Chapel Hill’s Arab Spring?

More than five years ago, a few weeks after the Tunisian Revolution that launched the Nancy OatesArab Spring, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal: “When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”

I hope we won’t someday look back on last Monday’s Town Council meeting and peg it as the beginning of Chapel Hill’s Arab Spring, whereby angry mobs, instead of taking to the streets, file a flurry of petitions with lots and lots of signatures.

At the Sept. 19 council meeting, Woodfield Investments presented its concept plan to build on 36 acres owned by the American Legion. In order for the project to be built, council would have to rezone the acreage and hammer out a Special Use Permit.

The project poses a perfect storm of conflict:

The town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a park in that area, and many residents want the town to hold true to its word. Many community members devoted untold hours to giving input into shaping this document; they don’t want to see the plan dismissed at the first whiff of extra tax revenue. As the town becomes increasingly urban, a park takes on even more importance.

The American Legion wants the $10 million Woodfield has contracted to buy it for, providing the property is rezoned and an SUP can be worked out to allow up to 600 apartments plus commercial space and a road that runs through a small existing park. That price seems above market value, given that the 55-acre Carraway Village property (previously known as The Edge) with a similar number of apartments and commercial space sold for $11 million last spring.
Woodfield wants the high profit from all those apartments, which is a greater return than for office or retail.

And the town has long wanted to rebalance its ratio of residential space to commercial because homeowners are carrying about 85% of all property tax revenue. The 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district is on track to be about 90% residential, and as that is form-based code, the town can’t intercede. The two concepts Woodfield put forth are each about 90% residential.

The Legion has offered to sell the land to the town for $9 million, but the land at present has a tax value of about $2.5 million, though it is expected to be revalued to about $4.8 million. Even so, the asking price is unreasonable.

The land is zoned R-2, which means the Legion could sell to a developer who would build single-family homes, four per acre, on the site. The Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance would be in effect, because the project would not come before council, and council would not have the opportunity to waive it, as the majority of council did with the last eligible project that came before us.

As available land becomes ever more scarce, council’s decisions on land use are even more important. Let’s hope we make wiser decisions about the good of the people than Assad has done.
— Nancy Oates

Powering through

Have we learned nothing? Last week a female student at UNC held a news conference to Nancy Oatesclaim that a classmate, a member of the football team, raped her. She was pursuing misdemeanor charges against him because the campus police had refused to file charges, and the district attorney’s office declined as well (though after the news conference, the DA’s office shifted its stance to give itself some wiggle room to reconsider).

According to the accuser, and we have hard only the accuser’s side, it sounds like she got drunk at a party on campus, passed out and was raped while she was incapacitated. She did everything she was supposed to do in the aftermath: She went to the hospital that same night, submitted to a rape kit, reported the alleged assault to campus police while at the hospital, and a couple weeks later notified UNC’s Title IX office.

The inaction by campus police and the DA’s office imply an underlying belief that in male-female interactions, the woman has to be the adult, the responsible one, because boys will be boys. And in this instance, apparently the woman did not meet those behavioral ideals that the (male) police and (male) prosecutors held.

The week before, following a foreign policy debate with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton was criticized for not smiling enough. I didn’t see the debate, but presumably Trump grinned and chortled through the discussion of war and terrorism and the risk of nuclear annihilation, while Clinton treated the issues with the seriousness they deserve. By so doing, she did not live up to the (male) critic’s ideal of how a woman should behave.

The presidential race has brought to the fore a societal bias against women. The rape charge brought it home.

Respect for Clinton rose among women last week when she went to the 9/11 ceremony despite being ill with pneumonia. Many of us identify with her powering through. Every woman I know can recall innumerable instances when she came through for others despite her own health: taking care of sick family members while she herself was ill, arguing cases before a jury while in the throes of morning sickness (which lasts around the clock, I’m here to tell you), cooking dinner for the kids and continuing through their bedtime routine after being sucker-punched by devastating news.

