Walking the talk

Every once in a while an insight emerges from those early-morning meetings Nancy Oatesthat makes them worth getting up for. Take the Community Prosperity Committee meeting last Friday morning (8 a.m., first Friday of every month, in Room C at the library; public is welcome). We’ve been working on strategies to attract more commercial development to town, instead of only luxury apartments. We had invited some local developers to last Friday’s meeting to tell us what they and their peers would need from the town to entice them to build office, retail, light industrial space, or anything that would bring in more property tax revenue than the town spends in services for it.

Were businesses not coming to town because we don’t have sufficient office space for them or the type of commercial space they want? If we build it, will they come? Developer Roger Perry of East West Partners pointed out that people come for the town, not the buildings. Invest in making the town the kind of place people want to live in, and businesses will find a way to settle here.

Economic development officer Dwight Bassett said that people want a walkable community. And people want convenient parking. No one wants to walk 8 blocks from their parking spot to get where they want to go, he said.

So where do these desirers of walkable communities want to walk? Maybe living all those years in Manhattan, a truly walkable community, has skewed my perspective. But it would seem that a walkable community is one where you have to walk to get to where you want to go. Whether it’s to school, work, the grocery store, library or pizzeria, you’ll have to walk, and some of those places, maybe even the parking deck, will be more than 8 blocks away.

As we’re planning for growth while ensuring that Chapel Hill remains a draw for residents and businesses, we need to take a pragmatic stance that weeds out jargon from function. If we want adequate greenspace to make walking in a walkable community pleasant, we can’t have a parking lot on every corner. We’ll need strategically place parking decks, which are more expensive than lots. To pay for those pricey decks, we’ll need more tax revenue, which comes from commercial buildings, not residential.

I found myself agreeing with Perry: We need to invest in the town. Greenspace costs money in that it is land that won’t generate revenue directly for the town. Structured parking is much more costly than a parking lot, but it would provide a place for out-of-town customers to park while they shop and contribute sales tax revenue in Chapel Hill. And creating an authentic walkable community may require people to actually walk.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri

     /  March 7, 2016

    If you want them to walk, it has to be safe. The sidewalks have to be clear and maintained. And they have to be able to cross streets without fear of being run over by a driver who was too busy looking left to notice the pedestrian in the crosswalk.

  2. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 7, 2016

    “So where do these desirers of walkable communities want to walk?”. Sounds like you are not a desirer? Surprised you did not mention the importance of good local and regional public transit in making Manhattan “walkable”.

    Parking decks instead of scattered lots seems reasonable. Visitors could also be encouraged to use park-n-rides. Bus system is already decent downtown but can possibly be tweaked to help. How bout parking decks that are paid for from parking fees? Congestion charges? Certainly might help wean some of the car-addicted out of their vehicles and into the free bus system.

    Pragmatism is fine, but it is weird that you discount investing in quality of life amenities (e.g. greenspaces) because it “won’t generate revenue directly”. Did not get that take from your quote of Roger Perry at all. Seems like quality of life amenities are EXACTLY the kind of things someone contemplating a move would consider.

  3. Nancy

     /  March 7, 2016

    I don’t discount investing in the town at all. I support the prepaid buses and believe greenspaces are well worth the cost. Glad to know Roger Perry and I aren’t the only ones.

  4. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 7, 2016

    Sorry, my misunderstanding, which is why it seemed weird. Misread the context of “Greenspace costs money in that it is land that won’t generate revenue directly for the town.”.

    As for “And creating an authentic walkable community may require people to actually walk.” and “Walking the talk”… Not sure of your point? Please explain?

  5. plurimus

     /  March 7, 2016

    Hmmmm, chicken/egg eh?

    Non retail businesses traditionally decide to locate because of economies of agglomeration. Sometimes driven by taxes, talent etc, agglomeration drives economies of scale and networking (clusters of suppliers, more talent, more infrastructure). Whatever agglomeration effects there are currently seem to be east and south of Chapel Hill. Also worth noting is that many existing agglomerations are being disrupted and threatened by technological changes.

    Given that the RTP commercial real estate market is currently in flux, flooded with “see thru” buildings, and triple net leases seem unlikely in the near future, it is currently so much more profitable to build residential square footage.

    Of course if everyone is doing it that often leads to a real estate market bubble as well as becoming a problem when it leads to traffic, sprawl etc.

    So while what Roger tells you is true, it is not the whole story by any means and might even be self-serving.

  6. David

     /  March 7, 2016

    “Developer Roger Perry of East West Partners pointed out that people come for the town, not the buildings.”

    Well, they certainly don’t come for the buildings Perry has erected. However, any conception of “the town” surely includes our iconic buildings, such as the Old Well, the Bell Tower, the Planetarium, the houses in our historic districts, the traditional commercial architecture of Franklin Street, the downtown churches, etc. Of course people come for the buildings.

