Free access or free money?

I’ve never been one to turn down free money, so when Chapel Hill Public Library directorNancy Oates Susan Brown proposed changing the library’s Internet policy to block access to certain sites in exchange for becoming eligible for spending federal grants on technology, the tradeoff seemed reasonable. But she took ill the day she was to present the idea to Town Council, and the item had to be postponed until January.

The delay has allowed time for more questions to surface and congeal into a moral dilemma.

The library recommends using software to block access to website content that is obscene, harmful to minors or illegal (such as child pornography sites, and I’m concerned about what kind of Google ads will appear on my computer now that I’ve searched to learn whether those sites are illegal). At present, the library offers uncensored access to the Internet throughout the building, and this renders the town ineligible to spend some $235,000 in federal funds it has received in the past year on buying technology that could connect to the Internet because the policy does not comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

Council last reviewed the library’s Internet policy in 2004 and opted for the unfiltered access it enjoys today.

But the flip side of that freedom means that kids who are closely supervised at home may be able to use the library computers to view content their parents would rather they not see. Librarians have to make those judgment calls and be the enforcers. The ick factor kicks in when librarians have to “intervene” with adult patrons who view inappropriate sites.

From that perspective, investing in blocking software makes sense. But what about the teenager who wants to find out about sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy or homosexuality and can’t do so on the family computer at home, nor the school computer? What about adults who may not have access to a home computer but want to learn about erectile dysfunction or breastfeeding? Would those sites be blocked?

And what about Chapel Hill’s reputation as a liberal bubble?

Providing library staff are healthy, the matter will come back to council at the first business meeting in January. Brown and her staff will be available to answer questions such as: How frequently do librarians have to “intervene” with a child or adult patron? Who decides what content should be blocked? Would a library staff member be able to tweak the software to block content the staff member finds objectionable based on political or religious beliefs?

The issue deserves careful thought. Is the price we have to pay for free money worth it?
— Nancy Oates

Parking — It’s not just for cars anymore

Chapel Hill’s parking problem extends beyond where to put your car when you go downtown. Nancy OatesA truly vibrant downtown needs spots for pedestrians to park their bodies when they are fatigued or simply want to people watch or absorb the ambience.

Last Tuesday, University of Kentucky Professor Ned Crankshaw came to town and shared some ideas for how to make downtown “stickier.” Crankshaw, chair of UK’s landscape architecture department, specializes in historic landscapes and urban design in historic districts. He wrote the 2008 Island Press book Creating Vibrant Public Spaces: Streetscape Design in Commercial and Historic Districts. Invited by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, Crankshaw engaged with dozens of residents, including advisory board members and commissioners.

The town recently hired an urban design consultant to work with the public to produce new design guidelines for downtown. The town has come up with multiple plans for downtown in the past half-dozen or so years, such as the 2009 Streetscape Plan, the Chapel Hill 2020 Draft Downtown Plan, Downtown Imagined and the Chapel Hill 2020 Downtown Work Plan. Each charts a somewhat different future for downtown.

Although the Community Design Commission has oversight review of all new development, the town has no design guidelines — not any with teeth, anyhow. The town’s most recent design guidelines, from 18 years ago, are more like “gentle suggestions,” Crankshaw said, and that hampers shaping the town into the kind of place we want it to be. The better we can articulate what we want our downtown to look and function like, the more likely we are to succeed in crafting guidelines that will result in that vision.

Crankshaw recommended setting our priorities as life, space, then buildings. That is, first think about how people will live and function in the downtown area. From that will follow the kinds of spaces we need, and that will inform the buildings we need. “Good design doesn’t make activity happen,” he said, which is why good designers don’t start with buildings, they begin with the life that happens.

He offered several suggestions for designing for that life and for constructing inexpensive community spaces. For instance, cultivate social seating arrangements perpendicular to each other, so people can face one another naturally. Seating goes beyond benches to include wide, seat-high ledges around planters that people can perch on. Give some thought to thermal comfort, that is, sun and shade. Make room for food, and places for people to eat outside.

Although public spaces are extensions of the street, pedestrians need identifiable space and want to be protected from traffic. This can be accomplished through parallel parking or a row of trees or planters.

Crankshaw differentiated standards, which are easy to measure and hard to change, from guidelines, which are flexible but yield uncertain outcomes. He emphasized that guidelines should not “dull things down.”

