven’t made it yet

As I waited for the traffic light to change at the corner of Columbia andNancy Oates Franklin streets on Friday afternoon, a school bus pulled up beside me. A little kid stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Yay! We made it to summer!”

Council members undoubtedly are looking ahead a couple weeks to the day they can yell that, too. But many of us in the community approach the end of the council year with the low-grade feeling of dread that parents feel this time of year as they realize how much extra work summer means for them.

The public hearing for Obey Creek continues tonight, June 15, and council likely will vote on the project then. Donna Bell and Maria Palmer already have said they will vote to approve the project as is, regardless of any additional information that comes in.

Last week staff introduced plans for two smaller versions of the project that would reduce the traffic jams and save the Resource Conservation District while netting just as much tax revenue as the larger plan. The new plans corroborated what financial analysts and others in the community had proposed all along. But the optimism many of us had last week has faded as council members dismissed the plans without discussion and seemed hell-bent on approving the larger traffic-clogging iteration.

I base this not on any inside information but simply on pattern recognition. We’ve been through this with Central West, Ephesus-Fordham and The Edge. Council hears the reports of various advisory boards and sits through information presented by community members, then dismisses the recommendations of the boards, ignores the information by the community and votes for what makes the most money for the developer.

I haven’t heard one community member who is against a development on the Obey Creek land. But I have heard many, many who are incensed about the additional traffic, others who are concerned about building a road in the RCD and some who dread the tax increase that is lurking down the road to pay for services for all these new apartments.

By choosing one of the smaller versions of Obey Creek, council members have the opportunity to fix all of the problems these voters are worried about. Council could take some time to consider the best alternative or work out the details of handling the traffic and cost to taxpayers of a larger version, as well as how to squish that square footage into the buildable acreage without spilling over into the RCD.

But my prediction is that council will do what they’ve done before: give the developer all he is asking for, and do it quickly, so voters have more time to forget before Election Day. And then council members can skip away, yay, they’ve made it to summer, and the rest of us will be stuck with making more sacrifices while our elected officials play.
– Nancy Oates

Just because they can

Last week a man carried a loaded assault rifle into the Atlanta airport whileNancy Oates he dropped off his daughter for her flight. Georgia passed a law last year that allows permitted gun owners to carry loaded weapons in an airport, as long as they don’t go through the TSA security checkpoint. The man said he did it because he wanted to exercise his rights.

“If people are getting scared, that is their own fault,” the man said.
Whether it destroyed the sense of security and peace of mind of others in the airport was not his concern. He did it just because he could. Fortunately, airport security took seriously what was in the best interests of everyone else at the airport and followed the man until he left.

Town Council could learn from this real-life parable. Frequently developers and other private equity investors propose something to Town Council that will benefit themselves, and they give no thought to how their proposals will affect the quality of life of town residents. It is up to Town Council members to be our equivalent of airport security, setting boundaries with developers to make sure what gets built will serve the town as a whole.

In recent years, council has failed miserably. But council has the chance to redeem itself with the Obey Creek project. Last week, staff released a fiscal analysis of various iterations of Obey Creek — smaller or with a lower percentage of residential buildings — that reflected what some town residents have been saying all along.

Reducing the size of Obey Creek by a third or setting the percentage of residential square footage at no more than 50% of the total built space would net the town just as much money as the current proposal of 1.6 million square feet of built space and another 800,000 square feet of parking.

Council members are divided on whether to widen U.S. 15-501 to accommodate the traffic of the large version, and town staff say there is no money in the budget for bus service to the Obey Creek side of the road, ensuring a car-centric development.

A smaller project would reduce the traffic congestion as well as do less damage to the environment, situated as it is proposed so close to wetlands. All of this combined would make voters happier, too.

The developers are balking, understandably. A smaller project means less profit for them. It also means less risk. The developers said it would cost them $28 million to prepare the land to be able to build the large project proposed. A smaller version would require less prep investment.

Two council members have indicated already that they plan to vote for the large version of Obey Creek, despite its intractable challenges. We’re counting on the remaining six to safeguard the rest of us.
– Nancy Oates

Devil in the details

If you build it, they will come; and when they come, they will bring Nancy Oatestraffic and public transit needs with them. And we will have to come up with solutions.

The proposed version of Obey Creek has more square feet of built space than Streets of Southpoint mall. The Obey Creek plan has only two forms of egress, as Southpoint did when it first opened. The traffic jams from people trying to get in and out almost sunk that place until Durham approved more driveways in and out. Whereas Southpoint is all retail, Obey Creek has significantly more residential than retail or office. So during morning and evening rush hours, expect the same stalled traffic in Obey Creek’s parking decks as in UNC Hospitals’ decks at shift change, and expect to sit through light cycle after light cycle waiting to get in or out on the way to and from work every day.

