Historic professionalism

Days after the Historic District Commission meeting last week, the unsettling exchanges have stayed with me. Once again — and this happens routinely — an applicant requesting a Certificate of Approval treated the commissioners with disdain, as though they were something that must be scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

I’ve been to meetings of the Planning Commission and the Community Design Commission and observed applicants seek approvals with arrogance, the sort of Leona Helmsley “only the little people pay taxes” arrogance that sometimes accompanies those who did not grow up with wealth but see The Big Payoff almost within their grasp, or from those who are used to getting what they want without having to give in return. But I haven’t heard there the dismissive tone, the outright rudeness, that the HDC encounters.

In the year and a season I’ve been the HDC liaison, my respect for the commissioners has grown. The board harbors extraordinary depth of expertise that covers architecture, engineering, landscaping, law, design, history, genealogy and a love of historic buildings. All members live in a historic district or have in the past. Most bring a career’s worth of experience to their deliberations.

The state offers no protection for historic structures. If the HDC denies a property owner’s request to demolish a historic house, the owner can simply wait a year and then tear the building down. The commission tries to find a balance between allowing new owners to enlarge historic houses and preventing a historic neighborhood from becoming a row of McMansions.

And for this, these commissioners who volunteer their time and expertise are verbally spat upon, yelled and cursed at, and threatened with lawsuits. The town has hired a lawyer to attend each meeting and advise the board and has added extra staff for ballast.

But the most direct solution would be for applicants to treat the commissioners with common courtesy.

The obnoxious applicant last week was before the commission because he had purchased a house in a historic district and commenced renovating it without approval. He demolished a historic fieldstone wall, and town staff were working with him to enable him to avoid fines. Rather than start with an apology and an explanation of what he wanted to do, he took a combative stance, laced with passive-aggressive eye-rolling, deep sighs and calling one commissioner by a diminutive name, though everyone’s nameplate was clearly visible.

The commissioners showed admirable professionalism, granting him permission for some work and explaining what additional information they would need from him before ruling on the remaining renovations. The applicant’s lawyer followed him out of the room. I only hope she schooled him on the basics of social commerce to prepare him for his return appearance.

I extend my thanks and admiration to the commissioners, for their patience and forbearance and willingness to return for the next meeting prepared to give everyone a fresh start.
— Nancy Oates

If we build it, they will park

We walked to our downtown E. Franklin Street church Easter morning to avoid a lengthy search for parking.

The Morehead lot fills up quickly, as does Lot 2 on the corner of E. Rosemary and Columbia streets on a typical Sunday morning. Sometimes the Wallace Deck has no room, either. Bub O’Malley’s gravel lot used to serve as overflow parking, but now it posts “No Parking, Towing Enforced” signs every six feet. Although I know some of the town’s “boutique” lots that often have space, they’re all on the west end of downtown. By the time we drove there and walked back east, we might as well have walked from home.

The town recently added some spaces on the west end of downtown in a lot behind buildings on the south side of W. Franklin, accessible via Basnight Lane and S. Roberson. Even so, we have a deficit of some 250 spaces, and that has hampered growth. A proposed music venue, office and apartment project is on hold until the town can create sufficient parking spaces. The town’s Land Use Management Ordinance does not require downtown property owners to provide any parking.

At the Town Council work session last week, we heard a proposal to add up to three levels of parking to the Wallace Deck, which would add 100 spaces per floor. The cost would be $2.4 million for one story and $8.4 million for three floors, the much higher price for three stories coming from the extra structural support needed to hold the weight of the two more levels of cars.

We previously had explored putting offices or apartments above the deck, but realized that we wouldn’t have enough parking spaces to accommodate those new tenants.

Adding one more floor of parking seems the prudent choice. The deck needs a $1 million weather membrane that had been value-engineered out at construction and now has caught up with us. Adding a level of parking would eliminate the need for that work.

The spaces wouldn’t pay for themselves until after the construction loan is paid off, but we need to support downtown businesses that have told us for years that potential customers stay away for want of a place to park.