A vibrant downtown needs spaces for people who spend money and those who don’t, he said. Create a mix of spaces for children, some traditional green commons and a plaza with pizazz. Create space for people with different motivations to come downtown and “park.” That diversity, that life, will draw the vibrancy we want downtown, far more than the style and height of the buildings.
— Nancy Oates

Living Stronger Together

The racial equity workshop I signed up for couldn’t have come at a better time — two Nancy Oatesdays after the American people elected a president who campaigned to deport a large chunk of the workforce because of their ethnicity and to close our borders to Muslims and non-white refugees.

For the most part, the workshop participants were self-selected and predominated by people who recognized the problem of both blatant and insidious discrimination. The two-day workshop was a safe haven from the smirking, gloating president-elect and his supporters, and the open bigotry, misogyny and hatred his election uncorked.

The workshop differed from other racial equity training I’d taken previously in that this one focused on race as a social construct: Who defines “white” and why, and how?

The workshop trainers took a historical approach and emphasized the role wealth played in oppression and suppression. The law delineating the fraction of non-white blood someone could have and still be defined as white originated from the desire to protect the status of the progeny of English settler John Rolfe and Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan.

The trainers explained how, in the 1930s, U.S. residents of India heritage were declared non-white and lost protections and property. As the trainers went through the policies instituted to drive a wedge between races — Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal practices, black voter suppression methods — it became uncomfortably clear how much discrimination is still alive and functioning in the U.S. today.

To help us understand the impact of institutional racism, the trainers used the analogy of joining a Monopoly game two hours into it. Although all players get the same amount of money to start and the same payday each time they pass go, the late-comers are at a disadvantage. They have not had time to accumulate wealth. Broadway and Park Place have been acquired; even Baltic Avenue has a hotel and charges all who land on it $450 a pop.

As the workshop drew to a close, the trainers asked participants to reflect on what they had learned and how that knowledge had changed them. Fear and anxiety dominated as participants anticipated what life would be like in the climate of hatred that had become socially acceptable beginning Nov. 9.

The trainers offered no to-do list for redemption. Instead, they left us to stew in the knowledge of how divisive tactics had been used in America for generations to weaken our society and keep power and wealth in the hands of a select few. Maybe that knowledge will change us and shape what we do. “Stronger together” can become a way of life.
— Nancy Oates

Who does LRT railroad?

We saw on Nov. 8 the depth of the frustration of white working-class voters. Many feel Nancy Oatesleft out of the nation’s economic recovery and are fed up with subsidizing the lifestyle of the upwardly mobile. What lessons did Orange County commissioners learn from the recent national election? We’ll see perhaps as early as Dec. 5, when commissioners are expected to vote on whether to move forward to the next phase of work and expenditures for the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.

At the Nov. 17 Assembly of Governments meeting, GoTriangle pleaded its case to move to the engineering phase of the rail line that will connect UNC to Duke and cost at least $1.8 billion. GoTriangle’s latest plan extends the 17-mile line an extra three-fifths of a mile to include a stop at N.C. Central University, a smart move, given how much that could potentially increase ridership. Durham Tech is about a mile and a half farther out. GoTriangle’s website does not show the cost of the extension.

Cost was the main focus of GoTriangle’s presentation last Thursday, because the state initially had committed to pay 25% of the cost but now has capped its contribution at 10%. That creates a $240 million funding gap. And the federal government, still willing to reimburse GoTriangle for half the cost, has slowed its rate of reimbursement from $125 million annually to $100 million, which means the county will have to carry more debt longer.

To fill these gaps, Orange County is being asked to kick in $4 million a year, and Durham $13.4 million, to make up the shortfall. Since the ½-cent sales tax hike that Orange voters approved for transit contributes about $5 million a year, the changes nearly double Orange County’s financial commitment to light rail.

GoTriangle rummaged under the couch cushions to make up the shortfall. It formed a consortium of developers and politicians to get money from universities and other places. GoTriangle also is asking the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) to contribute an extra $2 million a year. That money would have to be reallocated from plans for it to be spent on things like parks and greenways, bike and pedestrian improvements, and bridges and roadways.

Even so, we are looking at a tax increase county-wide, including folks in rural part sof the county who live on a tight budget and likely wouldn’t use light rail. The tax increase, along with expected increases from the new school and housing bonds, and solid waste and other fees, would increase property tax bills about 10%.

All of this to save 17,000 car trips a day, about the same increase in traffic that Obey Creek (now South Creek) will bring, a number that council members at the time shrugged off in approving development at Obey Creek.

Bus Rapid Transit could provide the same solution for a much lower price — 20 miles of BRT would cost less than $350 million. And if electric buses were used, it would offer a clean energy option as well.