Yet the attitude of some council members seems to be a shrug and magical thinking that it will somehow all work itself out.

The N.C. Department of Transportation suggested expanding U.S. 15-501 into 6 lanes to help move the traffic. But Maria Palmer, with uncharacteristic concern for community members’ opinions, took the stand that “there are many [Chapel Hill] citizens who would have lots of problems with seeing a 6-lane 15-501 between [Southern Village] and Obey Creek. I would be one of them. I think we need to push back on these DOT requests. They are still in the mode of creating super highways while our community (and planet) looks to making changes away from a car-centered life.”

In other words, if we don’t have a road wide enough to handle the traffic, people will give up their cars. I predict that will be as successful as my banning Cheetos from the house as a way to coax my husband into healthier eating habits.

Maybe Palmer wants Obey Creek residents and visitors to use public transportation. Except there won’t be any, because the town said it has no money for bus routes to serve the area.

That leaves walking and biking. But the developer has designated the residences as age-restricted senior housing. Retirees will have to bike to the grocery store, concerts and church. Office workers are going to arrive at their jobs sweaty and dusty and bike home at night in the dark. Shoppers must fit all their purchases in the handlebar basket.

For years, community members have been trying to educate the developer, town staff and council members on some of the practical issues of building the 1.6 million square-foot version of Obey Creek. Traffic and transit, stormwater runoff, the increased cost to taxpayers for providing services to what amounts to a small sister city on the outskirts of town.

The developer is pressing hard for council to approve this iteration of the project soon. Will council have the backbone to stand firm until the details have been worked out?
– Nancy Oates

Aspiring to be what we’re not?

Krispy Kreme closed its Franklin Street shop earlier this month after Nancy Oatesless than 5 years. A few doors away, Cold Stone shut down two months earlier. Farther west along Franklin, GiGi’s Cupcakes left town at the end of last year.

But locally owned Sugarland still plies its pastries and gelato after nigh on eight years.

Caribou Coffee ended its 18-year run on Franklin Street in December. Carolina Coffee Shop is still going strong as it approaches its century mark.

Several years ago Gap put in an appearance on Franklin Street, then left, while Julian’s has nearly reached the three-quarter century mark. Years ago, Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor came and went. Sutton’s soda fountain is going strong after more than 90 years. The Greenbridge commercial spaces languished empty until local businesses signed on.

If Dwight Bassett and numerous developers of mammoth “mixed use” projects cluck nervously about the difficulty of finding businesses to come to Chapel Hill, maybe they’re looking for the wrong kind of business.

National chain outlets come and go quickly in Chapel Hill, but independent and local businesses have much more longevity. Why do town leaders ignore what the market heralds?

Krispy Kreme, Cold Stone and Gap all cited poor sales as their reason for shutting down. If a donut shop, an ice cream parlor and a jeans store can’t make it in a college town, something’s wrong.

National chains have more rigid expectations for profit than local business owners. Chains have customers, but corporate retailers have a model with specific performance goals and regimented consequences. Chains have little flexibility to make local customers happy, because those decisions are made at headquarters.

If sales begin to fall off at an independent business, the owner tinkers with the product to give customers what they want. Local owners can customize and be nimble. The independent owner may be more invested in success — after all, it is his or her livelihood — and more motivated to do whatever is necessary to keep the business going.

At last Monday’s council meeting, developer Roger Perry played the “grow or die” card, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of “evolve.” Perry and the Chamber of Commerce crowd, along with some council members, want to increase the number of residents to meet the thresholds of chain stores that will flit in briefly and leave. They seem oblivious to the irony that Perry’s apartment building aiming to bring more residents to Village Plaza has forced out long-standing businesses because shopping center managers want to charge the higher rents that chain stores are willing to pay.

By chasing chain stores, Chapel Hill may be trying to be something it’s not. Why are council members who approve large-scale residential growth so intent on setting us up to fail? As one community member told council last Monday night, “We want to be the Southern part of Heaven, not the southern part of Manhattan.” Bassett and council members would do well to pay attention to what works in town, and look for businesses closer to home.
– Nancy Oates

The other 1 percent

“Lies and misinformation,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt responded to a DogwoodNancy Oates Acres resident who questioned whether and how much Obey Creek would cost taxpayers.

I have heard what could be called lies and misinformation during the Obey Creek Development Agreement process, and it has come from the development team. A case in point: Affordable housing.

