Opportunity cloaked in petulance

For 15 years, UNC has lobbied to close Horace Williams Airport, but the tiny landing strip at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive Extension has amazing staying power. Now, with the help of a petulant board of governors, UNC may get its wish.

Built in 1928 in what was then the outskirts of town, the airport in later years had been used most frequently by health-care providers with N.C. Area Health Education Centers to fly to rural areas of the state to treat patients with limited access to health care. The Chapel Hill Flying Club also had its base there, and several big donors to the university often flew in for sporting events, meetings and other functions.

As long as the airport stayed active, UNC could not proceed with developing Carolina North, a research campus and public/private partnership on the thousand or so acres bequeathed to UNC by the late philosophy professor Horace Williams.

UNC ended the flying club’s lease. Then it moved AHEC flights to RDU (reducing the time physicians could spend treating patients at remote clinics). And in 2005, the board of trustees gave permission to close the airport.

Planes kept taking off and landing throughout the master plan process. The recession hit before ground could be broken on Carolina North. The airport stayed open, no longer having a reason to close.

Then came the Donald Trump era, fertilizing long-dormant prejudices against race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation — basically, anyone who didn’t conform to the worldview of wealthy white Republicans. The N.C. General Assembly overhauled UNC’s BOG, weeding out Democrats and most of the women and people of color, replacing them with GOP good ol’ boys.

Carolina had far too many people and ideas the BOG members found frightening — including uppity women and people with accents and dark complexions who expected to be heard.

The BOG flailed in flurry, first against the law school — scrapping plans for a new building, reducing funding, closing teaching centers that helped the poor and disempowered, and undercutting its academic rating. Now it has threatened to move the UNC System headquarters out of Chapel Hill and close the airport used by major donors.

The BOG’s tantrum may have opened an opportunity for town and gown.

UNC and Chapel Hill had been considering a joint project that would enable the town to build a municipal services building on land owned by UNC across the road from the airport and adjacent to a working-class neighborhood. The new building would require clear-cutting the heavily wooded site that soaks up stormwater and offers some protection against flooding.

If the airport were to close, the building could be constructed on the already-cleared airport property. The site has water, sewer and electricity in place and plenty of impervious surface for parking. Construction costs would shrink; those who live nearby would be relieved; and the BOG could still thumb its out-of-joint nose at the big donors loyal to the university.

This sorry political cloud could have a silver lining after all.
— Nancy Oates

Fighting back for DACA

Donald Trump seems to delight in causing chaos, regardless of the consequences. Like a toddler in the throes of a temper-tantrum, breaking everything he can get his little hands on, Trump gets attention through the disruption he creates. And Congress, the only authority figure that can put him in time out, instead stands to the side, embarrassed by his outbursts but unwilling to intervene.

But you knew that already.

Recently Trump turned his petulance toward a group of young people known as Dreamers, whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children without proper immigration papers. Once they turned 18, the U.S. government could deport them for being in the country without documentation.

In 2012, then-President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that enabled this relatively small group — children younger than 16 had to have arrived before June 2007 and be younger than 31 by June 15, 2012, a cohort of about 800,000 nationwide — to acquire work permits and driver’s licenses and to have no deportation proceedings lodged against them for two years. Those enrolled could renew their deferral for additional two-year periods.

Now Trump has scrapped the program and has asked our ineffectual Congress to decide what to do. Meanwhile no DACA enrollee can renew their deferral term once it expires.

For a self-described “businessman,” Trump’s actions make no sense. Taxpayers paid to educate these young people who now are earning money, buying things, paying taxes, contributing to the economy and lowering the cost of health insurance premiums. Why export these hard workers and sharp minds to benefit another country?

From a humanitarian perspective, Trump once again chose cruelty, uprooting lives and ripping apart families.

Fortunately, communities across the country are speaking out and, to varying degrees, defying Trump. Last Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council passed a resolution that Carrboro’s alderman had passed the night before, asking the town manager to comb through the budget for money that could be contributed to nonprofits assisting DACA enrollees.

