What defines character?

Red flags went up for me when I got the email about a meeting to introduce an initiative called Nancy Oates“Neighborhood Character Standards.” Not so much because of its title that evoked right-wing conservative ideology, and not because of anything in the standards themselves. What caught my attention was that the email, in a chipper tone, asked for community input, but the public comment was barely a week away. The quick turnaround time and the scheduling during one of the most popular vacation weeks in this college town created an aura of sneakiness, and my gut reaction was, “What now?”

After rattled residents contacted town staff and at least one council member, Megan Wooley (now Megan Wooley Ousdahl, due to recent nuptials), provided an explanation for the timing. She wanted the Historic District Commission to review the standards at its August meeting and make recommendations. What it didn’t say was why the rush to push this through? My skepticism prompted me to wonder whether a commissioner likely to raise questions would be on vacation then.

At the urging of council member Ed Harrison, staff scheduled a second public comment session on Aug. 31; however, the HDC will already have made its recommendation then.

The character standards launch an initiative that sets out how a property in a historic district can be rebuilt should it be damaged or destroyed. To my knowledge, the last time a property was torn down in the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District was the Dey House at the corner of Rosemary and Hillsborough streets in 2006.

The standards state that any structure torn down can be rebuilt to the maximum allowable size in the district. That means any small house could be replaced with a house equal to the largest house in the neighborhood. The document specifies architectural details such as porches and building height. While perhaps well-meaning, the plan holds the potential for destroying the unique architecture of those history-rich homes.

The pan may solve a problem, but town staff have not told us what it is. There may be some looming threat that the plan would thwart. But again, staff have not told us what.

The execution emits a furtiveness that always, in my experience, requires we pause to look more closely.
— Nancy Oates

Not just a numbers game

For all the talk about the rigorous approval process in Chapel Hill quashing Nancy Oatesdevelopment, the town sure has grown prodigiously in the past 20 years. Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau figures from 1990 and 2010, public policy strategist John Quinterno pointed out that the town’s population has increased by almost 50% and the number of housing units increased commensurately.

Quinterno, a principal at South by North Strategies in Chapel Hill, presented his analysis at a lecture on economic development hosted by CHALT at the library last Wednesday afternoon. He noted that changes in the demographic composition of the town would affect the local economy and public policy.

The percentage of families in town rose from 49% in 1990 to 51% in 2010. During that same period, the percentage of single-family houses increased from about 38% to more than 41%. The occupancy rate of all housing units — owner-occupied and rental — held steady over 20 years at 92%.

These numbers don’t include the explosion of rental apartments approved after the 2010 census.

All of these figures add up to economic growth. But that quantitative metric is not the same as economic development, which is more nebulous, a qualitative increase in collective well-being.

Governments tend to measure economic growth, mainly because it is concrete: Count the number of people and the number of jobs; if they’re both rising, the economy must be good. But policy decisions — such as how much housing to build and where to put it — based only on quantity tend to ignore the long-term capital costs, such as building more fire stations and schools.

Because public officials aren’t playing with their own money, these costs are easier for them to ignore. Officials are more comfortable declaring “any job is a good job,” without looking at the salary level or whether the jobs are being filled by local hires or by people transferring in laterally from another state. Public officials also are prone to deal-making, pushing the theory that our town has to compete with other towns for the same jobs, when in reality different venues attract different jobs. Mebane would be hard-pressed to lure Lantern from Chapel Hill, and Chapel Hill would have been unlikely to convince Morinaga to build on the parcel now designated for The Edge.

Paying attention only to economic growth biases public officials toward deal-making, believing that they have to “buy” economic activities through taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Making policy decisions based on economic development, on the other hand, involves values-laden discussions. The vast majority of the employees from the town’s three largest employers — the hospital, the university and municipal government — commute long distances because they can’t afford to live in town. Might taxpayers rather subsidize workforce housing to enable people who serve the town to live here, rather than subsidize a developer who will make his profit and leave?

Quinterno goes into much greater detail in his book “Running the Numbers: A Practical Guide to Regional Economic and Social Analysis” (Routledge, 2014). Not quite beach reading, but interesting to those wanting to understand how economic and social issues shape policy.
– Nancy Oates

Cloud could brighten our economy

Thank you to Orange Politics for hosting a reception Friday evening for all the Nancy Oatescandidates in our rectangle of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to meet one another. Perhaps the gratitude comes most strongly from our family and friends who have listened, with eyes glazed, to us go on and on about how to improve things until we finally talked ourselves into running for office. The OP-sponsored meet-and-greet at DSI Comedy Theater gave all of us a chance to air our views with others who also care deeply.

Development decisions figured prominently, especially the Big Three: Ephesus-Fordham, The Edge and Obey Creek. Many candidates agree with the many voters who believe the town needs commercial development, not more apartments. I’ve heard the town’s economic development officer Dwight Bassett say on more than one occasion that businesses want office space where employees can walk to lunch. Yet of the more than 3 million square feet of impervious surface those three projects will generate, about 75% will be apartments.

Developers say they’re trying to attract stores and businesses, but can’t seem to do it. Granted, retail is changing. More people shop online, and brick-and-mortar stores are much smaller than a generation ago. But non-retail businesses are changing, too, and that opens an opportunity to fill some office space in town.

A decade ago, many businesses turned to offshoring to cut costs and ostensibly enhance convenience. A call center in India, for instance, allowed lower personnel costs, and the time difference extended operating hours well beyond 9-5 in the U.S. But in recent years, cloud has had an impact on business transactions, and many companies are finding that it is more cost-effective to build and manage those IT functions in-house. You’d think businesses would want to site those IT offices near a major university in a town with excellent public schools for their employees’ children.

Why not look for companies ripe for such in-house expansion and pitch Chapel Hill?