The woman at UNC similarly garnered respect by powering through a news conference, going public with a very personal, private experience, and shining a light on society’s double standard while pointing out the holes in UNC’s safety net so recently put in place.

What have we learned by the examples of the woman at UNC, Clinton and the millions of women around the world who press on through every challenge? The same lesson that UNC administrators are about to learn: Women power through.
— Nancy Oates

How much is that rent, really?

Trying to find an apartment in Chapel Hill affordable to your typical Chapel Hill Nancy Oatesworker takes diligence and a roommate. An apartment complex may advertise rent at one price, but by the time the management adds up all the additional mandatory fees — valet garbage pick-up, package delivery acceptance, weight room access, and Internet and cable service — the real cost to live there has ballooned by more than $150 a month. And that doesn’t include utilities.

The practice is deceptive. And regarding Internet and cable, it’s illegal.

In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission banned apartments and homeowner associations from imposing exclusive cable deals, reasoning that competition lowers prices more than do apartment owners, who get a cheaper bulk price but rarely pass the savings along to tenants. The ruling held up to a challenge in federal court in 2009.

Eller Capital Partners CEO Daniel Eller said tenants in his properties didn’t have to use the cable, but they couldn’t reduce the $125-a-month fee. GSC, Alexan and Shortbread, who do allow tenants to opt out of cable, apparently received different legal advice.

Although Eller’s Timber Hollow advertises that it has an unrenovated one-bedroom for $775 a month, the mandatory fee raises the rent to $900. Never mind that all of the unrenovated apartments are leased, and as soon as the tenant moves out, the granite and brushed nickel move in, pushing the base rent to $850, and the real rent to $975.

The deception isn’t limited to price. Alexan advertises free parking, but when pressed, the sales rep admitted it was available only first-come-first-served. The luxury building in Village Plaza plans to reserve the top four floors in its parking deck for tenants in its 266 one- and two-bedroom apartments. Because it describes its two-bedroom units as “one-bedroom plus den,” Alexan needs to provide only 1.25 spaces per unit. Its permit caps parking at 463 spaces, 70 of which are dedicated to Whole Foods.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce executive director Aaron Nelson patiently explained to me that Alexan’s $1,500-a-month one-bedroom (plus the mandatory amenities fee) was affordable if two people shared it, a microaggression against single people. Doing the math, Alexan’s tenants will fill up the parking deck and spill over into surface parking that neighboring businesses have paid for in their rent. Those businesses effectively subsidize Alexan.

Community member Ken Larsen anticipated this problem and petitioned Town Council in February to rework the parking formula. The petition was routed to the town’s Planning and Sustainability Department, and he has heard nothing more.

Where is the affordability that building more luxury rentals was supposed to free up? It does not exist. We learned in the Reagan era: Trickle-down doesn’t work. In real life, building more luxury apartments raises the floor of rents throughout town. All of a sudden, Eller’s $975-a-month unit looks affordable because it is considerably less than Alexan’s $1,500-plus. And Alexan’s rent rose 30% from the time it was approved because other luxury apartments came online that made $1,500-plus seem affordable by comparison.

I wish I had a quick fix for this problem. A first step is to educate all council members on the unintended consequences of approving the development of so many luxury apartments.
— Nancy Oates

Don’t let Google be lonely

Google unveiled its new sign last week. The tasteful, illuminated logo on the Church Nancy OatesStreet side of 200 W. Franklin St. perhaps quelled fears that the town’s new sign ordinance would result in a wave of garishness overpowering our downtown’s charm.

Chapel Hill has been Google’s home for the past decade, but few people knew that, because the Chapel Hill office, and another in Durham, are part of the Google data center in Lenoir, N.C., a site Google likely chose because the land and talent are less expensive than in Silicon Valley. When Google needed tech-savvy people to implement graphics for Chrome, the global corporation understood it might be difficult and time-consuming to recruit top talent to a bucolic yet sleepy town in the North Carolina mountains. A better strategy would be to look for a Software-as-a-Service start-up and buy it outright.