The budget for this year is set, so any money shifted to those nonprofits would have to be taken from another department’s, project’s or organization’s intended use. Some money we can’t reallocate. For instance, paring $500 apiece from the $2,500 to $6,000 raises we gave to the 30-some town employees making more than $100,000 annually would result in a donation of impact, but we can’t touch those pay raises. The $30,000 set aside for shoveling sidewalks ignored by private property owners would be fair game.

I am pleased that council is taking this small step to stand up to a bully. I hope other towns across the country will be inspired to do likewise.
— Nancy Oates

Season Premiere

Some of the candidates for Town Council attended our season opener on Wednesday. I hope those who stayed through the development agreement discussion do not rue their decision to run. The Sept. 6 council meeting gave candidates an accurate picture of some of the tortuous discussions we get ourselves into.

Council is beta testing holding meetings on Wednesday nights this fall to give council members time to read our packets over the weekend and then give staff time to research answers to our questions. At our Sept. 6 meeting, we endeavored to come up with a template for conducting development agreements, an alternative to the quasi-judicial process of a Special Use Permit.

In the past, development agreements have been available, by state statute, only for large, complex projects that would be built out over a long period of time. Obey Creek chose a DA, as did the redevelopment of Glen Lennox and the Carolina North master plan.

But last year the N.C. General Assembly authorized DA’s to be used for projects of any size, complexity or timeline. Chapel Hill used that process successfully for the redevelopment of Fire Station #2 on Hamilton Road, a public/private partnership that resulted in a larger, more functional fire station to be built alongside a private office building. Much of that success can be attributed to Chief Matt Sullivan, who negotiated for the town.

During our Sept. 6 discussion, which is how I’ll refer to the free-for-all that ensued, we tried to set up a framework for who should negotiate, how long the process would last and how to incorporate public input.

Our only unanimous agreement came on the point that there is no one-size-fits all template. Each project that might choose a DA has its own unique features and pros and cons of how to handle them.

For instance, the town has never come out ahead when we try to negotiate from the dais: nine people with different ideas, each of us thinking ours is the correct vision, against one applicant with a very focused outcome. But having only a handful of council members negotiate with the applicant leaves out council members advocating for the interests of other constituencies. And having staff negotiate, when they’re trying to second-guess what a divided council wants, puts us in a vulnerable position.

How do we create a less arduous process for development that benefits the community and is not simply a sausage of individual council members’ priorities?

At the end of the evening, we punted back to staff, asking them to come up with a process and bring it back to us for “tweaking.” Staff expects to return a plan to council in October.
We then allowed the Amity Station applicants to use a DA for their project proposed for West Rosemary Street, underscoring that we expect the project to comply with the West Rosemary Street Development Guidelines.

Stay tuned.
— Nancy Oates

Pioneering the Innovation District

Credit the JOBS Act for two recent Carolina grads stepping off a clear path to success and choosing to pioneer Chapel Hill’s fledgling Innovation District.

Then-President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups legislation in 2012 to remove some obstacles to success for entrepreneurs. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s new regulations were finally enacted in May 2016, just as Aditya Badve was wrapping up his junior year at UNC.

The new regulations allowed startups to use crowd-funding to attract investors. Badve returned for his senior year with an idea for a website that made it easier for investors and startups to connect with one another. He tapped his classmates Sifron Benjamin to work on tech issues and James Shea to handle the investment side. They took their company, NanoVest, through the LaUNCh program even as Badve and Benjamin prepared for more conventional careers.

Come May 2017, Badve had a job trading for JPMorgan and Benjamin went to work for Deutsche Bank. Shea went back to school and left NanoVest.

But the possibilities inherent in NanoVest continued to intrigue Badve and Benjamin. They left their high-potential jobs and worked full time on NanoVest.