But buses don’t have the cachet of a train, and likely would be less effective in luring well-paid hospital and university commuters out of their cars. Instead, we expect rural residents to pay for the lifestyle amenities of a select few urbanites. No wonder the working class rose up with such vengeance during this last election.
— Nancy Oates

How we can win

Heaven help us, we have elected a hatemonger as our next president. Nancy Oates

The day before the election, I accompanied some foreign journalists, many of them from the Asia Pacific, to a Donald Trump rally in Raleigh. It felt like we were on a movie set for a gladiator film. With lies and innuendo, Trump kept the crowd in a frenzy, and anytime they settled down, he’d shout out, “Emails!” and the crowd would start hollering, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” He’d mention immigration, and the crowd would scream, “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The homemade signs the nearly all-white crowd waved triumphantly were crude. A dark-skinned reporter from Papua New Guinea I stood next to — who was thoroughly patted down and wanded by security while the rest of the whites and Asians in our group were motioned through — admitted he felt uncomfortable, not only because he was one of only three people of color in Dorton Arena, but, as he pointed out, “I was standing between two white women who were not cheering.”

As the crowd roared with bloodlust when Trump disparaged China, the Asian women, in particular, felt uneasy. All of us did as he taunted the “dishonest media.” The New Guinean said that in some areas of his country, no elections are won without money and guns. It seems we in the U.S. are moving in that direction.

At one point Trump told the crowd, in urging them to vote the next day, “You have one day before all the dreams you’ve ever dreamed come true.” Who can top that? Not Hillary Clinton. All she had was truth, compassion, and the experience to make good policy that would help those working class Americans who were hurting.

With a Republican president working with a Republican-controlled Congress to appoint ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices, we no longer have the three-pronged checks and balances our founding fathers set up. He can dismantle the hard-won progress President Obama has made in the past eight years.

While that may not have a devastating effect on my day-to-day life, Trump’s misogyny, bigotry and disdain for immigrants, veterans and the disabled left me feeling sucker-punched. Clinton took it all and deflected it with dignity and aplomb, and if this were a movie, she would have prevailed.

Instead, we got real life. It’s up to us to rewrite the ending. No matter what laws Trump annihilates, he can’t take away our dignity or compassion. No matter how vilely he berates any demographic we identify with, he can’t silence our voice.

We can’t undo what voters who make me feel ashamed to be an American have done. We can shore up our own community by building an inclusive town safe for people of all wealth levels, skin colors and faiths. Through that commitment and by acting with integrity, we can claim victory.
— Nancy Oates

The modestly paid are people, too

Swiss novelist Max Frisch’s quip, “We asked for workers; we got people instead,” applies Nancy Oatesas much to affordable housing as it does to the immigration issue he addressed in his day.

At a council work session on Oct. 19, town staff presented the findings of David Paul Rosen & Associates, a consulting firm that we taxpayers hired to help us come up with a plan for affordable housing. The study focused on land the town owns and how much it would cost to subsidize various types of housing units.

In total, the amounts were substantial. And we still would end up with the less-than-ideal situation of all low-income people crowded together in one building or complex. Witness Northwood Ravin’s plan to cram 50 low-income apartments onto a single acre in Carraway Village.

Chapel Hill’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance has the right idea — include low-income residents with those paying market rate for housing. But we don’t have a majority on council who will vote to adhere to the ordinance when eligible projects come to us for approval.

Based on the development proposals we, on council, have approved, we are building aspirationally. We are making room only for the upwardly mobile, college-educated white-collar professionals. In doing so, we push out people who do the work we don’t want to pay much for. That imbalance ultimately undermines our success as a community.

The people we rely on to educate our children, care for our aging parents, haul away our trash, and cook and serve our food in restaurants, to name a few, can’t afford to live in the community they serve. We push them farther out of town, and we’re already seeing signs that we can’t find enough people to hire for modestly paid jobs.

Some council members have lobbied, for instance, for Habitat for Humanity to change its model and stop building single-family houses affordable to the modestly paid in favor of building multifamily units. Some council members have gone so far as to argue that the only affordable housing we should approve is apartments, the implication being that houses should be only for people who earn a lot of money.

The underlying sentiment of that plan is: If you were worthy of living in a house, you’d get a job that paid more.

Have the residents of Chapel Hill really become that arrogant to dismiss someone’s lifestyle choices because they differ from what some of the wealthy or wealthy wannabes choose?

Money is not the main driver for everyone. A good thing, given that so many employees who do work that upper-income folks rely on to enable their lifestyle choices are paid so little. People willing to accept those jobs should be allowed to live in — not simply be warehoused in — the community they serve.