In 2005, Google found and acquired Skia in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village, started by UNC alum Mike Reed a year early. In 2014, the Google Skia division left Southern Village and took over a floor in the 200 W. Franklin St. building.

Reed could be the poster boy for why we need to make room for start-ups in Chapel Hill. Skia is the fourth tech company he has started and sold to global corporations. His Google office on West Franklin employs about 20 people, all of whom would rather work in Chapel Hill than Silicon Valley. (Though apparently not live in town. My micro-survey of people I spoke with at the sign-unveiling reception revealed that only Reed lived in Chapel Hill. The other employees I queried live in Durham and commute in.)

The as-a-service industry is in the midst of explosive growth, especially the Infrastructure-as-a-Service line, which basically enables businesses to rent an IT department, complete with software, hosting platform and help desk. For a business just starting out, hiring an IaaS provider can be a cost-effective way to figure out what IT services the company needs before making a sizeable investment.

When any industry grows so quickly, consolidation follows. The Googles of the world shop for the Skias.

Chapel Hill has a better chance of keeping Google if the town becomes a tech hub. Our cost of living compares favorably to Silicon Valley, and our winters beat those of Kansas City, another tech hub. But the tech engineers need people to talk to. We can help by letting tech companies know we are open to their business. We might partner with UNC’s computer science department to host summits. We need open office space downtown, and we need an identifiable place to park.

We appreciate Google’s name glowing in our skyline. Next step is to recruit some high-tech peers so Chapel Hill will become a recognizable name in the tech world.
— Nancy Oates

Think of the possibilities, then plan

How many times have we heard, usually from people who make money by developing or Nancy Oatesselling real estate, that affordable housing is not possible in Chapel Hill? That we might as well admit defeat and build only luxury apartments in town, thus forcing out the modestly paid and the middle class?

Yet towns similar to Chapel Hill have been able to create housing affordable to people who work in the community. Earlier this month the CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville, Va., Dan Rosensweig, came to Chapel Hill and spoke to affordable housing advocates, potential donors and interested elected officials to share the success his organization has had and talk about what might be possible in Orange County.

Two of Charlottesville’s successes have come from Habitat redeveloping trailer parks into multifamily neighborhoods, one of them a mixed-income community where market-rate houses help subsidize affordable homes.

While mobile homes provide a very affordable living situation, trailers built before the mid ’70s can’t be moved. If the trailer park is sold, owners of those older mobile homes lose their investment along with their place to live.

In-town trailer parks are a threatened source of affordable housing. As large parcels of land become more scarce, and developers of high-profit luxury apartments are willing to shell out exorbitant amounts for remaining acreage, trailer park owners stand to make a lot of money by selling out. It takes a landowner with a strong humanitarian commitment to resist.

Charlottesville Habitat found such a landowner, a woman who owned a trailer park that was home to 1,500 people. She sold the land to Habitat at a reasonable price and agreed to owner financing in which Habitat paid interest only on the loan until it could raise the full amount. Habitat partnered with the mobile home owners to collaborate on redevelopment ideas.

Could something like this work in Chapel Hill? We’ve got some obstacles to overcome first, not the least of which is Town Council. While Chapel Hill has an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, a majority of council members have voted to waive compliance for every eligible project that has come before them, except for Courtyards of Homestead, which made a nearly $900,000 payment-in-lieu.

Rosensweig mentioned that elected officials in Charlottesville had approved by-right zoning for the Habitat projects, and he looked at me in disbelief when I told him that the majority of council members in Chapel Hill had not included any requirements for affordable housing or environmental building standards in the by-right zoning they approved for Ephesus-Fordham.

Taxpayers have agreed to dedicate a penny tax increase for affordable housing, but council committees still have no plan for how to use it. The county is proposing a bond in November with $5 million for affordable housing, but likewise seems to have no plan for how to spend it. This will not get us where we want to go.

