A win for Chapel Hill

Who won last Tuesday’s municipal elections? The residents of Chapel Hill did.

Chapel Hill voters elected four newcomers to the four Town Council seats. (Mayor Pam Hemminger, whose only opponent was a write-in candidate, won re-election.) The council members-elect are younger than the incumbents they are succeeding, and for the most part, seem less entrenched in politics, and I hope will be more inclined toward considering a broad range of input when problem-solving.

My optimism over the election results takes nothing away from the contributions of the incumbents. George Cianciolo declined to run for re-election in order to have more time with family after years of service on various boards and committees. Sally Greene also opted not to run again in order to prepare for the bar exam and a refocus on her career.

Voters passed over Ed Harrison, who offered institutional knowledge on a number of longstanding concerns, and Maria Palmer, who contributed a passionate heart on many issues.

What does my heart good is to see the diversity of thought and expertise that voters chose. Allen Buansi, as a civil rights lawyer, seems to have an understanding of the value of all residents, not just the wealthy and well-connected. Hongbin Gu, as a medical researcher, brings an analytical mind to issues and a recognition of the importance of data and facts. Rachel Schaevitz, as chair of the American Legion Task Force, demonstrated her ability to manage process, making sure all voices were heard without any one dominating. And Karen Stegman, with her volunteer work in the schools, shows a commitment to supporting our next generation of leaders.

Critics lament that because these newcomers don’t have a long history of involvement on town advisory boards they won’t be well-schooled in the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. I see that as an advantage. All four seem very smart and accomplished in their professional lives. It won’t take long for them to get up to speed on many of the issues that will come before council in the coming year.

I have confidence that what they lack in institutional history they will make up for in asking questions that elicit relevant information. I believe they will bring a fresh perspective to long-standing problems and have the potential to brainstorm outside-the-box solutions. They may prioritize making decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the town as a whole.

I am hopeful that voters have chosen public servants, not politicians.
— Nancy Oates

The flip side of success

Town Council approved plans for a Wegmans to be built on the site now home to Performance Automall. While most residents of Chapel Hill and beyond welcomed the news, dozens of households had mixed reactions.

If Wegmans is successful, it will bring in $336,000 in gross property tax receipts and as much as $1.5 million in projected sales tax revenue to be split with the county. Bringing in that much business also will bring in heavy traffic.

The most sensible way to enter and leave Wegmans would be from U.S. 15-501, at the traffic light in front of the State Employees Credit Union. But SECU owns a short section of the slip street that runs from the traffic light all the way to Hardee’s. And SECU apparently feared that allowing Wegmans traffic access to that strip would make the SECU property less attractive to a potential buyer who would want to redevelop it in the future.

Thus, Wegman had to site its main entrance on Old Durham Road, routing traffic through a quiet residential stretch. Already during rush hour, residents who live on the side streets have a hard time getting in and out of their neighborhood because of heavy traffic going between Chapel Hill and Durham along the two-lane Old Durham Road.

Having lived in a neighborhood along South Columbia Street between UNC Hospitals and the bypass, I can empathize with the concerns of Wegmans’ neighbors. During extended rush hours (by the time the hospital rush ended, the campus rush would begin), it was impossible to enter or exit my neighborhood from South Columbia. Any time I tried, I had to resort to throwing myself on the kindness of strangers. And their kindness was at a premium when they were hurrying to work in the morning and anxious to get home at night.

While the traffic was more than annoying, it also let me know that the value of my house would stay strong. Being within walking distance of the hospital and university made my property all the more valuable. And that will be true for the homeowners within walking distance of Wegmans, too.

All but one of the side streets had an alternate path, albeit circuitous, in and out of the neighborhood. For the one street that didn’t, council included a provision to monitor the traffic count and install a traffic light, stop signs or other remedial action to make sure the neighborhood was not inaccessible during periods of heavy traffic.

Buying a house is the biggest financial investment many of us make. Knowing that the investment will hold its value or appreciate offers some comfort, maybe enough to offset the irritation of taking a different route in and out of the neighborhood during certain times of day.
— Nancy Oates

Sitting on the Historic District Commission

In an interview aired on National Public Radio recently, Magazine Editor Hall-of-Famer Tina Brown described her desk-on-a-treadmill, noting, “Sitting is the new smoking.”

That shot a little dart of fear in my heart, because my role as a Town Council member requires me to sit a lot. Council meetings, work sessions, committees, task forces and liaison to advisory boards and commissions must be conducted sitting down. If I were to pace around á la Donald Trump, I would creep people out every bit as much as he did at a candidates forum.