Some folks have a theory that making it hard to drive or park will encourage people to walk, bike or take the bus. They forget that a third of our population is senior citizens, that grocery stores prefer a super-store model over building small neighborhood stores, that the majority of parents have tight schedules trying to balance work with children’s activities, and that many people work hours beyond the bus schedule.

Back to that walk to church: We arrived sweaty and parched, our hair flecked with oak seeds, and mascara bleeding down my cheeks. Our fellow parishioners are a forgiving lot, but had we been going to a business meeting, walking or biking would have been impractical.

The town could add a penny to the Downtown Service District tax or raise the parking fee to $2 per hour from its current $1.50. Either way, we need to move forward with adding parking downtown where we can.
— Nancy Oates

Chapel Hill’s Central Park?

Dream first; set your sights; then figure out what you have to do to get there.

That philosophy has worked for me over the years, and town staff used it, too, last Saturday by hosting a charrette to find out what value taxpayers believe the 36-acre parcel we bought from the American Legion could add to our quality of life.

The charrette drew a wide cross-section of residents — families, young professionals, retirees and pickleballers — a surprisingly large crowd, given that the beautiful spring weather made it hard to stay inside. The charrette was billed as a drop-in session where people could stop by, see what was what, and add a sticky note of their ideas to the wall. However, many people stayed for hours, brainstorming and establishing priorities, sketching maps, and asking questions about what constraints might hamper their vision.

As the day progressed, it became abundantly clear that taxpayers want to use the land as a community gathering space. How that might look varied widely. Some maps showed a smorgasbord of options. Connectivity came through paved bike and walking trails. Some made room for a farmers market and food trucks. Many wanted a building that could be rented out at modest cost for weddings and meetings. Others wanted a building for dance classes (which requires special flooring) or volleyball tournaments.

Ideas for a skate park, an Olympic pool, basketball courts, competition-grade pickleball courts, picnic pavilions and toilets all made the wish list. The school board asked that the ball field be moved to the American Legion parcel to enable expanding Ephesus Elementary, which would share its parking in return and contribute to maintenance in return. Liberty Health offered to buy a section of land to create a graduated care community. No one left the 3-acre pond intact: It was relocated or made smaller or removed altogether. The natural wooded areas with the well-worn trails running through survived intact, for the most part.

Town staff agreed to research the nuts-and-bolts: How much parking would a park and community space like this require? What restrictions does the Research Conservation District impose? How much improvement to Legion Road would be needed to accommodate this destination spot? What did the engineering report say?

And, of course, how do we pay for all this? The town had cash-on-hand to make the first of three payments spread over three years. Bond money could be tapped for the second payment, if increased tax revenue from all the new apartments coming online is not as much as expected. And in three years, if tax revenue still falls short of expectations, the town could sell off a slice of land along Legion Road to make the final payment and put more toward hardscape.

Clearly, the infrastructure will have to be phased in, as it likely will cost more than the purchase price of the land. But from the enthusiasm and hope in the room Saturday, I’m confident we will find a way to turn this land into an area that serves all of us. We will find creative ways to turn our dreams into reality.
— Nancy Oates

Playing the game: basketball and politics

Town Council members caught some flack last year when we approved the 2016-17 meeting schedule and moved our first regular Monday night meeting in April to the first Wednesday. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Final would be held that Monday, and if UNC were to play in it, many of us would want to watch.

“You changed the schedule for a college basketball game?!” I heard from more than one constituent.

No, we freed up that Monday night so town leaders could be part of a community bonding experience. The NCAA Final is more than just a game.

Carolina men’s basketball fans compose the most nonpartisan, diverse crowd anywhere. Look at who’s cheering: the wealthy and the working class; Republicans and Democrats; the white-haired, the blue-haired and the no-haired; those who trace their heritage to Africa or Asia or Europe or Latin America. Everyone rooting for a UNC win.