Obey Creek developers claim that their proposal designates 5% of the rental units as affordable, an embarrassingly low amount, given that Obey Creek is within walking distance of the town’s two largest employers of low-wage workers: the university and hospital. Across the country, towns similar to Chapel Hill are getting as much as 25% to 35% affordable housing from new developments.

And Obey Creek’s 5% shrinks to 1% when you calculate the affordable housing based on square footage. The most recent iteration of the development agreement available to the public is missing some key information to figure out exactly how much affordable housing the project would yield. But by filling in the blanks with common sense assumptions, here’s what I come up with. Please let me know if you spot any flaws in my logic or arithmetic.

With the stated maximum of 800 units, 5% would be 40 affordable units, but the Development Agreement does not specify what constitutes affordable. For my definition, only the units that accept government subsidy (Section 8 or Veterans Vouchers) or are rented at below-market rate should be considered affordable housing. The market rate micro-units are just that: tiny apartments rented at full market rate. The developer sacrifices nothing to provide those market-rate units.

The Development Agreement does not specify maximum square footage for residential, only a minimum of 250 units or 290,000-330,000 sft. The average of that square footage is 310,000 sft. Dividing that up into 250 units yields an average unit of 1,240 sft. To get the maximum sft, multiply 1,240 x 800 units for 992,000 sft of residential.

The agreement says the micro-units will be studios at 450 sft, 1-bedrooms at 500 sft and 2-bedrooms at 750 sft, but doesn’t say how many of each. So I assigned 20 of the units as studios, 10 as 1-bedrooms and 10 as 2-bedrooms. Multiply that out for a total of 21,500 sft of what the developer considers affordable housing. Do the math: 21,500/992,000 = 2.167% affordable housing.

The agreement says that the developer will accept vouchers only for half of the 40 units designated affordable. Remember the developer is getting full market rate for the micro-units. So, divide 2.167% in half and you get 1.08%.

For a density bonus as large as the town is poised to give the Obey Creek developers — in 1992, Town Council designated that land as low-density residential in exchange for boosting the density on the other side of the highway to create Southern Village — 1% of affordable housing is a ridiculously small concession on the part of the developers. Rumor has swirled that the developers may squeeze in 40 townhouses, which would be subject to the town’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. That should not be considered a concession by the developers. That’s simply obeying the law.
– Nancy Oates

Lessons from Hulu founder

Even as Tropical Storm Ana showered Commencement festivities at regular intervals Nancy OatesSunday morning at Kenan Stadium, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. Not only because of the joy of witnessing my daughter graduate, but because of the speech given by Carolina alumnus Jason Kilar, founder of Hulu.

On the surface, Kilar looks like the Golden Boy, the man with the magic touch. But he talked about some of the lowest points in his life, personally and professionally, when success seemed regularly left out of his lunchbox. He talked about the early days of Hulu, how those in the know, those already firmly ensconced in success, derided him for pursuing his ideas. Experts in his field called his Hulu team “ClownCo,” and a highly regarded website set up a digital counter to track how long it would take Hulu to fail.

But Kilar had the insight to know that anything that bucks convention will seem like a threat to the establishment. So he persevered, and “Hulu ended up working out,” he said.

“If you think the world is broken in a certain way and you have a great new idea to fix it, do yourself a favor and pursue your convictions, relentlessly,” he told the graduates. “The path I describe will be an uncertain one. But don’t let the fear of uncertainty, of not having all the answers, be the thing that holds you back.”

It gave me hope to hear the next generation of leaders being challenged to pursue new ideas, even in the face of derision, scorn and apathy from others.

I applied Kilar’s words to the context of community members sharing concerns and ideas on how to fix them with elected officials and town staff whose response has ranged from ignoring the electorate to scolding community members for speaking up.

I thought of the tremendous effort the community put into educating Town Council members and town staff on infrastructure and fiscal viability for Central West, Ephesus-Fordham and The Edge. Council and staff blew off the electorate in all three matters.

I thought of the listening sessions Roger Stancil held, and I’m waiting to see whether Stancil will come back with ideas on how to fix the problems community members identified. And I thought of a serious flaw in a town process I pointed out to town staff in the past week, and how the initial response from staff has been to brush it aside.

Community members repeatedly have presented new ideas, viewpoints, tools and solutions, and have been mocked by council members and town staff. Even the spouse of one council member refers to people who disagree with her philosophy as “the other side.”

Kilar’s speech inspired me as much as I hope it did the graduates. Maybe some of them will join us as we troop up to the lectern at public hearings to try to fix the ways our town is broken.

