What, me worry?

I’m at that age where I repeat myself. For more than a year and a half, I’ve been Nancy Oatesnagging Town Council members to fix the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code so that we can repay the $10 million loan we took out for improvements to the area. Bear in mind, we put up Town Hall as collateral.

Now I’m on Town Council, and I’m still yipping at my colleagues to plug the loopholes so the end result will match our vision of a walkable, revenue-generating area. With Ram Realty Services, a national developer of apartment complexes, buying a large chunk of Village Plaza earlier this month, 68,000 square feet of buildings housing independent businesses abutting Alexan luxury apartments, my anxiety has risen. Last year, Ram Realty bought Pavilion East, a mixed-use complex in Durham, and now is replacing it with 263 apartments.

Because Town Council in May 2014 approved a form-based code for development in Ephesus-Fordham that did not specify building use, Ram can build whatever it wants, so long as it does not exceed the building envelope limits. And because there is so much profit in high-end apartments, real estate investors flock to that choice.

But the town’s business management director, Ken Pennoyer, says not to worry. In his response to my email, he pointed out that he based his revenue projections in years 0-4 (we are now in year 3) on 82% of the new development being residential. Right now it is at 89%, not enough of an increase for him to worry. In his presentation to council on March 24, 2014, he anticipated 23,000 square feet of retail during that Phase 1. So far the only retail has been single-story businesses that have replaced existing single-story businesses, so that’s a wash. But we still have another year.

In his March 2014 presentation, Pennoyer laid out three revenue scenarios: low, medium and high. Given that as soon as the Alexan apartment building was approved in December 2014 its property value projections plummeted 20% below the estimates presented before it was approved (see Jan. 12, 2015, Chapel Hill Watch post “Roj Mahal”), I’d go with the low projections at this point. The low-revenue scenario would cost taxpayers money from this point until fiscal year 2034, at which point it would break even.

Even so, Pennoyer doesn’t believe that portends a tax increase for town residents. In his email last week, Pennoyer said, “In the unlikely event that the property tax increment is not enough to pay the loan, the Debt Fund has sufficient fund balance to cover any short-fall.”

The original assumption was that the expected 2.2 million square feet of redevelopment on the 190 acres of Ephesus-Fordham would yield more than 900,000 square feet of retail, office and hotel space.

Let’s hope by year 5 I won’t still be repeating myself.
— Nancy Oates

The Deciders

Recently I asked the town manager for an organizational flow chart of town staff Nancy Oatesthat would show who was in charge of what. I received 18 pages of charts in response, most of which broke out the hierarchy of positions in each department. The collection led off, however, with a master chart of management levels. The very top box, identifying the boss of all bosses, read: “Citizens of Chapel Hill.”

It did my heart good to see that the town manager, if not others, understands for whom we work.

Since our last regularly scheduled council meeting at the end of June, I’ve had time to reflect on my first “season” as a public servant. I’ve thought about how Mayor Pam Hemminger’s collaborative leadership has succeeded in getting people to talk with one another and come up with solutions. Much of her work has been outside the limelight, and I’ve been impressed by how much progress she has midwifed on long-stalled projects because she doesn’t calculate whether she gets credit for the delivery.

I’ve noticed that when council members focus on whose turn it is to be in the spotlight, the decisions we make are less likely to be in the best interest of the community. And when the office politics of town staff join the mix, we move even further from our goals of representing the public and ensuring the community’s vision becomes reality.

Of course, the community does not have one united vision. But I have heard points of agreement from disparate sources: lower our taxes; educate our children well; reduce traffic jams; provide places to park close to businesses we frequent; don’t flood our houses; preserve the trees that make our town beautiful, and save enough public greenspace that even the non-rich can enjoy nature.

Everything beyond that requires a cost-benefit analysis. Do we hanker for sidewalks enough to buy them? What will we cut to afford them? Are we willing to pay for an arts center, or put the money toward culverts sufficiently large to protect against flooding? What benefit is great enough to ignore our ordinances for affordable housing or against building in stream buffers? What is a luxury, and what a necessity?

Those questions can’t be answered by town staff or outside consultants or Town Council. The final decisions rest with the “citizens of Chapel Hill.”
— Nancy Oates


You might expect a low turnout for an event scheduled at the end of a hot day, toward the end Nancy Oatesof a week of hundred-degree days, in a warehouse venue with only a hint of air-conditioning. But as Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Last Thursday, the anteroom of TOPO Distillery was crammed full, many of the people young and most of them male, with solutions to problems that others might pay them to solve. The July 2016 class of Launch Chapel Hill presented their ideas to a crowd that perhaps included potential employees, investors and customers.

Take a look at the latest class:

How can you make money from your videos if Facebook and YouTube take as much as 80% of your ad revenue? If you’re a sponsor of those videos, how do you keep from annoying customers who get irked by being forced to watch your ads? The founders of Bidio created a platform that flips the traditional model through a real-time auction system in which people choose to watch ads. Bidio collects only an 8% commission. Find out more at www.bidio.co (that’s not a typo).