Nonprofits whose mission is to increase the supply of affordable housing have some ideas and would like to be part of formulating a plan. We need to lend them our support and lobby for a change of heart among the old guard on council.
— Nancy Oates

Best practices, best officers

In North Carolina, a barber needs 1,000 hours of training to get licensed. A law Nancy Oatesenforcement officer receives 616 hours. As society and circumstances change — think the closing of mental health facilities at the turn of this century that left law enforcement officers to intervene when a mentally ill person posed harm to the public — officers could benefit from different training. But first, something would have to be removed from the curriculum.

Last week, the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus co-hosted a panel discussion of “Best Practices in Law Enforcement Training.” The sheriff, two police chiefs and law enforcement instructor who composed the panel fielded questions from the moderator and the floor and responded with reassuring depth, pragmatism and intelligence.

The topics ranged from body cameras (they protect the relationships between law enforcement and the community, not to mention reducing claims against law enforcement agencies, thus reducing insurance costs that taxpayers ultimately cover) to implicit bias (it can’t be trained away, but officers and the public can learn to recognize it in themselves and temper their actions) and seized assets (don’t rely on them to fund operations; the state legislature needs to supply sufficient funding to train officers and run departments).

Chief Brandon Zuidema of the Garner PD noted that jail is the largest mental health facility in the state. In the U.S., said Chief Jeanne Miller of the Davidson PD, we allow people to be crazy in public, and officers have to juggle constitutional rights with public safety. Officers need Crisis Intervention Training, because when anything goes wrong, officers are called to make it right, regardless of whether they are trained for that situation. But even free training costs departments money to pay overtime to cover the shifts for officers away on training.

Officers in the riskiest situations tend to be young and inexperienced, because senior officers are not on the graveyard shifts that would have them pull over a car on a deserted roadway at 2 in the morning. And young people are not as adept at using an officer’s most trusted weapon: their mouth. Young people aren’t used to talking, said Jonathan Gregory, director of basic law enforcement training at Wake Tech, yet talking builds trust. Recruits need to be taught decision-making, but the emphasis of the training is on firearms.

For a law enforcement agency to be certified, it must adhere to 460 standards, half of which are about doing the right thing, and the other half are proving you’re doing the right thing. Making sure that what’s on paper is being followed is critically important, said Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin who recalls growing up as a young black man when officers didn’t feel the need to adhere to professional standards. Organizational culture eats policy for lunch, he said, and he holds his deputies to a zero-tolerance standard of behavior for racial and gender bias.

The panelists agreed on the need to expand the applicant pool for law enforcement positions, but the job is a hard sell: round-the-clock schedules, low pay, long hours of monotony interspersed with life-or-death situations with little warning, and no guarantee that when you start a shift you’ll return home alive.

Still, it’s an honorable profession. And every day, officers have the opportunity to make a difference.
— Nancy Oates

What, me worry?

I’m at that age where I repeat myself. For more than a year and a half, I’ve been Nancy Oatesnagging Town Council members to fix the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code so that we can repay the $10 million loan we took out for improvements to the area. Bear in mind, we put up Town Hall as collateral.

Now I’m on Town Council, and I’m still yipping at my colleagues to plug the loopholes so the end result will match our vision of a walkable, revenue-generating area. With Ram Realty Services, a national developer of apartment complexes, buying a large chunk of Village Plaza earlier this month, 68,000 square feet of buildings housing independent businesses abutting Alexan luxury apartments, my anxiety has risen. Last year, Ram Realty bought Pavilion East, a mixed-use complex in Durham, and now is replacing it with 263 apartments.

Because Town Council in May 2014 approved a form-based code for development in Ephesus-Fordham that did not specify building use, Ram can build whatever it wants, so long as it does not exceed the building envelope limits. And because there is so much profit in high-end apartments, real estate investors flock to that choice.