In tournament play, the games are intense, and sometimes the wins are ugly. Not unlike the negotiating last week on replacing HB2 with HB142. If the sign of a good compromise is that no one is happy, this swap passed the test. I saw leaders I respect come down on opposite sides of the proposed bill, and I could understand the rationale of both camps.

Supporters of HB142 wanted to move forward, however imperfectly, on a couple of points they could live with. With HB142, a municipality now can require the consultants and subcontractors it hires to eschew discrimination of any group, something HB2 prevented us from doing. HB142 also leaves access to public bathrooms up to state lawmakers, as HB2 did. The agreement will last until 2020, or until the federal courts strike down any of the points.

Opponents of HB142 consider the issues brought to light in HB2 to be core values of our society and thus too important to water down with a compromise. Some view HB142 as little more than rebranding HB2.

The flurry of debate came because of the NCAA’s deadline for deciding the host cities for the next six years’ worth of tournament games in all college sports, and the NCAA would not consider any locales in North Carolina while HB2 was still on the books. With HB142 signed into law, our state is eligible to host NCAA events.

Politics has become increasingly polarized in recent years, and downright nasty in recent months. Elected officials find themselves in a situation familiar to the Tar Heel team: To reverse a downward spiral, we need a stop, then we need to score.

We need to stop vilifying one another when we disagree on policy. We need to resume talking with one another, building civil, functional relationships with those we disagree with. We need to remember that all of us want our community to thrive, even though we disagree on how to make that happen.

On Monday night, we will come together, full of hope, and root for the same team. We need to carry that spirit with us in the coming days and weeks as we make decisions about what’s best for Chapel Hill. Go Heels!
— Nancy Oates

News on the Move

When the Chapel Hill News began publishing recipes on its front page — sometimes recipes from restaurants in Raleigh — we knew its marriage to The News & Observer was on the skids. Today the breakup becomes official. As you read this, the sole reporter and her editor are cleaning out their desks and moving in with the Durham Herald-Sun.

For the first time in 94 years, Chapel Hill will not have a newspaper in town.

Louis Graves opened The Chapel Hill Weekly in 1923. Though the paper has gone from publishing weekly to daily to thrice a week and now twice, and has changed ownership a few times, some version of the Chapel Hill News has been in Chapel Hill since the paper’s birth. Starting Tuesday, it will operate out of Durham under the auspices of The Herald-Sun and will no longer be affiliated with The N&O.

In 1954, Graves sold the newspaper to Orville Campbell. In 1963, Campbell moved the six full-time staff to 501 W. Franklin St., which he had purchased and named the Bentley Building (his middle name, and his mother’s maiden name). He bought 503, next door, for Colonial Press. A decade later, the news staff had ballooned to 50 and had outgrown the Bentley Building. Campbell moved the entire operation a scootch west to 505 W. Franklin, which became the Chapel Hill News Building. The News rented out space to a variety of tenants over the years, including Algonquin Press and the Chapel Hill Board of Realtors.

In 1987, Campbell sold the paper to Ottaway Newspapers, which also published The Wall Street Journal. In 1993, the paper changed hands again, this time purchased by The N&O. In 1995, McClatchy Corp. bought The N&O, and with it, the Chapel Hill News.

The Chapel Hill News printing press closed in the early 2000s, and the building was sold to Scott Maitland, owner of Top of the Hill, who started a distillery in the space where the press used to roll. The news staff remained at the 505 building, which was informally dubbed “the Chapel Hill Booze Building,” until last year, when the dwindling news staff moved to The Center office complex at 1504 E. Franklin St.

Last December, McClatchy acquired The Herald-Sun from Paxton Media Group. Squeezing The Herald-Sun into the press rotation at McClatchy’s print facility in Garner required the Durham paper to move up its deadlines, leaving that much less time to update breaking stories. The Chapel Hill Herald has ceased publication.

Much is still unknown about how the transfer will affect delivery of the Chapel Hill News, which used to be inserted into The N&O or delivered separately and for free to non-N&O subscribers.