One of the longest stretches of sitting comes at the Historic District Commission, for which I am council liaison. Its meetings routinely run five hours, sometimes more. Most commissioners have put in a full day of work before they arrive at 6:30, then pull the equivalent of a second shift at the meeting, only without a lunch or bathroom break.

So when council put forth a resolution to make some changes to smooth the process, HDC commissioners were excited by the opportunity. The resolution needed some tweaking, and fortunately, the chair of the HDC, along with a historic preservationist and a few council members, had suggestions.

First, the 40-year-old Historic District Guidelines need to be updated. People who can afford to buy historic district homes today live differently than people who bought in the 1970s. They want to update their homes in ways that are inconsistent with the guidelines, yet HDC commissioners are charged with upholding the guidelines.

Next, before accepting an application, staff must review that the application is complete — and reject it, if it is not — and state why a reapplication is sufficiently different to merit a second look.

Conflicts have come when an application for construction, renovation or demolition is dropped off at Town Hall shortly before an HDC meeting. Applicants believe the 180-day time limit for commissioners to render a decision begins when the application is delivered to Town Hall, but commissioners believe the clock starts only when the application is deemed complete.

The 180-day clock needs to stay in place until some of the other process changes kick in. Shortening it to 120 days, as some council members support, hurts applicants who want to make changes but need time for their architect to draw a solution.

Even those of us who don’t live in historic districts enjoy the benefit of being able to walk through those lovely, gracious neighborhoods. People who can live anywhere in the world sometimes choose Chapel Hill because of its charm. They could afford a big house anywhere in town, but some choose a historic district. And some then apply to the HDC to demolish a piece of the collective charm that drew them to the neighborhood in the first place. At some point, that demolition will reach a critical mass.

We need to support our historic district commissioners so that their job is not untenable as it often is now. Discussions will proceed more briskly, and meetings will be shorter. Less sitting will benefit applicants and commissioners alike.
— Nancy Oates

Town — and County — Treasures

The alliteration of “Town Treasures” makes for a snappy title for a well-earned honorific. But the roster of seven recipients shows that the Chapel Hill Historical Society wisely seeks excellence beyond town borders to include members of our community county-wide.

The historical society has been celebrating Town Treasures for a decade now. The program has never been limited to Chapel Hill inhabitants. Rural county residents have been named Town Treasures since almost the beginning of the award.

On Oct. 15, a standing-room-only crowd filled the largest meeting room at the library to recognize the 2017 Town Treasures. This year, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle joined Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger in reading the proclamations. Orange County Commissioner Chair Earl McKee also offered his congratulations.

The 2017 Town Treasures are: Lillie Lee Atwater, a nurse who is a staunch advocate for breast cancer awareness and a warrior in the battle against the disease; “Mr. Joe” Fearrington, who created pocket gardens throughout Northside for more than 70 of his 96 years; Ted Parrish, a retired N.C. Central professor, dedicated to civil rights and improving the Northside neighborhood; Stanley Peele, a retired chief District Court judge, who mentored over 40 youth and works to enable them to reach their potential; Jane and Adam Stein, she an adjunct associate professor at UNC’s public health school and he a civil rights lawyer, for their decades of work fighting for social justice; Dr. Tim Taft, an orthopedic surgeon, who helped organize UNC’s sports medicine program, perhaps the first in the country, to care for student athletes; and Norma White, for her innovation and dedication to enabling seniors to age in place safely and for her tireless efforts to get food to people who need it.

The diversity of people is matched only by the diversity of their service. Regardless of their vocation, the Town Treasures were chosen not for what they achieved professionally but for their contributions outside of their careers. The list of awardees highlights the inspirational efforts of people in the community who devote so many non-income-earning hours to making life better for all of us.

The Town Treasures recognition underscores that part of the greatness of Chapel Hill lies beyond its borders and extends into the rural community.

We like to think of Chapel Hill as the center of the universe, but the Town Treasures prove otherwise. They come from all around the county and make life better for all of us. Maybe it’s time for a new name that reveres the work of people throughout the county who draw us closer and make us stronger as a community.

Congratulations and thank you to all of our Town Treasures.
Nancy Oates

Economics of affordability

A council member told of going to dinner at a new restaurant in town and having to wait a half-hour for a table. Initially, he took that as a good sign of how well the new business was faring. But once he was seated, he noticed that several tables had been removed since the last time he was there. Upon inquiry, he learned that management had to limit the number of customers served at one time because the business could not hire enough kitchen and wait staff.