  7. Nancy

     /  March 7, 2016

    Bikes: People say they want a walkable community yet don’t want to walk 8 blocks. Everything has a price. If you want that idyllic “walkable” community, you’ll need to do the hard work of walking, and it likely won’t be cheap because greenspace costs lost revenue from potential high-value development. If we want a sufficient customer base so our businesses can thrive, we’ll have to have sufficient parking, even if we consider ourselves a walkable community.

  8. Terri

     /  March 8, 2016

    We have to have parking because so many people who enjoy the town amenities can’t afford (or don’t chose to afford) to live here. Roger Perry has profitted from building overpriced housing. I shudder at the idea of his Participation in economic development planning. I’m sure he’s a very nice person but his business theories have led to the current overpriced, bedroom community we’ve become. I miss Matt.

  9. Nancy

     /  March 8, 2016

    I miss Matt, too. The entire council misses his astute ability to understand numbers and analyze the implications, whether council realizes it or not.

  10. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 8, 2016

    Nancy, thanks for that clarification. And applaudations for the efforts on trying to attract and grow a commercial tax base.

    The perception your blog posts give are: 1) A walkable community is some kind of abstract concept that has no real contribution to a community’s quality of life and 2) Anyone that advocates for or (yes) complains about lack of walkability is a whiner. It would seem that you personally are “content in the cul-de-sac”. A quick search of the CHALT.org platform page shows one reference to walking and 7 or so uses of the word “traffic”.

    The message from this particular blog post is begrudgingly conceding that walkability will help attract a commercial tax base BUT it will be made as expensive and unpleasant as possible, so there! Take that!

    You are a clever person, why not propose clever solutions instead of contrived roadblocks? For inspiration, please give this a read


    Think of walking as not some namby-pamby idyllic goal, but the BEST form of transportation in a multi-modal network (along with bikes, local and regional transit, and yes, cars). Everyone bemoans about folks being disconnected from the world with heads buried mobile devices. Automobiles are the ultimate disconnecting mobile device and have been for years. Think about it.

  11. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 8, 2016

    Nancy, apologies for the harsh tone. Must be compensating for the void left by Downton Abbey. Although Daisy was getting on my last nerve.

  12. Nancy

     /  March 8, 2016

    I understand. It’s like losing a bunch of longtime friends.

  13. DOM

     /  March 8, 2016

    One substantial way to generate honest-to-goodness walkability is to continue creating greater residential density opportunities. Commercial opportunities will most assuredly follow.

    Continuing to cling to the notion of single-family houses on .3 acre lots is community suicide. And please — anyone who claims that this kind of housing costs the taxpayer less than 10 or 15 units on the same footprint — show me any data that even comes close to proving this absurd argument.

  14. plurimus

     /  March 9, 2016

    What I want to see is unbiased demographic research.

    “walkability” “affordability” “liveability” are all abstract terms that i am willing to bet conjures up a different picture for everyone that reads them. Lacking a definition and an agreed upon model they are ripe terms for people to use to promote their own agenda.

    Why would someone want to live in an half million dollar, 800-1200 square foot apartment or condo if the jobs and shopping are not there? How many jobs locally pay enough for a family of three or more to afford a decent sized apartment or condo? How many people want to raise their children without a yard, and a safe neighborhood with places for them to go?

    If the jobs and shopping are not there then you just exacerbate traffic and parking issues. If no one can afford or wants the apartments or condos then you have a real estate bubble followed closely by blight.

    I have heard the “if you build it they will come” arguments being made again and again and they seem one dimentonal and short sighted to me without data and definitions.

  15. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 9, 2016

    Plurimus, the champion of innovation, just presumed you understood the huge shift of young’uns to urban areas that has been going on for, oh, the last 10 years? These hipsters are the ones that will fuel and realize the innovation you tout. Do you think they are moving there so they can spend 2 hours a day commuting by auto-mobile? You don’t have to look far for unbiased demographic evidence. It’s happening across the country. Heck, even RTP is having to re-design itself away from being a commuting destination.

    Could very well be that walkability is an abstract concept to you. Probably means you do not take the bus with any frequency. Probably means you have not stepped off the bus and walked along a busy street where there is no sidewalk. You probably haven’t worried about your kids safely crossing a 4 lane intersection (w/right-on-red) and thought, wow, a pedestrian overpass here makes so much sense.

    On the other hand, while walkability is abstract, “drive-ability” or “traffic flow” are not abstract at all, eh? After all, you are a tax paying citizen of NASCARolina and expect to be able to drive from A-to-B quickly and unimpeded!

  16. plurimus

     /  March 9, 2016


    I am reading a non answer from you. More of a manifesto, eh? You do seem a bit snippy these days, is everything all right?