Those modestly paid workers are not simply tenants for someone to profit off of; they are people who deserve to be treated as valued members of our community.
— Nancy Oates

Talk, listen, change

Former UNC Police Officer Keith Edwards, the first black woman on the force, objected toNancy Oates a less-experienced white male officer getting a promotion and raise ahead of her. One day when she walked into the campus police office, she overheard two white male officers complaining about the ensuing court case. “I wish Keith had never brought it up,” one man said of the underlying issue.

Edwards wasted no time setting him straight.

“If your ancestors had picked their own cotton, they wouldn’t have had to steal my ancestors to do it for them,” she said. “I’m not going to pay for your ancestors’ mistakes.”

That story, which Edwards referenced Saturday as alumni of the all-black Lincoln High School reminisced during the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, reflects a comment made last Monday evening by a panelist at a community conversation on racial bias and policing. The panel discussion was organized to talk about the level of trust between police and the black community as the number of shootings of black men by police officers has escalated nationwide.

A Carrboro alderwoman, who is black, said she didn’t think the black community had ever trusted police. “Historically, why should we?” she said.

Much needed public conversations about race have begun in Chapel Hill. People harboring painful stories about racial injustice need to share them. The rest of us need to listen, even if — especially if — it makes us uncomfortable.

At the Monday night panel discussion at Town Hall, black men from three generations talked about how they feel fear when law enforcement pulls them over.

“We talk about that fear like it’s normal,” said the Carrboro alderwoman, who had her own story of being pulled over while driving. “But that fear should never be normal.”

Carrboro’s police chief said his black officers tell his white officers their off-duty experiences.

A high school English teacher recalled when, as a teenager, he and a half-dozen of his friends were talking and laughing in a downtown parking lot one night when police officers pulled up and began cursing at them to disperse them. I doubt police would have responded the same way to a group of my peers — middle-aged, middle-class white women — doing the same thing in the same place as the black teens.

Both events last week — Saturday’s panel of former students and a teacher who integrated Chapel Hill High in 1966, and Monday’s panel of law enforcement heads, racial equality advocates and others from the community — talked about the need for a culture change. And that begins with individuals.

We’re lucky in our area: the police chiefs in Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the Orange County sheriff get it. They all urged community members to report incidents of racial bias by law enforcement. “We can’t fix what we don’t know about,” Chapel Hill’s police chief said.

That goes for all of us in the community. We need to become aware of our biases and hold ourselves accountable. We need to keep talking with and listening to one another so we can understand. And one by one, we’ll start to change the culture.
— Nancy Oates

Putting out

At last week’s Town Council meeting, a council member likened Chapel Hill giving Wegmans Nancy Oatesan incentive to locate here as “being the first girl to put out.”

Many in the community seem to agree. I see it as a risk-free way to show companies that Chapel Hill is serious about being open for business.

One community member expressed concern that Wegmans was expanding too fast and, like Southern Season, was at risk for bankruptcy. But the way the incentive is structured, we pay nothing until we receive the tax revenue from Wegmans first. If Wegmans goes under, it is left with an empty building to sell, one that would hold more appeal to a light manufacturer or wet lab than to a luxury apartment developer. We have essentially secured that parcel as a revenue producer.

Others rued what we could do with the $2 million we’ve agreed to grant back to the county. The reality is we’re competing against Durham, which has more and cheaper land. Our few remaining parcels are being snapped up by luxury apartment builders who can pay high prices because of the high profit they make.

Still others worried that Wegmans would hurt longtime businesses like Harris Teeter and Whole Foods. Both grocery chains are adept at dealing with market competition and have thrived. And if Wegmans opens in Durham, we’ll lose Chapel Hill shoppers across the county line. Rest assured, I’m not tossing out my VIC card.

Granted, our negotiations showed our inexperience. We didn’t know going into the negotiations whether Wegmans typically receives incentives. The grocer’s reps said they are turned down more often than not, but incentives aren’t unprecedented in areas that have some challenges, as the need for soil remediation on the Performance Auto site presents. I don’t know, though I hope the negotiators did, whether Performance factored that expense into its asking price.

Wegmans claimed to be looking at sites in Durham. I hope that those negotiating on taxpayers’ behalf checked with Durham’s economic development officer to verify that. We also didn’t know going into the negotiations that 30% of the jobs Wegmans will bring to the area pay minimum wage.

The council’s Community Prosperity Committee (join us at the library at 8 a.m. the first Friday of each month) has pledged to come up with benchmarks for what could trigger the council considering an incentive in the future.