My colleague was surprised that it was so hard to find front-line and foundational workers.

I was surprised that my colleague was surprised. This is a message I’ve been harping on to council members since before I got elected.

Beyond the humanitarian reasons of why we should care that all income levels have housing options in Chapel Hill are the economic reasons.

We have quite a few jobs in town we rely on to support our quality of life that do not command high salaries. Restaurant workers, yes, as well as hospital aides and technicians; cleaning staff for the hospital, university, offices and homes; people who care for our lawns and our children; senior companions; teachers; bus drivers; garbage collectors; grocery store employees and the first person you come in contact with when you need to conduct business at Town Hall.

Competition for modestly paid positions in Chapel Hill is fierce. And it will get even more competitive as towns around us develop their commercial centers. Why would people commute into Chapel Hill for a low-wage job when they can take a similar position close to where they live? UNC has opened a hospital in Hillsborough and is planning one for Pittsboro. Lawn services will have plenty of customers from the high-end subdivisions sprouting in Chatham County. Mebane has big-box chains and small retail chains such as Starbucks, all of which need sales clerks.

At Town Council’s Oct. 4 work session, town staff presented a strategic plan for affordable housing. I was very pleased to see that we have gone beyond the hand-wringing stage to laying out a plan with metrics by which we can measure our progress.

I was a bit uneasy, though, with the tenor around the table that affordable housing is somehow a gift we are giving out of our beneficence. Instead, we must recognize the importance of investing in housing options for people all along the pay scale. We need to incentivize housing options for modestly paid workers every bit as much as we incentivize Wegmans to come to town, or Carraway Village.

I’m hoping council will make solid, realistic business decisions about affordable housing — how it can be incorporated with market-rate units and how to account for ancillary expenses, such as benches at bus stops so the elderly, who are often on a fixed income, can use public transportation, too.

Our snappy motto of being Open2Biz has little impact if we’re not willing to invest in the resources that help our local businesses succeed.
— Nancy Oates

What’s driving driverless cars?

As we plan for autonomous vehicles, bear in mind that the car, not the driver, causes the demand for infrastructure.

At our Sept. 18 council work session, town planning director Ben Hitchings presented some futuristic ideas of the day when everyone owns, or at least uses, a driverless car. Our starry-eyed discussion focused only on the technology. We ignored economics and human behavior.

A slide in the PowerPoint deck listed ways life would change in an era of driverless cars. The first bullet point posited that people would get more work done, because they could work during their commute. That made me take the rest of the list with a grain of salt.

Most of us on council are old enough to remember adults telling us, “When you grow up, you’ll have so much leisure time because computers will do all the work.” That turned out to be half true. Computers are doing much of the work, and with advances in robotic process automation, they’re doing even more. Yet my generation has less free time than our parents did. As technology changes, so do work responsibilities and expectations.

Car sales remain strong as the middle class and modestly paid move farther out to find homes they can afford. Because of wage stagnation on the left side of the bell curve, they won’t be able to afford high-tech driverless cars. Our largest employers — UNC and UNC Hospitals — not to mention restaurant and retail businesses and local, state and federal government, have many employees who don’t earn much money and will rely on the most cost-effective means of transportation available.

The presentation suggested using parking lots and decks for other purposes because driverless cars would make them moot. When the modestly paid drive their cars in to work because they live beyond regular bus service or work beyond when buses run, they’ll need a place to park.

A council member said that a driverless car could drop her at work and she wouldn’t need a parking space. But that scenario would double the number of car trips clogging traffic. Recently a research team took up the question of where best to park driverless cars — a central hub or a remote area — to reduce the number of empty car trips.

People could use one driverless car to ride-share to work (names for that practice currently are called “taxi,” “Uber,” “carpool” or “bus”), but if they don’t do that now, why would they just because there is no driver? Those who can afford private vehicles are loath to give up the privacy and convenience of having their own car, driverless or not.

I admit, a lifestyle that did not require making multiple trips during my waking hours sounds so relaxing and is something I aspire to. Whether I achieve that goal won’t depend on the technology advancement of driverless cars. In the meantime, we need places to park.
— Nancy Oates

Opportunity cloaked in petulance

For 15 years, UNC has lobbied to close Horace Williams Airport, but the tiny landing strip at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive Extension has amazing staying power. Now, with the help of a petulant board of governors, UNC may get its wish.