But the town’s business management director, Ken Pennoyer, says not to worry. In his response to my email, he pointed out that he based his revenue projections in years 0-4 (we are now in year 3) on 82% of the new development being residential. Right now it is at 89%, not enough of an increase for him to worry. In his presentation to council on March 24, 2014, he anticipated 23,000 square feet of retail during that Phase 1. So far the only retail has been single-story businesses that have replaced existing single-story businesses, so that’s a wash. But we still have another year.

In his March 2014 presentation, Pennoyer laid out three revenue scenarios: low, medium and high. Given that as soon as the Alexan apartment building was approved in December 2014 its property value projections plummeted 20% below the estimates presented before it was approved (see Jan. 12, 2015, Chapel Hill Watch post “Roj Mahal”), I’d go with the low projections at this point. The low-revenue scenario would cost taxpayers money from this point until fiscal year 2034, at which point it would break even.

Even so, Pennoyer doesn’t believe that portends a tax increase for town residents. In his email last week, Pennoyer said, “In the unlikely event that the property tax increment is not enough to pay the loan, the Debt Fund has sufficient fund balance to cover any short-fall.”

The original assumption was that the expected 2.2 million square feet of redevelopment on the 190 acres of Ephesus-Fordham would yield more than 900,000 square feet of retail, office and hotel space.

Let’s hope by year 5 I won’t still be repeating myself.
— Nancy Oates

The Deciders

Recently I asked the town manager for an organizational flow chart of town staff Nancy Oatesthat would show who was in charge of what. I received 18 pages of charts in response, most of which broke out the hierarchy of positions in each department. The collection led off, however, with a master chart of management levels. The very top box, identifying the boss of all bosses, read: “Citizens of Chapel Hill.”

It did my heart good to see that the town manager, if not others, understands for whom we work.

Since our last regularly scheduled council meeting at the end of June, I’ve had time to reflect on my first “season” as a public servant. I’ve thought about how Mayor Pam Hemminger’s collaborative leadership has succeeded in getting people to talk with one another and come up with solutions. Much of her work has been outside the limelight, and I’ve been impressed by how much progress she has midwifed on long-stalled projects because she doesn’t calculate whether she gets credit for the delivery.

I’ve noticed that when council members focus on whose turn it is to be in the spotlight, the decisions we make are less likely to be in the best interest of the community. And when the office politics of town staff join the mix, we move even further from our goals of representing the public and ensuring the community’s vision becomes reality.

Of course, the community does not have one united vision. But I have heard points of agreement from disparate sources: lower our taxes; educate our children well; reduce traffic jams; provide places to park close to businesses we frequent; don’t flood our houses; preserve the trees that make our town beautiful, and save enough public greenspace that even the non-rich can enjoy nature.

Everything beyond that requires a cost-benefit analysis. Do we hanker for sidewalks enough to buy them? What will we cut to afford them? Are we willing to pay for an arts center, or put the money toward culverts sufficiently large to protect against flooding? What benefit is great enough to ignore our ordinances for affordable housing or against building in stream buffers? What is a luxury, and what a necessity?

Those questions can’t be answered by town staff or outside consultants or Town Council. The final decisions rest with the “citizens of Chapel Hill.”
— Nancy Oates

Launched

You might expect a low turnout for an event scheduled at the end of a hot day, toward the end Nancy Oatesof a week of hundred-degree days, in a warehouse venue with only a hint of air-conditioning. But as Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Last Thursday, the anteroom of TOPO Distillery was crammed full, many of the people young and most of them male, with solutions to problems that others might pay them to solve. The July 2016 class of Launch Chapel Hill presented their ideas to a crowd that perhaps included potential employees, investors and customers.

Take a look at the latest class:

How can you make money from your videos if Facebook and YouTube take as much as 80% of your ad revenue? If you’re a sponsor of those videos, how do you keep from annoying customers who get irked by being forced to watch your ads? The founders of Bidio created a platform that flips the traditional model through a real-time auction system in which people choose to watch ads. Bidio collects only an 8% commission. Find out more at www.bidio.co (that’s not a typo).

Jury-X is a data services firm that helps civil litigation lawyers pick a jury that might be inclined to decide in their favor. To contact the founders, go to www.jury-x.com.

