In the Big Muddy

A friend looked over GoTriangle’s newest plan to pay for the ever-escalating cost of the Nancy OatesDurham-Orange Light Rail and said Pete Seeger had it right: “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

Seeger’s ballad tells the story of an Army captain leading his platoon to cross a river without realizing that the river at that point is much deeper than when he crossed it upstream. After GoTriangle’s gleeful announcement last week that it had found a way to pay for the additional $254 million shortfall by extending the financing another eight years, I can see why “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” came to mind.

The total cost for DO-LRT has ballooned to $2.5 billion, up from the $1.8 billion a few months ago, in part because GoTriangle wisely is reporting the figures to reflect inflation. But to blithely imply that the overage has gone away because instead of paying a lump sum taxpayers will finance the amount for eight years is the sort of mindset that caused the economic implosion of 2008.

Missing from the discussion is how the counties are going to pay for an additional eight years of crushing debt. That’s not GoTriangle’s problem. The regional transit entity is raking in $700,000 per month as long as the DO-LRT notion stays alive, and that figure will rise once the engineering studies begin next month.

Chapel Hill is making plans for Bus Rapid Transit and will be competing for dollars from some of the same funding pots as DO-LRT — half-cent transit sales tax, vehicle registration fees and rental car taxes. The town expects UNC to share the cost of BRT. Will the tight-fisted state legislature, which contributes the bulk of UNC’s funding, factor in paying for DO-LRT for an additional eight years?

The new plan also erases the decision points about whether to continue into this morass of debt. When the Orange County Commissioners met in early December, the plan was that they would decide in April whether to proceed with the engineering studies. Now GoTriangle says it will start those studies in February, since it doesn’t have to wait for the counties to come up with the cash. That comes with a $70 million price tag. We’ve already heard GoTriangle say that having spent $700,000 a month for the past three years, the money would be wasted if we turned back now.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy? Or waste deep?
— Nancy Oates

To a Healthy New Year

My husband and I gave each other matching colds for Christmas this year, not the gifts Nancy Oateswe had intended, but a result of getting out and into the community more than I have in years past. When it comes to germs, especially in the holiday season, I’ve tried not to give back. And that means striking a balance between staying home from community events and risk people thinking I don’t care, or shaking hands and hoping I’m not still contagious.

Showing up and not shaking hands, however well-intentioned, is not an option for an elected official.

During my quarantine, I’ve had time to reflect on other times council members have had to find balance. The Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment offers a case study in unintended consequences and the need to find the sweet spot of a well-functioning community.

A prior council voted to allow by-right high-density development in an existing commercial area. The hope was to encourage greater commercial development, something the town desperately needs to offset its 85% residential tax base. But that council didn’t think through the need to add restrictions that would shape the commercial development the town envisioned. As a result, many independent retail businesses were run out of town and replaced by more residential units.

What was once a thriving small-business enclave that served nearby middle-class and working-class residents has been eliminated, replaced by apartments with rents higher than can be afforded by most jobs in Chapel Hill. Now Ram Development, having sold the commercial areas of 140 West, has plans to raze more commercial buildings and replace them with luxury apartments, in a flood plain, no less.

Residents and advisory boards tried to make the best of it, opening staff to the idea of turning strips of land flanking Booker Creek into usable greenspace and working with town staff to come up with guidelines to create a walkable retail and office center. But developers of chain stores and luxury apartments leaned hard on town staff to ignore the advice of the design consultant taxpayers hired and instead push for guidelines that would make it easier to turn Ephesus-Fordham into the strip-mall mess built in the New Hope Commons area along U.S. 15-501 in Durham.

The Community Prosperity Committee, now renamed Economic Sustainability – a subtle shift that supplants the good of the community with revenue generation at any cost – has been looking at ways to attract high-paying jobs to Chapel Hill to bring in residents who can afford the tsunami of pricey apartments and perhaps stave off our town becoming irrevocably a bedroom community.

Trying to find that balance involves tradeoffs. Will we be able to attract those high-paying jobs without having to buy them through incentives? Will we be able to persuade developers to build the office space that those high-paying businesses need? Or is asking a developer to shave off a bit of profit for the good of the community like asking an elected official to come to an event and not shake hands?