Built in 1928 in what was then the outskirts of town, the airport in later years had been used most frequently by health-care providers with N.C. Area Health Education Centers to fly to rural areas of the state to treat patients with limited access to health care. The Chapel Hill Flying Club also had its base there, and several big donors to the university often flew in for sporting events, meetings and other functions.

As long as the airport stayed active, UNC could not proceed with developing Carolina North, a research campus and public/private partnership on the thousand or so acres bequeathed to UNC by the late philosophy professor Horace Williams.

UNC ended the flying club’s lease. Then it moved AHEC flights to RDU (reducing the time physicians could spend treating patients at remote clinics). And in 2005, the board of trustees gave permission to close the airport.

Planes kept taking off and landing throughout the master plan process. The recession hit before ground could be broken on Carolina North. The airport stayed open, no longer having a reason to close.

Then came the Donald Trump era, fertilizing long-dormant prejudices against race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation — basically, anyone who didn’t conform to the worldview of wealthy white Republicans. The N.C. General Assembly overhauled UNC’s BOG, weeding out Democrats and most of the women and people of color, replacing them with GOP good ol’ boys.

Carolina had far too many people and ideas the BOG members found frightening — including uppity women and people with accents and dark complexions who expected to be heard.

The BOG flailed in flurry, first against the law school — scrapping plans for a new building, reducing funding, closing teaching centers that helped the poor and disempowered, and undercutting its academic rating. Now it has threatened to move the UNC System headquarters out of Chapel Hill and close the airport used by major donors.

The BOG’s tantrum may have opened an opportunity for town and gown.

UNC and Chapel Hill had been considering a joint project that would enable the town to build a municipal services building on land owned by UNC across the road from the airport and adjacent to a working-class neighborhood. The new building would require clear-cutting the heavily wooded site that soaks up stormwater and offers some protection against flooding.

If the airport were to close, the building could be constructed on the already-cleared airport property. The site has water, sewer and electricity in place and plenty of impervious surface for parking. Construction costs would shrink; those who live nearby would be relieved; and the BOG could still thumb its out-of-joint nose at the big donors loyal to the university.

This sorry political cloud could have a silver lining after all.
— Nancy Oates

Fighting back for DACA

Donald Trump seems to delight in causing chaos, regardless of the consequences. Like a toddler in the throes of a temper-tantrum, breaking everything he can get his little hands on, Trump gets attention through the disruption he creates. And Congress, the only authority figure that can put him in time out, instead stands to the side, embarrassed by his outbursts but unwilling to intervene.

But you knew that already.

Recently Trump turned his petulance toward a group of young people known as Dreamers, whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children without proper immigration papers. Once they turned 18, the U.S. government could deport them for being in the country without documentation.

In 2012, then-President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that enabled this relatively small group — children younger than 16 had to have arrived before June 2007 and be younger than 31 by June 15, 2012, a cohort of about 800,000 nationwide — to acquire work permits and driver’s licenses and to have no deportation proceedings lodged against them for two years. Those enrolled could renew their deferral for additional two-year periods.

Now Trump has scrapped the program and has asked our ineffectual Congress to decide what to do. Meanwhile no DACA enrollee can renew their deferral term once it expires.

For a self-described “businessman,” Trump’s actions make no sense. Taxpayers paid to educate these young people who now are earning money, buying things, paying taxes, contributing to the economy and lowering the cost of health insurance premiums. Why export these hard workers and sharp minds to benefit another country?

From a humanitarian perspective, Trump once again chose cruelty, uprooting lives and ripping apart families.

Fortunately, communities across the country are speaking out and, to varying degrees, defying Trump. Last Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council passed a resolution that Carrboro’s alderman had passed the night before, asking the town manager to comb through the budget for money that could be contributed to nonprofits assisting DACA enrollees.

The budget for this year is set, so any money shifted to those nonprofits would have to be taken from another department’s, project’s or organization’s intended use. Some money we can’t reallocate. For instance, paring $500 apiece from the $2,500 to $6,000 raises we gave to the 30-some town employees making more than $100,000 annually would result in a donation of impact, but we can’t touch those pay raises. The $30,000 set aside for shoveling sidewalks ignored by private property owners would be fair game.

I am pleased that council is taking this small step to stand up to a bully. I hope other towns across the country will be inspired to do likewise.
— Nancy Oates

Season Premiere

Some of the candidates for Town Council attended our season opener on Wednesday. I hope those who stayed through the development agreement discussion do not rue their decision to run. The Sept. 6 council meeting gave candidates an accurate picture of some of the tortuous discussions we get ourselves into.