But Tammy Grubb, the reporter who for years has written the entire Chapel Hill News almost singlehandedly, will spend most of her time in Chapel Hill, camping out at the library and various coffee shops with free wifi as she writes up stories on the news she covers in town. She and editor Mark Schultz both used to work for The Herald-Sun, so it will be almost like coming home, in the Robert Frost sense of “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

They, like us, will be anxious to see how this new union will work out. In the meantime, watch your driveway for a newspaper.
— Nancy Oates

Funding Our Bubble

Chapel Hill’s bubble has been both boasted about and blasted, depending on the politics of the critic. We have a reputation of being a haven for bleeding-heart liberals, a sanctuary city in sentiment and practice, albeit not codified. But a sneak peek at the proposed Trump administration budget indicates that our bubble is about to be burst.

This could be a test of how much we’re willing to sacrifice to live up to what we say we believe to be important. If the Trump budget comes to pass, we won’t have the luxury of taxpayers across the country chipping in to support our values.

Though a detailed budget has not been brought forth, the outline made public last week reveals a spending redistribution that those of my ilk find alarming. Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been slashed by a third. State Department programs that give aid to war-torn countries and subsidize flights to rural airports have been all but eliminated. Public education, public transportation and public housing funding has been gutted. And the Community Development Block Grants that support our safety net of social services in the community will be snuffed out entirely.

What does this mean for the secure community we have built in Chapel Hill? If we want to preserve the quality of life measures we have tried to extend to everyone in the community, we’ll have to set our priorities, and decide to what extent local taxpayers are willing to fund them.

One of the hardest hit areas will be affordable housing, something every council member has campaigned on, in part because we know how important that is to so many residents. About 45% of the town’s public housing budget comes from HUD. And even before any cuts were announced, the town’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board had recommended a “Nickel for Housing” tax increase.

CDBG contributes about another $400,000 a year to programs like Meals on Wheels, a youth employment program and sprucing up public housing neighborhoods.

Education cuts could affect subsidies for public school pre-K, among other enrichments for our next generation of leaders.

Federal infrastructure cuts also threaten the reimbursement we hope to get by going forward with the light rail plan. Taxpayers would be on the hook for any and all shortfalls, not to mention all cost overruns.

Now is not the time to add extra financial obligations to local taxpayers. Encourage Orange County commissioners to postpone approving our involvement in light rail. We need to restore our bubble first.
— Nancy Oates

Bargaining Power

People love to feel special. Sales agents make a living by understanding the power of “just for you”: “I don’t usually do this, but just for you, I’ll …” It closes the deal and mitigates buyer’s remorse.

But “just for you” would lose its value if there were no standards or rules to push back against. Rules enable the exceptions that make people feel they’ve scored a bonus no one else got.

Over the years that I’ve watched or participated in Town Council meetings, I’ve seen this duality of rules and exceptions play out every time a developer presents a project for council approval. Those intertwined notions of rules and exceptions took center stage at the March 6 council meeting as we struggled with refining regulations for the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code.

The two concepts we spent the most time on were block length and open space.

The specter of enabing another Alexan-type building – that cruise ship run aground look – prompted some of us to scrutinize block length closely. Regulations put in place after Alexan was approved cap block length at 400 feet, with a mandatory cut-through at 200 feet or less. The manager can boost the block length 10% to 440 feet, and the Community Design Commission can approve up to 600 feet in the face of extenuating circumstances. The proposal before us last Monday was to up the baseline to 450 feet, at a developer’s request, and the cut-through to 330 feet, with staff allowing an extra 10%.

On the issue of open space – green space, such as a pocket park, or a plaza or civic space, such as dedicating a room for community use in an otherwise private building – the form-based code had no such requirement coming into the meeting. Four advisory boards recommended unanimously to require 8% of each parcel be open space, but town staff countered with 5%. Mayor Hemminger suggested a compromise: 8% with the ability to negotiate a lesser amount, down to 5%, if the developer provided other incentives – for instance, making the building more energy efficient or providing shared parking.

