John Ager is a member of the Planning Board and co-facilitated the recent Central West Focus Area meetings. Here’s what he has to say:
A fundamental challenge lies at the heart of the “Central West Focus Area” debate. This area contains some of the town’s oldest and loveliest neighborhoods. No one is surprised when the citizens living there turn out in large numbers to protect what they have. But Estes Drive and MLK Jr. Blvd. have become major arteries heavily used by citizens from all over town. And as Carolina North moves from concept to reality, there will be a need for services and amenities on or close to that intersection. It is unreasonable for decisions about growth and change in the area to be dominated by nearby homeowners.
I’m one of the two Planning Board members who helped facilitate the four recent meetings. I was disappointed but perhaps not surprised to discover many of the residents consider developers to be untrustworthy, and interested only in maximizing their profit. There was much talk of limiting developer representation on the steering committee because they have a “financial interest.” It’s clear to me that every homeowner also has a financial interest.
In fairness to everyone who attended the meetings, there were also many residents who view developers differently, and understand that change is inevitable. The proposed developments will certainly increase the volume of traffic on both MLK and Estes. But these roads will see increased traffic even if nothing new is built here. Estes Drive is one of the few connectors between Franklin Street and northern Chapel Hill and Carrboro. It’s already over capacity, for two main reasons. First, some decisions were made when the road system was originally designed many decades ago, which in hindsight were not the wisest. A limited number of connectors were built, no doubt due to cost, which is relatively higher in this town because of the topography. There are lots of hills. Second, many people in all parts of the town are working energetically to maintain Chapel Hill’s justly famous quality of life. The consequence is, more and more people want to be here! We’ve seen explosive growth in Carrboro, organic growth in and adjacent to the town, and there are many car-owning students – all making Estes a very busy road.
I’m convinced the best way forward is to encourage and support a true community conversation about how the Town should evolve. This conversation should not be an argument between residents and developers in a zero sum game. Instead there must be a sustained debate between ALL stakeholders: residents, developers, the University, town planners, property owners, businesses, and even students. The great achievement of Chapel Hill 2020 is that the early meetings mobilized more individuals than ever before to collectively figure out what questions should be asked. Even though the Council “adopted” the plan, everyone knows that the questions have not been fully answered. We are now in the Implementation phase where the debate will continue and specific answers can be determined through compromise.
– John Ager