Their business has created an online venue where investors, startups and ancillary services can connect. Investors and startups upload their preferences to the NanoVest website, and Badve and Benjamin use a machine-learning algorithm to find matches whose interests align. NanoVest is encouraging more investors and startups to sign up on the website, because the bigger the pool of candidates, the greater the chance of finding a good match. NanoVest is open to partnerships with providers of ancillary services such as designers, marketers, lawyers and accountants.

On Thursday, Sept. 7, NanoVest will host a sort of speed-dating event for investors and startups to scope one another out and perhaps find an interesting match. The event is invitation-only, and all 24 seats are filled. The response was so positive that NanoVest likely will have more of these face-to-face meetings.

Badve and Benjamin recruited a few others with skills that will help NanoVest succeed, and downtown property owner Antoine Puech rented the now five-member team office space in the new Innovation District with flexible, affordable terms. Small, inexpensive office space or co-working space with short-term leases and close enough to campus that the students who work for startups can walk to work is critical to the success of entrepreneurial businesses that are ready to launch.

The NanoVest founders would like to keep their company in Chapel Hill, in part because the town is small enough to enable them to try new things with less risk than in a city, and because they recognize Chapel Hill’s potential for an innovation industry.

“In the four years I’ve been in Chapel Hill,” Badve said, “I’ve seen tons of growth in the entrepreneurial community. We feel it’s best to stay in Chapel Hill and be part of growing the entrepreneurial community. We see the potential for Chapel Hill to be a very big entrepreneurial center.”
— Nancy Oates

Two ways to message

The N.C. General Assembly declined to pass HB-746 during its short session, which left one gun advocate livid. The proposed bill would have allowed concealed handguns to be carried without a permit. The bill came to the floor for consideration at the start of a week that would erupt in eight mass shootings in the U.S. that left 12 dead and seriously injured the U.S. House majority whip.

The NCGA’s decision disappointed Paul Valone, head of Grass Roots N.C., a lobbyist organization that pushes for easy access to all means of firearms. Valone had counted on the Republican-majority in the NCGA to vote in favor of the bill. To show his displeasure, he put out the word to rally some like-minded citizens to “jeer” at Republicans who did not vote in favor of the bill. The House passed the bill on June 8, but the Senate referred it to the Committee on Rules and Operations on June 12.

The group gathered at Halifax Mall outside the State Legislative Building on Aug. 3 when legislators reconvened for a special session. Valone introduced a mascot he named Squish the Magic R.I.N.O., dressed in a rhinoceros costume, which relates to the acronym for Republicans in Name Only, and unfurled a banner reading: “N.C. Senate R.I.N.O.s: Giving Gun Voters the Horn Since …?”

Valone’s intent to belittle and punish legislators, rather than simply make sure they heard his viewpoint, could very well have been induced by the example set by the sitting — or, more accurately, tweeting — U.S. president.

We have few role models to aspire to on the national political stage. Fortunately, as we head into the local election season, we do not have to resort to the gamesmanship and chicanery so common at the national and state levels.

Seven excellent candidates are competing for four seats on Town Council. (The incumbent mayor is running unopposed.) Two incumbent council members declined to run for re-election, so we have the potential for two new philosophies to join the discussions on what is best for our town.

I am so homesick for former President Obama’s dignity, transparency and intellect. I hope that the Town Council candidate forums and campaigns take the high road, as Obama did throughout his political career, and that local voters will be able to make decisions based on the issues, not on personalities, innuendo or reactions to “jeering.”
— Nancy Oates

In Defense of Silent Sam

After Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child molestation, the statue of his boss, revered head coach Joe Paterno was removed. The statue had been erected to honor the popular “winningest” coach in football. Once it became apparent that Paterno knew about the child abuse for years but said nothing, the university found his silence too egregious to explain away. No longer wanting to honor what he stood for, Penn State took his statue down.

That has nothing to do with the public outcry to remove statues of Confederate generals or unknown soldiers of the Civil War. Yet in opinion piece after radio call-in show after tweet storm, I hear that rationale used by those who want the statues taken down.