Council is beta testing holding meetings on Wednesday nights this fall to give council members time to read our packets over the weekend and then give staff time to research answers to our questions. At our Sept. 6 meeting, we endeavored to come up with a template for conducting development agreements, an alternative to the quasi-judicial process of a Special Use Permit.

In the past, development agreements have been available, by state statute, only for large, complex projects that would be built out over a long period of time. Obey Creek chose a DA, as did the redevelopment of Glen Lennox and the Carolina North master plan.

But last year the N.C. General Assembly authorized DA’s to be used for projects of any size, complexity or timeline. Chapel Hill used that process successfully for the redevelopment of Fire Station #2 on Hamilton Road, a public/private partnership that resulted in a larger, more functional fire station to be built alongside a private office building. Much of that success can be attributed to Chief Matt Sullivan, who negotiated for the town.

During our Sept. 6 discussion, which is how I’ll refer to the free-for-all that ensued, we tried to set up a framework for who should negotiate, how long the process would last and how to incorporate public input.

Our only unanimous agreement came on the point that there is no one-size-fits all template. Each project that might choose a DA has its own unique features and pros and cons of how to handle them.

For instance, the town has never come out ahead when we try to negotiate from the dais: nine people with different ideas, each of us thinking ours is the correct vision, against one applicant with a very focused outcome. But having only a handful of council members negotiate with the applicant leaves out council members advocating for the interests of other constituencies. And having staff negotiate, when they’re trying to second-guess what a divided council wants, puts us in a vulnerable position.

How do we create a less arduous process for development that benefits the community and is not simply a sausage of individual council members’ priorities?

At the end of the evening, we punted back to staff, asking them to come up with a process and bring it back to us for “tweaking.” Staff expects to return a plan to council in October.
We then allowed the Amity Station applicants to use a DA for their project proposed for West Rosemary Street, underscoring that we expect the project to comply with the West Rosemary Street Development Guidelines.

Stay tuned.
— Nancy Oates

Pioneering the Innovation District

Credit the JOBS Act for two recent Carolina grads stepping off a clear path to success and choosing to pioneer Chapel Hill’s fledgling Innovation District.

Then-President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups legislation in 2012 to remove some obstacles to success for entrepreneurs. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s new regulations were finally enacted in May 2016, just as Aditya Badve was wrapping up his junior year at UNC.

The new regulations allowed startups to use crowd-funding to attract investors. Badve returned for his senior year with an idea for a website that made it easier for investors and startups to connect with one another. He tapped his classmates Sifron Benjamin to work on tech issues and James Shea to handle the investment side. They took their company, NanoVest, through the LaUNCh program even as Badve and Benjamin prepared for more conventional careers.

Come May 2017, Badve had a job trading for JPMorgan and Benjamin went to work for Deutsche Bank. Shea went back to school and left NanoVest.

But the possibilities inherent in NanoVest continued to intrigue Badve and Benjamin. They left their high-potential jobs and worked full time on NanoVest.

Their business has created an online venue where investors, startups and ancillary services can connect. Investors and startups upload their preferences to the NanoVest website, and Badve and Benjamin use a machine-learning algorithm to find matches whose interests align. NanoVest is encouraging more investors and startups to sign up on the website, because the bigger the pool of candidates, the greater the chance of finding a good match. NanoVest is open to partnerships with providers of ancillary services such as designers, marketers, lawyers and accountants.

On Thursday, Sept. 7, NanoVest will host a sort of speed-dating event for investors and startups to scope one another out and perhaps find an interesting match. The event is invitation-only, and all 24 seats are filled. The response was so positive that NanoVest likely will have more of these face-to-face meetings.

Badve and Benjamin recruited a few others with skills that will help NanoVest succeed, and downtown property owner Antoine Puech rented the now five-member team office space in the new Innovation District with flexible, affordable terms. Small, inexpensive office space or co-working space with short-term leases and close enough to campus that the students who work for startups can walk to work is critical to the success of entrepreneurial businesses that are ready to launch.

The NanoVest founders would like to keep their company in Chapel Hill, in part because the town is small enough to enable them to try new things with less risk than in a city, and because they recognize Chapel Hill’s potential for an innovation industry.

“In the four years I’ve been in Chapel Hill,” Badve said, “I’ve seen tons of growth in the entrepreneurial community. We feel it’s best to stay in Chapel Hill and be part of growing the entrepreneurial community. We see the potential for Chapel Hill to be a very big entrepreneurial center.”
— Nancy Oates