Gene Pease put it in a nutshell last night. In response to the concept plan review for Carolina Flats presented by Florida developer Russ Greer of Progressive Capital Group, Pease said, “Your timing is lousy.”

After Greer and Scott Radway presented the “back of the envelope” plan, as Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called it, and a bevy of neighbors laid out their objections, Pease was the first council member to comment. Hundreds of town and Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction residents have spent countless hours over the past several months hammering out a vision for growth in town. Said CH2020 project is due to wind up in June, and leaders will present a report that lays out what kind of growth they’d like to see where, and why they believe that to be the best course. Greer’s project of a hotel and high-density student housing for a key intersection seemed to be rushing the decision-making process.

The Estes Drive/MLK Jr. Boulevard is a very congested intersection already, without the additional traffic that a high-density development would bring. The way the project was sketched out, it could not be entered from the north or west, and vehicles had no safe way to go south or east from the exits. The extra runoff from the added impervious surfaces could cause flooding in nearby neighborhoods. And the vision for Carolina North was to avoid a ring of dense development around its perimeter.

Some residents were disingenuous in their opposition to the project. They talked about how unsafe it was for children living in the neighborhood to the west of Phillips Middle School and Estes Hills Elementary to walk to school because there was no sidewalk on the north side of the street and that they had to drive their kids to school because of it. (They are in the walk zone and don’t have bus service.) Lee Storrow said he’d look more favorably on Carolina Flats if it could ensure a sidewalk to the school, regardless of the fact that Greer did not own two parcels of land between his and the two schools.

But children who live in that neighborhood, and even in neighborhoods north of Piney Mountain Road, regularly walk to school. More than a decade ago, homeowners on Huntington Drive laid a sidewalk-wide gravel path that runs along the edge of their property and connects Huntington to Phillips Middle School. Kids continuing on to Estes Hills Elementary can either walk along the path around Phillips to Estes Hills or walk along the sidewalk that runs from the Phillips parking lot to Estes Hills. Another homeowner on Huntington created a similar gravel path that connects Piney Mountain Road to Huntington, so many students in neighborhoods along Piney Mountain Road (which has a sidewalk all along the south side) eschew the bus and walk to school. No one needs a car.

Penny Rich asked for a development classification to make clear that a project intended to be student housing, and Laurin Easthom wished for housing that would support the graduate students, researchers and faculty of Carolina North, rather than the undergraduates who would commute to main campus.

On one point, everyone could agree: The corner lot would be developed in some form at some point. And single-family houses, in keeping with its current R-1 zoning, probably would not be the best use of the land.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  April 24, 2012

    I thought Matt asked the most relevant question of the night….why does anyone want to build student housing? The community has been saying for years that students need to live on campus. And yet there are 400 empty beds this year. Building more housing targeted at undergrads will compete with the university and directly defy community wishes.

    I’d like to see one of these student housing developers work with the university to build more facilities comparable to the student apartments on campus (vs the dorms). The uni could put up the land close to campus and the developer could build to commercial standards, making the finished units more affordable.

  2. Anonymous

     /  April 24, 2012


    “The University now has 434 empty beds, which cost about $2.4 million in wasted space, Bradley said.”

    wonder why any council member would approve undergrad housing not within walking distance of UNC?

    @Terri – Matt and Laurin seem to be hinting toward the same thing

  3. DOM

     /  April 24, 2012

    The need to widen Estes remains.

  4. DOM, how much of Estes do you want widened? Franklin to N. Greensboro? 3,4 or 5 lanes? Bike lanes? Just trying to size your request.

  5. DOM

     /  April 24, 2012

    Will –

    The immediate solution is to widen Estes from Caswell to MLK, adding a middle lane and sidewalks and bike lanes on either side. I believe that would help alleviate a major part of the problem.

    Unfortunately, there are still some folks in that immediate area who continue to proclaim that widening is “off limits”, believing Estes is exclusively theirs to control. In reality, it’s a major public through-road that thousands of Chapel Hill citizens use every day to get from one end of town to another.

  6. Nancy Oates

     /  April 24, 2012

    Widening it doesn’t mean it has to turn into MLK. If it stays a two-lane road, with a middle lane for turning, and lengthening the right-turn only lane from MLK to maybe as far back as Somerset, that would ease some of the congestion while still keeping drivers at a safe speed in front of the two schools.

  7. Thanks for clarifying Nancy & DOM.

    NCDOT has proposed SR 1780: Estes Drive, Estes Drive (NC 86 to Caswell Road) widen existing roadway to include two 12-foot travel lanes, four-foot bicycle lanes and sidewalks.

    which has a low priority. This doesn’t fit your proposal but is what is on the books. The applicant did not seem interested in providing any frontage to expand Estes onto Carolina Flats. Presumably the cost of any widening to mitigate the project’s impact sill be borne by taxpayers.

    Eventually there will have to be improvements but rather than attack the problem piecemeal I’d like to see a “four corner” solution based partially on Carolina North’s anticipated design and reflective of the issues identified in UNC’s CN traffic impact analysis.