In recent years council has gained a reputation as a pushover among developers of luxury apartment buildings, which produce little net revenue. Clearly, we need to change that perception, but not at any cost. From the Wegmans offer, we learned the questions to ask, and the next time a business asks for an incentive, we’ll have a template in place that spells out what the town expects to get in return.

I believe the benefit taxpayers will see from Wegmans will outweigh the incentive we’ve agreed to grant back. And council has learned valuable lessons from the experience.
— Nancy Oates

Playing it safe

It was a dark and stormy night for affordable housing last Monday. At the Oct. 10 TownNancy Oates Council meeting, we had two opportunities to take meaningful steps to increase the supply of affordable housing, and a majority on council squandered them both.

Early on in the meeting, a council member put forth a resolution urging voters to vote in favor of two county bonds on the Nov. 8 ballot: $120 million for school repairs and $5 million for affordable housing. As I wrote last week, the county has no plan on how to use its affordable housing money, leaving it vulnerable to being dribbled away on stopgap measures. I asked that the resolution be amended to add urging county commissioners to come up with a plan. I got no takers.

To add to that discouraging response, Orange County commissioner Penny Rich emailed council members a copy of the county’s policy paper on affordable housing the next day, claiming that was the county’s plan. Nowhere among the report’s 239 pages was a plan to spend the bond money. To know that one of the people involved in deciding what to do with so much money doesn’t understand the difference between a policy paper and a spending plan was all the more disheartening.

Politicians drag the big-eyed puppy of affordable housing into photos to make themselves look good. And admittedly, with reporters and tweeters in the audience, it would be politically risky to appear at all critical of the bond. But if we had pushed for a plan, it could have been affordable housing’s Colin Kaepernick moment, focusing a spotlight on long-ignored problems by refusing to go along with tradition, and maybe being an impetus for change.

Instead, council played it safe, 7-1 in favor of no plan.

We ended the night with Carraway Village developer Northwood Ravin bringing us a tepid proposal for affordable housing, and we made it worse. Northwood Ravin offered to build 50 units of affordable housing amidst its luxury apartment and commercial destination complex, providing it could get tax credits or other outside funding within four years. If it hadn’t built the housing by the end of 10 years, the town could buy an acre of land for $1 and build it ourselves.

But by negotiating from the dais — we lose every time we do — we gave the developer nine years to find funding and obtain a building permit. If those conditions are met, the town has no contractual leverage to buy the land at year 10, even if no units have been built. And we set no time limit for when the apartments had to be ready for tenants.

Meanwhile, luxury apartments spring up around town like so many wild onions. And council members shrug, shifting the affordable housing crisis to someone else.
— Nancy Oates

A bond without a plan

When it comes to taking on the challenge of increasing the amount of affordable housing,Nancy Oates Orange County commissioners would do well to heed the wise counsel of Yogi Berra: “When you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

County commissioners proposed two bond referenda for the November election: $120 million to repair aging schools and $5 million for affordable housing. The school boards of Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have figured out already how to split up the money between them, should voters approve the bond, and they know exactly how they’ll spend it.

But commissioners have no plan for how to spend the affordable housing allocation.

This should come as no surprise to Chapel Hill voters. In 2014, Town Council agreed to set aside one cent of its property tax rate (which is about $1.68 per $100 of property valuation for most homeowners in town, not counting fees) to be used to increase the supply of affordable housing. That Penny for Housing program generates about $700,000 per year. But the town has no plan for how to spend it.

Not that the money sits unused. Last year, the town committed $200,000 to Self-Help Credit Union as an investment management fee for the $3 million UNC agreed to loan interest-free for 10 years to reclaim homes in Northside. The town gave the remaining $500,000 to DHIC to shore up its financials so it could attract grants more easily. DHIC plans to build nearly 149 affordable apartments on unused cemetery land the town donated.

I support both of those projects. I have full confidence they will benefit families and senior citizens living on limited incomes. That may very well have been the best use of taxpayers’ $700,000 investment. My quibble is that the town has never put forth a plan for affordable housing, and that lack of planning may be why we struggle to increase our supply of affordable units.

During my trip to Boulder, Colo., last month, organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, I visited a mixed-income community built on land purchased by the town. Through a public-private partnership and with the aid of several nonprofits, the Holiday neighborhood provides a sustainable mix of market-rate and affordable units. But it took planning by the town to make it happen.

It’s never too late to start planning. With thought and strategy and partnerships, $5 million could go a long way toward boosting our supply of housing for the modestly paid. But first we need a plan. Please urge Orange County commissioners to develop a plan for putting that bond money to its highest and best use.
— Nancy Oates