The Confederate statues were erected not to honor anyone but to intimidate. Granted, they are a reminder that slavery was the backbone of the Southern economy. The only way to detain people you’ve kidnapped in a life of servitude is to keep them dependent, demoralized and in fear for their lives. Some Southern property owners believed that was an acceptable tradeoff to keep the economy going, and went to war over it.

But the statues were installed during periods when whites wanted to underscore a belief in white supremacy. That crucial context undermines the argument that the statues are up solely for historical reference.

Some people now want those statues removed. The statues remind them of the horrific treatment of those of African heritage and the persistent pain of racial inequality. They don’t want to be reminded of the uglier side of humanity. Who can blame them for wanting to forget that we can be so incredibly cruel?

But especially now as the political and cultural currents take us in a direction many of us don’t want to go, we need to remember the darkness and just how deep and wide it can be. I have a strong sense of foreboding when I see some of the White House tweets, the legislative initiatives, the incomprehensible meanness toward people who are least able to fight back.

I’ve heard Chapel Hillians try to distance ourselves from some of the acts of the N.C. General Assembly, for instance, by saying, “This is not us.” We can’t afford to live in a protected bubble of liberalism. We can’t afford to erase the objectionable and pretend that we are not part of the sordidness around us.

We need always to bear in mind our capability for inflicting brutality and injustice and why it’s necessary for us to fight against it. That’s why I would argue the Confederate statues should stay, so long as we put them in context. Add plaques explaining this dark part of our history and reminding people that the Confederates, with their agenda of inhumanity, lost. Add other statues or works of art nearby that depict the struggle to redeem ourselves, something that shows “This is where we were; this is how far we’ve come; we don’t want to go back.”

We need to accept our past that gave in to the worst parts of ourselves; we need to acknowledge the long and difficult battle toward redemption. In these days in which the broader culture is urging us backwards, we need a reminder of where that path leads, and that we don’t want to go there.
— Nancy Oates

Commerce Buzz

Slow-news days have settled upon Chapel Hill, a lull before the storm of students arrives for the new academic year. But the retail world apparently didn’t get the memo. Businesses are opening and closing around town. Here’s what’s been happening:

An “urban” Target opened in Carolina Square in late July. Its 21,000 square feet of shopping space caters to the student market, so of course it has a Starbuck’s, a CVS pharmacy, grocery basics, dorm decor items, electronics and Carolina apparel. Customers may park in the multilevel deck behind the store.

Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza opened in August in the space that used to be Jasmin Mediterranean Café on the corner of W. Franklin and Columbia streets.

Trolly Stop Hot Dogs moved a couple blocks east to the former Bruegger’s Bagels spot on W. Franklin Street.

The new buyers of The Carolina Coffee Shop include UNC soccer legend Heather O’Reilly and her husband, David Werry. Four of the five new owners are UNC alumni (and the fifth is married to one). The Werrys, along with partners Jeff Hortman and Clay and Sarada Schossow, plan to renovate the décor and the menu, and perhaps add outdoor seating, while retaining the 95-year-old coffee shop’s ambience.

On campus, Barnes & Noble College took over Student Stores last year and now has finished renovating and rearranging its departments. The Bull’s Head Bookshop has moved to the top floor and doubled its number of titles. A separate reading room overlooking the Pit will be a quiet space to read in front of an LED fireplace, except on game days, when it likely will attract ticketless fans to watch games on its large-screen TV. That busy space also made room for a post office, print shop, computer store and tech services, as well as a pharmacy operated by Campus Health Services. The middle floor has a café and UNC paraphernalia shop. Textbooks have been relegated to the ground floor.