  8. Mark Marcoplos

     /  April 25, 2012

    It’s cheaper to live off campus. And there’s more freedom. Only way to counter that is to lower dorm costs.

  9. Joe

     /  April 25, 2012

    Whether Carolina Flats is approved or not, Carolina North is happening. Carolina North has been planned for decades, and is going to happen, whether the town likes it or not. The traffic volume in that area of town is going to explode once the campus gets rolling, so I see this current battle as simply delaying the inevitable. At some point in the future, that stretch of MLK and the immediate area is going to look like, and cost as much, as Franklin St. does now. A few hundred students living on that corner is insignificant compared to the number of people that will be studying/working/living at Carolina North in the near future. There’s no getting around the fact that eventually, Estes will have to be two lanes in each direction, on both sites of MLK.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  April 25, 2012

    Campus Housing is self-supporting. They have to charge the amount needed to pay their expenses. It costs more for the state/university to build than it does for commercial builders since the state/university is held to higher standards (100 year vs 35 year).

    In 2008 each campus was asked to forecast enrollment out 10 years. At that time the Chapel Hill campus was estimating an increase in the student body count of 5,000. Given the budget woes since that time, I don’t think we should expect even that much growth in the near term.

  11. DOM

     /  April 25, 2012

    Joe –

    “Carolina North is happening…”!

    I totally agree with your assessment. We should be planning for it NOW rather than waiting till it’s too late.

    The current air of myopic neighborhood self-protectionism in that area only serves to obscure and delay the inevitable.

  12. Scott

     /  April 25, 2012

    As the site designer for Carolina Flats as presented to the Council and the presenter of the proposal on Monday, I provide the following information:

    Yes, NCDOT has a possible “plan” for Estes Drive between Caswell and MLK. I will comment later on that design and why it is not appropriate in my opinion as a resident of this area (first on Huntington Drive and now on Allard Road). First I want to correct 2 of Citizen Will’s statements about the proposed plan and who pays the costs of the improvements. According to Will, “The applicant did not seem interested in providing any frontage to expand Estes onto Carolina Flats.” This is factually incorrect. The plan as drawn assumes a dedication of at least 25 feet of right-of-way for Estes Drive Improvements. The plan did not include a design for those improvements because the applicant funded TIA ($28,000) is in progress now. Upon its completion the Town and NCDOT will tell the applicant where access will be permitted and what the improvements will be. Also according to Will: “Presumably the cost of any widening to mitigate the project’s impact sill be borne by taxpayers.” I believe Will and most others that follow development practices in Chapel Hill know full well that those developing property pay the lions’ share of the required improvements – including paying for traffic signals, pedestrian crossing lights, etc.

    Circling back to a roadway plan, I offer these observations on what should be considered as an acceptable improvement plan between Caswell and MLK. The absolute worst plan for Estes would be a left turn death/crash lane in the center of two moving lanes. And the NCDOT plan with bike lanes in the road and a sidewalk 3 feet off the curb is almost equally as bad for pedestrians, children, bicyclists. My suggested “complete street” for Estes would go as follows: For the northern side of Estes going east to west – one thru traffic lane from Caswell to the western exit from Phillips Middle School with a curb the entire distance. Along this stretch there would be an 8 feet wide tree lawn with a 10 feet wide combined bike and pedestrian path. For the full stretch of road in front of Estes Elementary and Phillips we need safe passage for parents, grandparents and children. I believe that creating a 3 or 4 lane road section in front of the schools would encourage speeding and passing of slow cars in both lanes and create visibility conflicts for the mid-block school crossing safety guards and students. (When my daughter went to Estes Elementary we (like other parents) would not let her walk to school except via the back door paths that Nancy Oates has described. Why would we want to encourage traffic to move faster in this area. East of Phillips Middle School a widening of the westbound roadway is very appropriate. Two westbound lanes widening to 3 lanes approaching the intersection at MLK would make it easier to get into and out of Somerset Drive and provide necessary separation of traffic movement and lines of cars and improve the functioning of the intersection. The eastbound lanes would also need some tweaking, but not much.

    Lastly, who would pay for the improvements. For the 3 properties now located in the Airport Hazard zone (Carolina Flats and the two 7-acre parcels that border Somerset Drive) the developers of those properties would pay for the improvements along their frontage. That leaves the School System with the remaining frontage to be improved. Do we expect them (us actually) to pay for the safety improvements that they should be lobbying for right now – and the past 20 years? I don’t, given their budget constraints and their education needs. However, if Carolina Flats is developed as a college student development with no K-12 students, the $245,000 that they would pay in impact fees for capital facilities could be directed toward putting in the necessary sidewalk/bike lane infrastructure in place in front of these two schools.

    The improvements I have described are conceptually similar to those in Nancy Oates comment about improvements extending to Somerset from MLK. I think as residents of the town and this neighborhood area we should push for a complete streets plan that goes from MLK to Caswell.

    This is an impossible task without leadership. Citizen Will, Joe, Nancy and others – is it impossible to put a quick strike action group together and get a serious citizen based plan on the table for the town and NCDOT to examine once the Traffic Impact Assessment is completed?