The haggle factor, along with my desire to encourage walkability through shorter blocks and breathability through more open space, pushed me to vote against the staff recommendations of a 450-foot block baseline and 5% open space. Form-based code projects require approval only by staff and the Community Design Commission (and the town manager can overrule the CDC’s decision).

To operate in the best interests of the community, the staff needs to have some bargaining power. In the case of the developer who wants a 450-foot block, the town could negotiate getting a patio with planters and benches for the public if the baseline were 400 feet. But if the form-based code specs are tailored to meet developers’ needs already, we’ll never get that little respite space or anything else on our wish list.

My vote against the staff recommendation last week was a vote for empowering town staff, to give them the tools they need to operate in the best interests of the community, to give them the power of “just for you.”
— Nancy Oates

The Gift of Rezoning

Town Council gave the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools a gift last week. But school board members, perhaps dismayed that they didn’t get what they came for, may not have noticed what they got instead.

The school board has proposed expanding the existing building at Lincoln Center to centralize preschool classes now spread out across the district and building a new facility for Phoenix Academy, the high school for students who thrive under specialized attention. To accomplish this, the board needs Town Council to rezone the 12.6-acre parcel from Residential-3 to Office/Institutional-1-Conditional, and approve a Special Use Permit.

In the rezoning public hearing, council members raised some concerns, particularly about traffic during the dropoff and pickup hours spilling out onto Merritt Mill Road and causing rush-hour backups. The discussion evolved into diversity issues, how families without a car would be affected and which families are given top priority in getting in to preschool. We also learned more about the success of Phoenix Academy.

As the night wore on, it became clear that council did not yet have enough answers to vote on the SUP, so we continued the public hearing until March 13. Not wanting to send the school board away empty-handed, we did vote to approve the rezoning to O/I-1-C.

The new zoning remains in effect for a year. If council does not approve an SUP by then, the zoning reverts to its former R-3 category.

Even with that expiration date built in, I had to overcome my misgivings about approving a rezoning without an SUP. Several years ago, a former neighbor of mine wanted to sell the acreage around her house to have money for her retirement. She worked out a lovely small subdivision plan with a developer who said he would buy the land if she got it rezoned. She did but did not apply for an SUP for the plan. Once the rezoning went through, the developer bought the land from her and immediately flipped it to another developer who built the maximum allowable square footage in the form of student rentals. My neighbor lived out her Golden Years in a student ghetto.

Certainly the school board would never abuse a similar opportunity. The board has a plan that has been in the works for a while. Still, council gave the board another option to tuck in its back pocket.

Developers would pay handsomely for nearly 13 acres of buildable land already zoned for high density so close to downtown. Last year, Woodfield developers offered $11 million for the 36-acre American Legion property, only about two-thirds of which could be built on, even knowing they would have to go through the lengthy rezoning and SUP process, not to mention land remediation.

With a multi-million-dollar sale, the school board could renovate the existing preschool spaces, rent office space for the Lincoln Center administrative staff and still have money to find new space for Phoenix Academy.

It may not be what the school board had in mind. But having another option never hurts.
— Nancy Oates

Raising children or the flag?

Whether the Confederate flag symbolizes racial oppression or Southern pride may hinge on the difference between desegregation and integration.

A group of parents has asked the Orange County Board of Education to ban images of the Confederate flag, calling it a racially inflammatory symbol that disrupts learning. So far, the board has remained as silent as the statue of Sam on the UNC campus.

At the school board’s Feb. 27 meeting, parents plan to ask that the matter be slated for the board’s agenda in the near future so that the issue can be discussed and the board can explain its stance. Community members have tried to make themselves heard at prior board meetings but have been unsuccessful.

On one occasion when several people planned to speak during the public comment period, the board moved up the meeting time by a half hour with insufficient notice. When parents arrived to speak, they were too late. At the Feb. 13 meeting, community members wishing to speak on the topic were locked out. The sign-up sheet was set up outside the building; those wanting to speak on innocuous topics such as the spelling bee were escorted in through another door.