In 2017, let’s make choices that improve the health of Chapel Hill.
— Nancy Oates

Lights in the Darkness

The gifts have been unwrapped; the holiday feast reduced to leftovers. But I hope the Nancy Oateswarmth and joy and generosity of the season have stayed with you. If you need a booster shot of Christmas spirit — especially if the past several months of the presidential campaign and the past several days of the N.C. Legislature’s sore-loser shenanigans have taken a toll on you — take a look at Christmas lights, which likely will be twinkling all week long.

This year I needed what I call my comfort lights — my Top 3 favorite displays — and I was relieved to find that all three were lit again this year.

I started with my former neighborhood, Old Forest Creek, off Piney Mountain Road. The house on the corner of Old Forest Creek and Old Forest Creek has a terraced landscape, and lights drip from every level, giving the impression of a giant birthday cake. Phalanxes of candy canes and lollipops that change color add to the decorations, and colored balls of light hang from the branches of leafless trees. Drive around the Old Forest Creek circle for more displays, including one house that has twinkly lights splattered all across its front face and vertical strands spiking into thin air. Don’t overlook the cul-de-sacs.

Next, we went to my all-time favorite, a tree in Chandler’s Green that has wrapped every twig in red lights. Turn onto Sweeten Creek Drive from Sunrise Road, and the explosion of color is in front of the second house on the right. Mosey along Sweeten Creek, even after it turns into Perry Creek Drive for display after display of holiday lights. Those folks know how to use electricity for the benefit of all of us.

Just south of Hillsborough on N.C. 86 North, a house on the west side of the highway has a collection of lights that grows every year. I couldn’t tell whether the Santas outnumbered the Christmas trees, but the acreage has plenty of room for them to cavort with snowmen, candy canes and the major players in a nativity scene under the Star of Bethlehem. In the center of it all is a glowing message: Peace on Earth.

And because this time of year tends to yield some unexpected gift, we drove to the south end of Chapel Hill where one of our group had come across what will become a new favorite for us. On Old Lystra Road, just south of Mount Carmel Church Road, a tree worthy of the White House lawn stood dusted in white lights, with a glowing snowball at its peak.

Keep the holiday spirit alight within you all year long. We’re all going to need it.
— Nancy Oates

Giving back

When it comes to charitable giving, I wish “deep pockets” meant “bottomless resources.” But in Nancy Oatesreality, people and organizations have a finite amount of money they make available to donate to nonprofits. Competition for those dollars is fierce, as you may have guessed by the number of solicitations you have received in the past several weeks.

Now just in time to take advantage of the holiday spirit of giving, comes GoTriangle announcing a nonprofit foundation to reduce the $254 million shortfall for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.

The price tag for the 17-mile DOLRT that will connect UNC with Duke and now N.C. Central universities has risen to nearly $2 billion at the same time the state legislature has reduced the amount of money it will contribute and the federal government has slowed its rate of reimbursement (making Orange and Durham counties carry debt longer).

I’m not a fan of the DOLRT route. It will increase traffic because all of the new apartment complexes that will be built along the corridor. The UNC, Duke and NCCU faculty, staff and students who would be most helped by a train won’t be able to afford the rent in what will be pricey new housing. and those who will live in the new units will drive their cars for everything except their commute to work. Light rail would serve the community better if it ran along the already traffic-clogged U.S. 15-501, or from Chatham Park to campus, or to RDU or RTP.

Setting up a nonprofit foundation where donors may write off their contributions on their taxes raises that benefit almost to the level of boondoggle. I recall when some town residents asked the town to set up such a vehicle to help community members buy the American Legion property. Naysayers scoffed at the notion of raising a good portion of the $9 million asking price.

Would developers be more generous? Think how most have balked at meeting the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, saying “the numbers don’t work” for them to provide affordable units. So far, only Epcon Communities has met the requirements, paying about $900,000 as payment in lieu.

But let’s say GoTriangle’s foundation succeeds in raising that kind of cash. GoTriangle would have another $9 million to put toward the $254 million deficit.

With that same $9 million, local charities could do so much toward chipping away at some of our societal ills. Before you write a fat check to GoTriangle, check out what these local nonprofits do:

Community Home Trust,
Habitat for Humanity,
IFC Community Kitchen,

Happy holidays to you and yours, and our entire community.
— Nancy Oates

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