Sharp eye on Flats

I support smart growth in appropriate venues, a minority position among many of my peers. I’d like to be able to lobby for high-density projects, but when a developer seems to portray a project as something it isn’t and smacks down moderately priced housing for a half-mile stretch, that makes the task all the harder.

At tonight’s council meeting, developers will present a plan for Carolina Flats @ Estes (the “@ Estes” will be dropped before the concept review presentation ends, I’d bet) on 16 acres on the northeast corner of MLK Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive, a site that seems reasonable for an apartment complex, and even for the accompanying hotel the developers have planned, given the eventual development of Carolina North. (Once construction begins on Carolina North, the site would be ripe for a 24-hour Walgreens.)

Two-thirds of the project site that includes nine three-story apartment buildings abuts the Shadowood apartment complex, zoned R-5, and one-third lies next to a single-family neighborhood, zoned R-1. The other end is adjacent to an unimproved acreage whose owner seems in no hurry to develop. The four-story hotel faces MLK Boulevard. Tally for the apartments: 588 bedrooms spread among 189 apartments with 532 parking spaces, nine-tenths of a space per bedroom, the plan says.

The concept plan text forgets all about the 125 to 145 rooms of the hotel and its parking for guests and staff. Realistically, Carolina Flats will need room for a good 700 vehicles.

While the developer would like us to believe that his plan is a smaller version of Shadowood, only with a hotel, there is one big difference. Shadowood’s 336 apartments are one- and two-bedroom units, whereas 117 of Carolina Flats’ 189 units are four-bedroom apartments. Students attracted to a one- or two-bedroom apartment likely seek a quiet community more conducive to studying than partying. And Shadowood apartments are relatively affordable, renting for about $600 a month.

Four-bedroom apartments are more cost-effective for the developer to build. One kitchen per four bedrooms is cheaper than one kitchen per one or two bedrooms, for instance. Four-bedroom apartments likely will be rented by the bedroom, which developers generally set to match the price of a dorm room, about $600 a month per bedroom. That will push up the market price of Shadowood apartments, so the town will lose that moderately priced housing.

Ron Strom, brother of absconded council member Bill Strom, plans to redevelop Timber Hollow apartments, across Piney Mountain Road from Shadowood, into high-end rentals and increase the density. So Timber Hollow’s 198 moderately priced one- and two-bedroom units will fall like dominoes, too.

Develop the MLK/Estes corner, but with a complex of one- and two-bedroom units. We need off-campus housing for students, but we don’t need a Granville Towers North.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Anonymous

     /  April 23, 2012

    that’s a perfect place for some sales tax generating commercial;
    if Car North ever gets done some sort of drugstore/ would be great.

    traffic is also less than ideal at that intersection; and given that Town residents stated traffic congestion as their #1 concern – traffic should be the most important criterion for this site.

  2. DOM

     /  April 23, 2012

    It’s high time we widen N. Estes to accommodate all the traffic in that area of town – regardless of what happens on that corner.

    Every time I drive from E. Franklin to MLK I shake my head in wonder at why Estes remains a narrow two-lane with no bike lanes and limited pedestrian access.

    Folks in that neighborhood may want it to remain that way, but the rest of the citizens of Chapel Hill need a much better cross-town access, not only for private vehicles but for bus transit as well.

    Hopefully, the 2020 leadership will be intelligent enough to realize this. And soon!

  3. Nancy, I agree that the proposal underplays to a great extent the impact this project will have not only on the 14.9 acre corner but to the adjacent developments, neighborhoods and streets.

    You make a great case for why we want to get it right with Carolina Flats. It will set the precedent not only for Strom’s coming request, Shadowoods eventual redevelopment but for the whole corridor from Homestead to Hillsborough.

    There was a lot of discussion about the kind of development Carolina North would encourage just outside its property line.

    The general agreement was that CN should be integrated within the existing Chapel Hill framework and that the transition from CN to surrounding neighborhoods should be complementary to their character. What was also clear was that the community didn’t want to ring CN with high density commercial which would wall it off from the rest of its surround (think of a donut).

    Responding to that concern, UNC agreed to site tax paying commercial on-campus, taxpaying housing on-campus and blend CN gracefully into Chapel Hill.