For years, the Orange County school board had a dress code that banned “racially inflammatory” attire. But last March, the board deleted that phrase with no explanation.

The N.C. Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans charged the N.C. chapter of the NAACP of waging a “campaign of willful ignorance and race baiting” for siding with parents who want the Confederate flag kept out off school grounds. The Hate-Free Schools Coalition took a more measured tone, acknowledging that not everyone who has a Confederate flag is an extremist or racist, while pointing out that the flag triggers anxiety in some students of color who wonder whether those flag-displaying classmates — or teachers — “would prefer for [minority students] not to be there.”

That alone should be enough for the school board to ban the flag. They don’t call the elementary, middle and high school days “the formative years” for nothing. Children are solidifying their sense of self and place in the world. Do they see themselves as capable and valued in the school setting that comprises the majority of their waking hours? Or do they try to form their identity under the weight of school authorities who sanction the belief that people of color should be nothing more than chattel?

Did North Carolina schools truly integrate black culture and white culture? Or did schools simply desegregate, allowing black students into a white world, expecting them to navigate white privilege that does not respect black society?

At the college level, the flag would be a free speech issue. But not with children younger than that. It is the job of all elected officials, all adults, to let children come into their own in a world that treats every one of them with equal value.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27, at A.L. Stanback Middle School, 3700 N.C. 86 South, just north of New Hope Church Road.
— Nancy Oates

DOLRT’s Cost-Plus

If anything could sway me toward taking on the crushing debt of the Durham-Orange CountyNancy Oates Light Rail it would be the promise of getting some affordable housing in return. And sure enough, in its presentation about planning DOLRT stations, GoTriangle reps dangled that yarn ball before Town Council — including affordable housing in the mix of luxury rentals, retail shops and office space.

Forget that every developer except one (Epcon Communities, builder of the Courtyards at Homestead) has said that it “can’t make the numbers work” to include affordable units alongside its market rate ones.

Forget that three of the five stations in Orange County are on land belonging to UNC, and Chapel Hill has no say on what goes there. A fourth station is on land that is completely built out already.

The GoTriangle reps at the Feb. 13 Town Council meeting pushed forth the notion that the developers who have bought up the prime greenfield real estate along the DOLRT line would be happy to build affordable rentals within walking distance of the light rail stops.

Until council member Jessica Anderson noted that developers likely would not provide this housing as a gift. Would the town have to subsidize these units, she asked. The GoTriangle rep shifted his weight self-consciously and admitted, “That’s usually how it works.”

So, Anderson continued, in addition to finding money for the DOLRT’s growing budget, Orange County taxpayers would have to fork over millions of dollars more for affordable housing units? “Yes,” the GoTriangle rep conceded.

That got me thinking about what we could do if we weren’t locked into essentially a 50-year mortgage to repay $2.5 billion for light rail.

Last fall, a consultant we hired identified about $100 million in affordable housing need, which we considered an impossible amount. At the Feb. 13 meeting, a community member laid out an extended Bus Rapid Transit plan that would serve almost all of the areas where UNC says its hospital and university employees live. That plan would cost less than $1 billion.

GoTriangle said it was asking the Orange County commissioners to delay its up-or-down vote on DOLRT until June. But GoTriangle plans to start the $70 million engineering phase in April. GoTriangle’s argument in December at the joint boards and commissions meeting was that if county commissioners pulled the plug on DOLRT, taxpayers would forfeit the chance that the federal government would reimburse the county for the $30 million we have spent so far. With Donald Trump’s government by fiat, there is no guarantee we would be reimbursed at all, much less for $100 million, the accrued amount if we proceed with engineering. (The engineering contract can be terminated at any time without penalty.)

We have a vision for Chapel Hill, which includes “A Place for Everyone.” When enacting that vision has been stymied, it is usually because of lack of money. Proceeding with DOLRT could sidetrack us permanently from becoming the town we want to be.
— Nancy Oates