    Thanks for reading.

  13. Anonymous

     /  April 25, 2012

    I thought I heard a council member (Lee Storrow) suggest that there be 2 westbound lanes from Caswell to MLK?

    If I’m a developer I wouldn’t bring back a plan that did not have that…

    People often say they don’t know what council wants but I heard many specifics

  14. DOM

     /  April 25, 2012

    Scott –
    “The absolute worst plan for Estes would be a left turn death/crash lane in the center of two moving lanes.”

    The only reason I suggested that alternative is because the Town has already opted for that over four-lanes on Weaver Dairy road. All things being equal, I agree with Joe that, with Carolina North’s development, four lanes will eventually be inevitable for Estes on both sides of MLK.

  15. Scott, I think we can agree the traffic impacts Carolina Flats will cause extend further than that 25′ easement – which, unless I missed it, doesn’t include additional lanes for buses or cars. Beyond that, I think the design needs an even deeper cut for a bus pullover so as not to impede Estes traffic.

    I’ve been driving through this intersection and surrounding roads for 34 years. Lived within a stones throw of it for over 20. Like me, many of the folks you heard from have personal and extensive experience with Estes and MLK. I also had a great opportunity to study the history and engineering of the intersection 10 years ago as part of the RLC debacle.

    Our concerns are quite reasonable.

    This is a “four cornered” problem of which CF is only one piece. The problem is CF’s design issues will cause the most problems and the proffered mitigation falls short of correcting them. Who, then, will pay for those additional fixes? Us.

    Joe, UNC designed Carolina North to minimize its impact as best as possible on Estes and MLK. UNC made specific performance-based pledges to significantly improve the CN side of MLK. For instance, UNC’s multi-modal design is careful to limit the impact stopping buses along MLK.

    We’re not seeing anything approaching that care and attention with CF. It’s not like CF’s designers have to start in a vacuum. They have CN’s initial TIA to work from. They have CN’s design guidelines from which to draw on. We’re not talking reinventing the wheel – a lot of thought went into the process.

    Scott, as far as the TIA, I hope you’ve asked your consultant to review not just the results of the Carolina North TIA but the methodology, metrics and context that went into producing that analysis. The most helpful CF TIA would be one that yielded data and analysis which could be compared to the CN baseline. This would help validate its results, at the least, and would also help set the stage for a wider discussion on how to deal with that intersection and its approaches.

    As far as meeting, I’d like to see a deliberative process, guided by professionals who have expertise in both the specific issues associated with traffic and who also know how to run a proper outreach (not, in other words, a reprise of CH2020 but rather Glenn Lennox).

    I’m not sure why the CDC and community input already expressed didn’t make it into your presentation to Council but, going forward, it would be fantastic if the developer would commit to a process which cultivated a lot of community input and integrated it into their next proposal.

    I appreciate your responding to our critique here.

    Thanks Scott.

  16. DOM

     /  April 25, 2012

    Will –
    Equating a discussion of the Estes/MLK area to the Glen Lennox area is comparing apples to oranges.

    Glen Lennox is already a huge development complex that was recently bought out by another developer. That is NOTHING like the undeveloped property on which CF will be built.

    The only discussion worthy of the property is a community-wide process that includes ALL members of our town, not just self-interested nearby neighbors – whose only REAL interest in that area is seeing no new development at all.

  17. Nancy Oates

     /  April 25, 2012

    Self-interested neighbor here. We don’t want to turn Estes into Raleigh’s Wade Avenue, which evidently negatively affected the quality of life in the homes that line it. They’re almost all rental properties now and all but impossible to get into and out of during rush hour. Students can learn to accept tradeoffs — if they live in an apartment convenient to campus, they can use buses and zip cars instead of bringing their own car to town. My generation relies on owning our own cars, but we also rely on email. New generations are more adaptable.

  18. DOM, the only comparison I’m making is to what I’d like to see in terms of a deliberative, thoughtful process with broad community input.

  19. Scott

     /  April 25, 2012

    Will, Nancy, Dom, Joe – The Council saw the same plan that the CDC reviewed because that is what they have wanted recently. Not changes along the way. Of course we learned something from the CDC and citizen comments. We pushed the town as hard as we could for a more inclusive TIA data set and have at least gotten them to count traffic in/out from Shadowood and Somerset. Not ideal in any fashion, but it took a month of lobbying to get them to do that. That said, we have talked with town staff about medians in MLK, bus pull off space, etc. All the things Will has mentioned. We have yet to see answers from staff or any real direction from them “because this is still a concept plan” and they “need the TIA”. I hope we can keep up some discussions about process and substance – how/where?

  20. DOM

     /  April 25, 2012

    Nancy –

    “We don’t want to turn Estes into Raleigh’s Wade Avenue..”

    God no, I don’t want that either!!! But there’s a whole world of options between that scenario and what Estes is currently.

    I should point out that like you, I’m a self-interested neighbor, but one who wants to live in a Chapel Hill that looks toward creating a successful future – and isn’t forever gridlocked by NIMBY-ism.