Jury-X is a data services firm that helps civil litigation lawyers pick a jury that might be inclined to decide in their favor. To contact the founders, go to www.jury-x.com.

Are your data so thoroughly encrypted that even you can’t edit in real time? Papirys offers a blockchain-enabled database as a workaround, letting you modify, analyze and transmit information without sacrificing security. See www.papirys.com to learn more.

A rule-follower’s dream, Roof has come up with an app that nags roommates without that frustrated, whiny tone. For cohabitants who share expenses, chores or rent payments, Roof’s app sends reminders and keeps everyone apprised of who has paid what or owes what or has fallen off schedule with chores. Visit www.roof.io, for the amusing blog posts, if nothing else.

Think Pandora for clothes. Shopagon uses artificial intelligence to learn your clothing style based on the way you shop online. Then it suggests items you may like. No website yet.

To help physical therapists do more good in a day, and to enable patients to see the gain from their pain, Virtual Kinetics uses a cell phone camera to automate routine clinic processes and show patients how much progress they’ve made. No website yet.

WalletFi keeps track of your recurring charges on your credit card. The mobile app saves time and angst should your credit card get lost or stolen, forcing you to cancel the account and open a new one. WalletFi updates the billing information with your new card number. Soon, www.walletfi.com will have more information.

That some of the new businesses launched have yet to set up websites plays up the need Chapel Hill has for an Infrastructure-as-a-Service firm. An IaaS firm acts as a complete IT department that can be leased by companies, especially the startups and entrepreneurial spinouts endemic to a university town such as ours. If you have ideas of how to recruit one, let the town’s economic development officer, Dwight Basset, know.
— Nancy Oates

Cultural Arts comes off the bench

With the burgeoning list of needs for our town — sidewalks, buses, housing options for Nancy Oatespeople who work in some of the lower-paid jobs in town — spending taxpayer money on art seemed a low priority to me. Then I sat next to Jeffrey York, the town’s public and cultural arts administrator, at the advisory board appreciation breakfast, and I learned that the town’s arts program goes beyond biodegradable sculptures and $400,000 benches and has a division that handles cultural arts programming.

The money for public art — statues, murals, benches and the like — comes from the Percent for Art program, in which 1% of capital improvement projects must be devoted to public art. Cultural arts programming is paid for out of a portion of the Parks & Recreation budget and grants and private sponsorships. This past year the public arts division worked with young people in the community to produce two books.

Some years back, a coalition that included the Strowd Roses Foundation, the U.S. Department of Refugee Resettlement and the Orange County Partnership for Children, among others, started working with Karen (Burmese) youth. One of the products of this work is a 40-page illustrated book about farming, a common Karen vocation, written in Karen and English. Nine Karen teens did the photography and drawings and translated Karen idioms. The book helps Karen families sharpen their English and introduces North Carolinians to the Karen produce grown in Transplanting Traditions Farm at 2912 Jones Ferry Road.

For the past two years, local artists have been providing meals and transportation to the farm, as well as lessons in art, photography and English.

The book, titled Transplanting Traditions, was published in May.

In a separate project, the cultural arts division partnered with PORCH for the first six months of 2016 to work with 30 preteens from the Rogers Road neighborhood and Smith Middle School’s English-as-a-Second-Language program to create a book called Planting Hope. The children’s book is illustrated with fabric collages that local artists taught the youth to make. A local children’s book author helped the kids polish the text.

Both projects came about through Into the Streets, in which the cultural arts division calls artists to work with groups underserved by art. Contact the Arts Commission if you are an artist with a proposal and would like to work with a particular target group.

I like how the cultural arts program plants the seed in youngsters that a career in the arts is a legitimate profession. With the current state governor and legislature wanting to turn universities into vocational training schools rather than places that teach people to think critically and deeply, we need a counterpunch to underscore how art and cultural arts enrich our lives and make us more fully human.

You can purchase Transplanting Traditions for $20 a copy plus $1.50 tax at FRANK Gallery and Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Add it to your summer reading list. Look forward to Planting Hope, which will be published later this fall.
— Nancy Oates


How often do we hear the community — the people who live here or have businesses here or Nancy Oatesotherwise spend money here — tout the virtues of walkability? Some of us on council are pushing for creating a more walkable town by advocating for shorter block size (300 feet, tops) for new developments, more sidewalks and extended greenway, a realistic and usable bike and pedestrian plan, and a bus system that gets people where they want to go when they want to get there.

Walkability will stay top-of-mind as I review development and redevelopment proposals. After hearing some of the plans for downtown, I want to make sure a key component doesn’t get lost. I am advocating for loafability.

Even the most self-disciplined among us need a mental and physical break during the workday. Particularly people who work long stints indoors need to be able to step outside for a little while and leave work challenges behind. And why must tourists who want to stop for a moment and soak in the charm of Downtown Chapel Hill have to do so standing up on hot cement?

If we want to draw business downtown, we need to sprinkle in pleasant places to sit. Some years back, the town removed many of the benches along Franklin Street for fear that indigent people would get too comfortable. But the plan backfired: The indigent perch on planters or spread out on the sidewalk, and paying customers have to keep walking with no place to pause.