Farther away from campus, One Fish Two Fish, a fast-casual restaurant, opened in the Carrboro Hampton Inn. A Hyatt Hotel in Southern Village now welcomes guests. Dunkin’ Donuts opened a shop just down the block from the Siena Hotel on E. Franklin Street. On the other end of the spectrum, Living Kitchen, on the ground floor of Berkshire Apartments, opened with an all-plant, gluten- and dairy-free menu of organically grown fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Several businesses had left town by summer’s end. Downtown, The Carolina Ale House closed in May. Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom closed in July, as did The Bookshop, which gave away all of its unsold inventory during its final few days — no dumpster-diving necessary. Chapel Hill Comics closed; Sweet Frog did, too, although the frozen yogurt shop hopes to reopen nearby. McAlister’s Deli closed after several years on E. Franklin Street next to Linda’s Bar. Khushi Salads & Wraps closed and was quickly replaced by Grk Yeero.

Elsewhere, TCBY shut down after more than a decade in Eastgate shopping center. In Carrboro, Bella’s Cafe left E. Main Street after a three-year run.
— Nancy Oates

Conflicting Priorities

Bonnie Hauser, founder of Orange County Voice, shares her insight into factors that affect housing affordability:

Last month the N.C. General Assembly (NCGA) took away Orange County’s authority to collect impact fees on new home construction. It was a low blow by Raleigh politicians but brings new insights into the important topic of affordability.

Thirty years ago, Orange County was authorized to collect impact fees to help fund new school construction. Over 30 years, Orange County collected about $45 million, or $1.5 million a year. The fees were used to help pay loans to build new schools like Northside Elementary.

Last year, the county commissioners started planning a new impact fee structure. They created new, lower fees for small luxury apartments and other units that likely wouldn’t have school-age children, and increased fees for 3-bedroom or larger apartments and houses. Under the new structure, impact fees would have added up to $9,000 to the price of a new home in the Orange County school district; $18,000 for a new home in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district.

The fee was based on the size of a home not its price or location. Impact fees are waived for low-income housing such as homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

An outraged developer complained about the new fees to an NCGA member from another county, and the politics started. Now the fees are gone, and new homes could be a little more affordable especially for working families. After all, impact fees are passed through to buyers and renters and are in addition to land, permitting and building costs.

But these fees are a small part of the affordability picture in Orange County. There are high taxes and fees for Cadillac services that many of us don’t need or will never use. Better public transportation would help for people who cannot afford cars. Then there are taxes.

Over the next few years, the county expects to increase taxes significantly in order to pay for the school bonds ($120 million) that voters approved last year. This has nothing to do with impact fees or the NCGA.

According to the county’s financial advisers, under the current planning assumptions, county taxes could increase by 7.5 points to pay for the bonds. That’s nearly 10% added to the county’s tax rate of 83.77 points. Since the schools need a lot more than $120 million (the original estimate was $330 million), it’s only the beginning. It’s neither affordable nor sustainable, and no one is talking about it.

I doubt that the NCGA cares about affordability in Orange County — but we do. It might help if we all paid more attention to how services, taxes and fees affect working families, seniors and others who are struggling to make ends meet.

For more information on county impact fees, see: http://www.orangecountync.gov/departments/planning_and_inspections/Residential_and_Commercial_Building_Fees.pdf.

— Bonnie Hauser

Light Rail at Our Own Risk

Alex Cabanes, the founder of SmartTransitFuture.org, has done in-depth analysis of the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project and has explored its implications and transit alternatives. He shares his insight into the latest plot twist of the DOLRT saga.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approved moving the 17.7-mile light-rail project into the engineering phase — kind-of. In its letter to GoTriangle’s general manager Jeff Mann, the FTA included the qualification in bold: “Please note that the President’s Budget for FY 2018 proposes no funding for new projects, and thus GoTriangle acknowledges that it is undertaking the additional work at its own risk which may not receive Capital Investment Grants (Federal) funding.”

The funding decision for Durham-Orange Light Rail will be made in 2020. At that time, GoTriangle will learn whether or not the project could receive 50 percent of the project’s funding from the federal government. Maybe the FTA is hinting politely that funding prospects don’t look good, but GoTriangle (and county commissioners) are missing the hint?