    As far as “blending”, the current Carolina Flats doesn’t come close. 700+ parking spots is about double the parking ratio (which will increase) on CN. Estes intersection is already a mess, CF will make it exponentially worse. And while widening Estes has been proposed (there are plans to make it a “complete street”), CF will not be the catalyst for improvement but push that stretch into crisis.

    Finally, as someone who has lived less than a mile from the proposed development for over 20 years, I’d like to see a project that will work with CN, work with the roads and work with neighborhoods. I’m sure that there is a project somewhere between a few scattered homes and CF which will meet those ends. CF, as proposed, is not even close.

  4. DOM

     /  April 23, 2012

    Will –

    “And while widening Estes has been proposed (there are plans to make it a “complete street”), CF will not be the catalyst for improvement but push that stretch into crisis.”

    I – and a large majority of CH citizens who travel Estes every day – would argue that Estes is already well beyond “crisis;” it’s bordering on catastrophe.

  5. PhSledge

     /  April 23, 2012

    Both Dom and Citizen Will have pegged this issue
    withh alarmaing accuracy. And, as a neighbor also less than a mile from this proposed monster, I too, am more than a little concerned that this will come to pass.

  6. Sarah McIntee

     /  April 23, 2012

    Unless the state is ready to buy out millions of dollars in residential real estate, widening is not going to happen without a very bloody fight. Just because some of you feel entitled to drive through our neighborhood because it is a convenient cross town route doesn’t give you the right to steal more real estate value from the houses that are there. These houses were built BEFORE Estes was a through street. Since then, heavy and faster moving traffic use has been robbing these homeowners of peace and quiet, which is why many of them find it hard to sell their homes. The town of Chapel Hill, and the state OWES this neighborhood BIG TIME. Not only that, but ALL the neighbors to the north of us who have fought putting any other crosstown streets between Estes and Weaver Dairy those whose daily use Estes as a feeder road to MLK and Franklin, these people also OWE the residents of Estes Drive. All the parents who are insisting upon picking up their children from school instead of having their child take the bus also OWE Estes Drive residents back some of the value that has been stolen from these homes.

    The section of Estes between Franklin and MLK is a residential neighborhood, and has been for over 50 years. If you have an interest in widening Estes and removing more residential character, you have better be ready to spend a $$$$$$$$$ bundle of tax money to do it.

    BTW, a “complete street” means adding sidewalks and bike lanes. It doesn’t mean widening a two lane road to accommodate more cars.

  7. DOM

     /  April 23, 2012

    PhSledge –

    So that there is no misunderstanding of my statement above – I am advocating for IMMEDIATE widening of Estes Drive, at least from MLK to Caswell, in order to alleviate the already nightmarish traffic situation. After all, this half-mile strip is where the majority of the impasse resides.

    Also, it would not require the purchase of any new land, assuming we could twist the arms of the undeveloped land’s property owners.

    We must move froward with this before that end of Estes turns into one huge frozen parking lot between the hours of 8-10 AM and 4-6 PM – and beyond.

  8. DOM

     /  April 23, 2012

    Sarah McIntee –

    “Just because some of you feel entitled to drive through our neighborhood because it is a convenient cross town route…”

    I would remind you, Ms. McIntee, that Estes is a PUBLIC road. Certainly, you and your neighbors may use that road to get to and from your homes, but thousands of other town citizens should be able to use it for that purpose too.

    Trying to restrict its flow to suit your own personal ends only lessens the validity of your argument.

  9. DOM, catastrophe is probably too mild. It’s not uncommon to see traffic stacked from Estes Hills Elementary to MLK and MLK to CHPD in the afternoon. Multi-cycle delays with 100’s of idling cars creeping through an area with kids fresh out of school and activities revving up at the YMCA.

    Sarah, NCDOT is still working on the final guidelines for “complete streets” ( ). Based on the draft guidelines and the current engineering of Estes from Franklin to MLK it would be hard to see how the street could meet these goals without widening.

    You’ve well identified some of the reasons, including a lack of east/west connectors and dearth of connectivity, why Estes is hammered so badly. One of the concerns about CF is that the utility road servicing the apartments will become a cut-through between Estes and MLK north of the intersection. That cut-through will pose additional pedestrian problems for folks living on CF.