    The shift you speak of has not happened here, in fact that is my point exactly. It needs to happen. My assertion is that building housing is not the catalyst.

    Demographically speaking about 50% of people that commute in Orange County commute out and 50% commute in. It’s been that way for a long time. Chapel Hill is hardly a commuting destination except for the underpaid staff at UNC who cannot afford to live here.

    RTPs reinvention is a heck of a lot easier for a number of reasons. Wonder if it will be “walkable”; but somehow I think people will still chose to drive.

    Yep, driveability means being able to get from A to B, but I don’t mind taking the long way home sometimes, what does driveablity mean to you?

    I would not raise kids next to a 4 lane road, period.

    Walkability to me is a long hike in the woods, wearing bright orange if its the fall. Haven’t taken the bus since i lived in the city, but I would prefer to die running for a bus rather than linger if that makes any sense.

  17. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 9, 2016

    Plurimus, don’t mean to be snippy. Preoccupied with plans to leave the country based on likely presidential nominees. Or start work on the backyard bunker. Not sure which yet.

    Sorry umbrage was taken. Should probably have taken Xanax instead…. there that’s better. Likely due to abstract concepts reference and putting lots of things “in quotation marks”.

    Actually, it’s hard to see CH compete with Durham or Raleigh for hipster-tech-office space. But they can live here, right? So let’s embrace the bedroom community concept, make it a place they want to live and build DOLRT to allow commuting from the southern-slice-of-heaven without the family truckster… (but still doing that “walkability” thing).

    Why is Mr Perry so vilified? Seems developments like MeadowMont do a nice job of mixed use and mixed density. No (or not many) large lots. Walkable shopping and amenities. Senior living. Trails. Birds.

    Feel the Bern!

  18. plurimus

     /  March 9, 2016


    No worries. Already have the bunker. Well armed and keep the vehicles gassed up too. Honestly I think DC and the presidential election is largely irrelevant and the real important stuff is being decided at the local level.

    I do not think it is so hard to see Chapel Hill compete if we really decide to. As I have pointed out before, Durham’s walkability is largely negated by drive by shootings.

    I do not vilify Roger. He is a capitalist and a business man. I expect exactly that, no more no less. Roger has a clear motive to make Chapel Hill a boutique bedroom community, but is that what people really want?

    I have a different expectation for governments role, which I believe is to represent the best interests of the voters and to be able to communicate that in a convincing way.

    Besides, if the hipster-tech live here and their office space is there then they aren’t nearly as hipster-tech are they?

    I believe it’s the tension between the two forces that makes for better decisions.

    What I do not hear from Nancy’s posting is the critical thinking needed to explore the options. Agreeing with Roger lock-stock-and-barrel and right off the bat (sorry for the mixed metaphor) seems inadequate, because the logical conclusion is exactly what you describe. It will continue the unsustainable dependence on property taxes and get no closer to solving the issues of a diverse community in an economic sense. Kicking the hipster-tech down the road if you will.

    There is a famous saying from a vilified WWII general that goes “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” I suspect that is a valid observation when discussing strategy.

  19. Cindy

     /  March 31, 2016

    Having lived in Virginia Beach from 1980-1997, I saw what happened when council agreed with developers and it was a travesty (much like the monstrous travesty over on Elliot Road near Whole Foods :::shudder:::) that council woke up from long after the horse had left the barn. This is what I see with the Elliot Road building and the shops next to the Glenn Lennox area that are almost sitting in the Old Raleigh Road (aka Hwy 54).

    Now I’m concerned about the American Legion land and the possibility of another monstrosity. I’m hoping council will make it into a park with walkways/trails, but have my doubts now that developers are still “advising” council. I voted for CHALT ticket in hopes of continuing a certain quality of life while attracting small and new innovative businesses and research labs. With UNC right here, why let RTP and Durham get those businesses?

    I agree that we’ve maxed out on property taxes, but but surely, as others have recommended, can’t we think outside the box? I agree with others that it’s too late to try to attract large retailers, and unless you have a niche product, small retailers aren’t going to have a long life expectancy. Why not go to incubators, start-ups, researchers, small business and ask them directly “What do you need in the type of facilities, support, financing, that would make you choose to set up or stay in Chapel Hill?” Find out what the customer wants, not the developer.

  20. plurimus

     /  April 1, 2016


    Yes. The parallels are actually pretty scary, unless you are a developer. Virginia Beach ended up with the “tide” light rail to nowhere (the number one LRT money loser in the nation 2015 per transit mile) too didn’t they?

    I have lived here since 1980 and I remember Ed Harrison and the Sierra Club being very concerned and protective over the New Hope watershed. Not so much now.

    I wonder if the Virginia Beach mayor and council was inundated by developer campaign contributions as was former Mayor Klienschmidt?

    I agree the town would be best served by getting the middleman (developer) out of the mix and marketing directly to the end user and their employees.