Maybe that’s what Bassett has been trying to do. If so, it might behoove the town to hire a young upstart to assist him, someone conversant in ITO, BPO, SIAM and SaaS and all those other acronyms for functions that mean something to recent business school grads.

Not that Bassett doesn’t shine at attracting traditional businesses. But commerce is changing, and the longer you do something one way, the harder it is to shift to a new mode. I should know. I’ve been struggling to put aside my print newspaper and email to make room for Facebook and Twitter. And after that, there’s Instagram, Pintrest, Snapchat and Periscope.

We hear developers tout that “if you don’t grow, you die.” I’d rather see Chapel Hill evolve to keep our local economy strong, our taxes affordable and our traffic jams to a minimum.
– Nancy Oates

New faces in town races

Last week I put my money where my mouth is — $5, to be exact. I filed to run Nancy Oatesfor a seat on Town Council. For the six years I’ve been writing Chapel Hill Watch, I’ve tuned in every Monday night during Town Council season and sat on my couch cheering on various council and community members and occasionally shouting at the TV the governance equivalent of “Catch the ball!”

Now it’s time for me to pack up the snark and get serious. Of the four council seats that voters will decide who will fill, one has been vacant since Matt Czajkowski resigned at the end of March to take a job in Rwanda, and the two incumbents who seem the least enthusiastic about returning have yet to file. (They have until noon this Friday, July 17.)

I’ve run in things — marathons and charity fundraiser — but never for anything. I’m finding the learning curve to be steep. Too old to win the support of the Young Democrats, I don’t know if there even is a special interest group for my demographic. I don’t have the money to be a top-level sponsor at a political meet-and-greet reception. And where do you get those life-size cutouts of yourself that people can take selfies with?

Nevertheless, I’m figuring out things as I go, and I’m making progress. I’ve recruited a big-hearted treasurer, though he’s not ready for an exclusive relationship. My campaign manager forgets to turn on his phone some days. And my photographer wasn’t speaking to me by the end of the photo shoot because she’d used up all her patience helping me select outfits.

I’m not the only political neophyte running this year. Certainly in years past a portion of the citizenry has risen up to overthrow the incumbents, but this year voters in every quadrant of town are angry because council has approved in quick succession developments that will eventually raise our taxes and lower our quality of life.

Since the last election, council has rezoned Central West north and south of Estes Drive to the east of MLK Jr. Boulevard; may allow The Edge, a project that would be up to 75% apartments, to build in the Resource Conservation District and make flooding worse downstream; eliminated all affordable housing and forced out several local businesses by approving form-based code for Ephesus-Fordham; and set the stage for massive traffic jams and tax hikes by approving Obey Creek. Sitting council members have turned major decisions over to staff and have ignored or scolded residents who speak up.

I can’t poke fun at politicians as long as I have without expecting major payback. But after six years of watching almost every council meeting, doing the research and making follow-up phone calls to write my blog posts, and speaking at council meetings when I’d rather leave that task for more eloquent people, I’ve learned a thing or two that might make for better council decisions if I had a seat at the table.

Now I’m ready to earn your vote. Visit www.nancyoates.org.
– Nancy Oates

Eat local — downtown

After the Friends of Downtown meeting held last month at Greenbridge condos, Nancy OatesI met a friend for lunch at Roots Bakery, Bistro and Bar that had opened recently on East Franklin Street. I had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten since moving to Chapel Hill nearly 20 years ago. Yet during the hour-plus I sat at the table, I noticed only two other groups stop by for lunch.

Similarly, my daughter and I went out for a celebratory lunch a few weeks ago at La Residence on West Rosemary Street that had a lunch special on par cost-wise with a fast-casual place. We had a delicious meal, yet only two other tables were occupied.

A waitress can’t survive on a lunch crowd of fewer than a dozen people, much less the restaurant owner. Having more people live downtown benefits the area in many ways, but apparently they don’t go out for lunch.

Our downtown merchants can’t stay in business without customers. Parking isn’t the problem. I found a space immediately in the Wallace Deck and paid $1.50; La Rez covered my parking beneath 140 West.

I’d like to hear from readers who don’t go downtown. What keeps you away? And I’d like to hear from downtown merchants about what you think needs to be done to bring more paying customers downtown.

In the meantime, here are some new businesses — or long-standing ones with new offerings — you might want to try:

Mediterranean Market, 414 W. Franklin St., opened by Med Deli owner Jamil Kadoura next door to his restaurant, sells Med Deli-brand olive oil and ingredients used in Jewish and Arab cuisines, as well as spices from Turkey and Iran and Halal meat.

Jasmin Mediterranean Bistro, 100 W. Franklin St., with locations in Raleigh and Cary, offers Lebanese and Greek dishes in the restaurant or catered offsite. Owners Nawwaf Said and Bayan Said have run restaurants in the Triangle for the past 20 years.

Trolly Stop Hot Dogs, 306-B W. Franklin St., opened by Rick Coombs, lets customers choose from five types of hot dogs, one a vegetarian dog, six if you count the hamburger shaped like a hot dog. You select toppings that range from the traditional mustard, slaw, chili and onions to the adventuresome melted cheddar, jalapenos and bacon bits.

Roots Bakery, Bistro and Bar, 161 E. Franklin St., melds Central American flavors with Southern cuisine. Owners Turtle Harrison, Rolando Ordonez Ramos and Juan Jose Ordonez serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, opening at 7 a.m. and closing only after the last customer leaves.

On Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 2 p.m., La Residence, 202 W. Rosemary St., serves crepes, $8 apiece, either savory or sweet varieties. Park in the underground lot at 140 West and ask your server for a chit to pay for parking.

This summer, treat yourself to lunch downtown, and make sure these new places last until the crowds return in the fall.
– Nancy Oates

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