Are your data so thoroughly encrypted that even you can’t edit in real time? Papirys offers a blockchain-enabled database as a workaround, letting you modify, analyze and transmit information without sacrificing security. See www.papirys.com to learn more.

A rule-follower’s dream, Roof has come up with an app that nags roommates without that frustrated, whiny tone. For cohabitants who share expenses, chores or rent payments, Roof’s app sends reminders and keeps everyone apprised of who has paid what or owes what or has fallen off schedule with chores. Visit www.roof.io, for the amusing blog posts, if nothing else.

Think Pandora for clothes. Shopagon uses artificial intelligence to learn your clothing style based on the way you shop online. Then it suggests items you may like. No website yet.

To help physical therapists do more good in a day, and to enable patients to see the gain from their pain, Virtual Kinetics uses a cell phone camera to automate routine clinic processes and show patients how much progress they’ve made. No website yet.

WalletFi keeps track of your recurring charges on your credit card. The mobile app saves time and angst should your credit card get lost or stolen, forcing you to cancel the account and open a new one. WalletFi updates the billing information with your new card number. Soon, www.walletfi.com will have more information.

That some of the new businesses launched have yet to set up websites plays up the need Chapel Hill has for an Infrastructure-as-a-Service firm. An IaaS firm acts as a complete IT department that can be leased by companies, especially the startups and entrepreneurial spinouts endemic to a university town such as ours. If you have ideas of how to recruit one, let the town’s economic development officer, Dwight Basset, know.
— Nancy Oates

Cultural Arts comes off the bench

With the burgeoning list of needs for our town — sidewalks, buses, housing options for Nancy Oatespeople who work in some of the lower-paid jobs in town — spending taxpayer money on art seemed a low priority to me. Then I sat next to Jeffrey York, the town’s public and cultural arts administrator, at the advisory board appreciation breakfast, and I learned that the town’s arts program goes beyond biodegradable sculptures and $400,000 benches and has a division that handles cultural arts programming.

The money for public art — statues, murals, benches and the like — comes from the Percent for Art program, in which 1% of capital improvement projects must be devoted to public art. Cultural arts programming is paid for out of a portion of the Parks & Recreation budget and grants and private sponsorships. This past year the public arts division worked with young people in the community to produce two books.

Some years back, a coalition that included the Strowd Roses Foundation, the U.S. Department of Refugee Resettlement and the Orange County Partnership for Children, among others, started working with Karen (Burmese) youth. One of the products of this work is a 40-page illustrated book about farming, a common Karen vocation, written in Karen and English. Nine Karen teens did the photography and drawings and translated Karen idioms. The book helps Karen families sharpen their English and introduces North Carolinians to the Karen produce grown in Transplanting Traditions Farm at 2912 Jones Ferry Road.

For the past two years, local artists have been providing meals and transportation to the farm, as well as lessons in art, photography and English.

The book, titled Transplanting Traditions, was published in May.

In a separate project, the cultural arts division partnered with PORCH for the first six months of 2016 to work with 30 preteens from the Rogers Road neighborhood and Smith Middle School’s English-as-a-Second-Language program to create a book called Planting Hope. The children’s book is illustrated with fabric collages that local artists taught the youth to make. A local children’s book author helped the kids polish the text.

Both projects came about through Into the Streets, in which the cultural arts division calls artists to work with groups underserved by art. Contact the Arts Commission if you are an artist with a proposal and would like to work with a particular target group.

I like how the cultural arts program plants the seed in youngsters that a career in the arts is a legitimate profession. With the current state governor and legislature wanting to turn universities into vocational training schools rather than places that teach people to think critically and deeply, we need a counterpunch to underscore how art and cultural arts enrich our lives and make us more fully human.

You can purchase Transplanting Traditions for $20 a copy plus $1.50 tax at FRANK Gallery and Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Add it to your summer reading list. Look forward to Planting Hope, which will be published later this fall.
— Nancy Oates