Read Kilar’s speech here:
– Nancy Oates

Smart shoppers

As a value shopper, I perked up my ears at economist David Shreve’s message Nancy Oatesthat we should choose new development projects because we want what they will bring to the town, not because we mistakenly think they will bring in additional revenue.

Shreve, president of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population and a former professor of economic policy at the University of Virginia, spoke at the library last week in a lecture sponsored by the community advocacy group Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT). He lives in the Albemarle County town in Virginia of Charlottesville, a college town about the same size as Chapel Hill that shares many similarities to us. As a member of Albemarle County’s Economic Development Authority, he pays close attention to development issues and has been involved in a major study of the costs of growth.

The study revealed that the only types of land use that bring in more tax revenue than a municipality spends in services are office/retail, light industrial and agriculture, and that assumes that those uses do not increase population. Often businesses relocating to a new town will bring their own people to fill the higher-paying jobs and sometimes have to recruit from surrounding towns to fill their lower-paying positions.

When it comes to residential development, the high-rise, high-rent apartment buildings that Dwight Bassett and Chamber of Commerce representatives believe to be revenue positive actually cost almost twice as much in services for every dollar brought in from property taxes.

The Charlottesville study calculated a break-even point of what a home would have to cost in order to generate enough tax revenue to pay for the services it needs: $668,671. Shreve said Chapel Hill’s break-even point likely would be similar.

Shreve’s numbers show what the technical team hired during the Glen Lennox approval process already presented to Town Council, and what economists, urban planners and the Wake County manager all know to be true: We can’t grow ourselves out of debt.

Every town has an optimal population, and Shreve encouraged Chapel Hill leaders to figure out what that number is and build that optimal size into the town’s planning process.

Because Charlottesville is surrounded by mountains, it has had to plan its growth thoughtfully. It doesn’t have the luxury of sending its citizens to the next town over to shop or shoving its low-wage workers out to commute from another county to find housing. It pays attention to what each development costs in terms of tax dollars and natural resources. All cities depend on places that aren’t cities to get their clean water, clean air and food. Shreve advocated for placing the economy in the natural world, not the other way around.

When it comes to new development, our elected officials need to remember that we are the customers. It’s up to developers to offer us products that meet our needs. Otherwise, we’re not buying.

To view the presentation, go to:
– Nancy Oates

What our leaders hear

I give Roger Stancil a lot of credit for holding “listening sessions.” Over Nancy Oatesthe past few months, Stancil, along with town ombudsman Jim Huegerich and Rae Buckley, the town’s organizational effectiveness coordinator, has been meeting with various special-interest groups to learn what the community thinks is going well with town operations and what could be improved. As town manager, Stancil is ultimately responsible for whether town staff delivers.

It must have been difficult for Stancil to hear, as was the case in the session I attended, of breakdowns between the capable staff’s talents and the delivery of final products. To his credit, not once in the 90-minute meeting did Stancil make excuses or berate any of us for sharing our concerns.

That’s certainly more impulse control than at least one council member has demonstrated. At the April 20 Town Council meeting, a community member asked that a concept plan for retirement apartments be rescheduled because the town erred by publicizing the wrong address, making it appear that the discussion was about Carol Woods, and neighboring property owners weren’t notified. Maria Palmer railed against the unsuspecting community member for more than 4 minutes, sometimes jabbing the air for emphasis. (Watch the video on the town website. The community member begins speaking at the 3:46 minute mark. Palmer lights in about 12 minutes later.)

But back to Stancil and his staff. Let me reiterate that all of us who came to the April 24 meeting at the library lauded town staff for their competency to do their jobs well and engage courteously with the community. Everyone from front-line workers of garbage collectors and emergency responders to those relegated to offices seemed to take their work seriously and treat the public with respect. The disconnect our group focused on was staff not providing council with the information the elected officials need to make decisions that stand the stress-test of time.

Countless times Matt Czajkowski, in particular, asked for data on a project, but when the issue came back to council for a vote, staff didn’t have the information. Mark Kleinschmidt should have postponed voting until staff provided the information. I don’t recall that he ever did. Instead, council members would vote without the information they needed to make a well-thought-out decision. In business parlance, that’s known as “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Over the past eight years, Stancil has made some excellent hires and promoted talent that had languished unnoticed in middle-management. He has put a framework in place for excellence. But somewhere along the line, staff have been derailed from delivering the data and analyses council needs. Whether that’s due to spending time on less important administrative tasks, or from a directive that all staff work has to dovetail with a pre-conceived outcome, that’s for Stancil to figure out. We’re glad he’s listening.
– Nancy Oates