The qualified approval came with a project score of “medium,” another red flag. For the FTA, “medium” is like a “C.” It’s the lowest acceptable rating for projects that compete for federal funding. Today all the projects in the FTA’s engineering queue are rated as “high” or “medium-high.” It’s unclear what will be in the queue in 2020 — if there’s a queue at all. The FTA’s letter continues:

“The pre-award authority does not constitute any FTA commitment that future Federal funds will be approved for the Project or for any element of the Project.”

This engineering phase is estimated to cost $70 million, which is in addition to the $30 million that has already been spent. That means $100 million of local taxpayer monies is being placed at risk. GoTriangle approved the $70 million engineering contract this spring, prior to hearing from FTA.

The entire project is estimated to cost $2.476 billion, plus nearly $900 million in interest through 2062 that is not covered by federal funding. The FTA letter fixes federal funding at a maximum of $1. 238 billion, if the project is approved in 2020.

Despite cautions from the FTA, GoTriangle and local leaders celebrated the news. The local press helped by reporting press releases instead of the facts. In the meantime, it’s clear that GoTriangle is proceeding at the risk of Orange and Durham taxpayers, even though the prospects for future funding look dim.

The GoTriangle team will decide this week how to proceed — though it launched the $70 million engineering contract months ago. So once again, the public process is off the rails.

Here’s the FTA’s letter. What do you think? http://bit.ly/2vVSlIk

Managua, N.C.?

Recently a homeowner requested, through his lawyer and architect, permission from the Historic District Commission to build a combination iron and chain-link fence around his large acreage, ostensibly to keep the deer out of his garden. The commissioners, familiar with the challenge of planting anything that deer would not eat, were sympathetic while trying to stay within the Historic District Guidelines that discourage hiding houses behind tall fences. Instead of the 6-foot-tall black iron fence along the front of the property and heavy metal gates across both driveways, commissioners suggested fencing in only the backyard.

That prompted the homeowner to address the commissioners directly, saying that he needed the front yard fenced and driveways gated because passersby ignored his “No Trespassing” signs and walked down his driveway to gaze at the house. He did not want to come out one day and find someone standing on his porch, he said.

As if this were Nicaragua in the 1980s.

I spent some time in Nicaragua with a friend who was covering the events unfolding in that uneasy time. Over the course of the decades-long Somoza regime — known for its political corruption, government support for corporations over citizens, and order maintained by a strong military — the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Even what I would consider suburban homes were hidden behind thick adobe walls, taller than me, because the haves lived in fear of the many, many have-nots.

After my stay in Managua, I returned to my apartment in New York that, granted, had iron bars over the windows, but still, I was very appreciative to be able to walk outside, a woman alone, something I could not do in Nicaragua.

Too many times this year some news alert about the U.S. president and Congress dismantling the laws that help us stay a civil society has made me think: This is how it begins, that life of fear that incites those afraid of losing their elevated status to take away the freedoms and quality of life of those whose work keeps the economy functioning.

The U.S. backed the Somoza dynasty because it seemed like a good idea at the time to create a regulatory environment attractive to multinational corporations. When the Sandinistas came to power around 1980 and tried to restore some economic equity and civil rights and clean up the damage done from overbuilding and corporate stripping of natural resources, the U.S., leery that the Sandinistas’ FSLN party seemed too allied with communism, backed the Contras trying to snatch power from the FSLN.

(Congress changed its mind in the mid-1980s, but President Reagan disagreed and set up a way to support the Contras illegally by using money from the sale of arms to Iran, the infamous Iran-Contra Affair.)

I have heard tales of ultra-rich Americans today building bunkers and buying land in New Zealand to escape to when society in the U.S. breaks down completely.

Iron gates to keep the curious away from the wealthy in Chapel Hill likely is not a harbinger of doom. But are those gates necessary? Why live as though they are?
— Nancy Oates