We had an opportunity for a loafable space at 140 West. Instead, the owners paved it over and installed a misting metal sculpture with no place to sit. To comply with our 1% for Art ordinance, 140 West owners have spent some of the money on bands to perform on the plaza. Rarely do they have much of an audience. The plaza was not designed to linger.

Carolina Square, while seeking approval from council, spoke of a green public gathering space in its courtyard. Now that construction has begun, the owners have decided to fill up the space with a very large sculpture instead.

Downtown*, with its many old buildings and independent businesses, offers many reasons to linger but no places to do so. As downtown changes with the times, let’s make sure to increase its loafability quotient.

*The Chapel Hill Parking Service has made it easier to visit downtown this month. During July, enjoy two hours of free on-street parking on Saturdays. If downtown merchants report an uptick in business on Saturdays in July, the town might consider extending the freebie. Come downtown and do your part.
— Nancy Oates

Discretionary Zoning

Listen to Raleigh’s city attorney, Tom McCormick:Nancy Oates

“It is important to remember that when making a zoning decision, the council must consider all potential uses in a proposed district and cannot make a decision based on one specific use.”

McCormick said council members have “wide discretion” in deciding whether to rezone a property for a particular use, The News & Observer reported.

His remarks came in response to Raleigh’s city council debating whether to rezone a lot in a residential neighborhood to allow a one-story office building to be used by anti-abortion activists. The site is next to a women’s health clinic that performs abortions. When city council turned down the request, some citizens accused the council of playing politics. But in light of McCormick’s remarks, it sounds like council was doing its job.

Making room for an activist organization to set up shop next door to the target of its wrath would make life miserable for residents who have invested their life savings in homes that should be a sanctuary for them.

Good for city council for acting in the best interests of the community.

Chapel Hill faces situations with similar underpinnings. One is the sale of the American Legion property. The veterans organization received an offer from a prospective buyer for more than twice the land’s appraised value, providing that the parcel can be rezoned to allow a large apartment complex. Town residents have come up with many ideas of how they would like to see the land used instead of more apartments. Council members also have voiced ideas for alternative uses, and no council member has spoken in favor of the site being redeveloped into apartments. Thus, a handful of other town residents are accusing council of trying to deny the American Legion the opportunity to make an eye-watering profit.

Across the road from the American Legion property, another developer has proposed building a similar apartment complex on what used to be the Volvo dealership. That parcel, however, is in the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code district, which has been rezoned already for building size but not building use. A previous council gave up the authority to have any say in the type of development in Ephesus-Fordham, and now we are learning why that was a mistake.

A previous Town Council approved a $10 million loan for road improvements in Ephesus-Fordham and to spruce up Town Hall, with the idea that the increased property tax revenue from all the new development that would rush in if council couldn’t interfere would repay the loan. The previous council envisioned high-rise office buildings with ground-floor retail. Instead, all we’ve gotten are apartment buildings and a few one-story buildings to replace existing one-story buildings. That won’t be sufficient to repay the loan, and taxpayers are looking at another property tax hike down the road.

Council’s job is to make decisions that benefit the community as a whole. When we cede that discretion to what’s in the best interest only of developers or when we give up our authority to influence the kind of development that would be most beneficial to the community, we aren’t doing our jobs.

— Nancy Oates

Fireworks at stadium, not council meeting

Viewers expecting fireworks at the last Town Council meeting of the 2015-16 season turned offNancy Oates their TVs and computers disappointed. Though we had reserved time on June 29 for a spillover meeting should we not finish our agenda before the hour grew too late, the June 27 meeting got over comparatively early, thanks in part to a council member anxious to leave who made discussion-truncating motions almost as soon as each topic came up.

But the rest of us didn’t seem to have the heart for the detailed discussions we’ve had frequently. I sensed we were just too tired. The bickering and smack-downs and behind-the-scenes maneuverings have been particularly intense of late, and our progress has been hard won.

And we continued to make progress, even in our depleted state last week. For one thing, we passed a sign ordinance that will benefit consumers and business owners alike. Basically, we allowed for larger signs and more variety, though we still won’t allow any digital scrolls.

We approved a rezoning to allow Bell Leadership Institute to build an oversized addition in a historic district. The business had threatened to pack up its well-paid jobs and leave town if it didn’t get what it wanted. The irony was not lost on any of us that an organization specializing in leadership stooped to threats to get its way. Then again, it worked.

The oddest moment came when we approved unanimously a block size limit for Ephesus-Fordham that was longer than what at least half of us wanted. Council has been clear all along that E-F is to be a walkable community. But staff argued instead for 660-foot-long blocks (600 feet plus 10% at the manager’s discretion). No one on staff had a reason for the long blocks, but staff stuck to that length despite the objections of advisory boards and council members. When town manager Roger Stancil proposed a 400-foot length, with another 10% at his discretion and up to 600 feet if applicants and staff could strong-arm the Community Design Commission, we, all of us, dutifully said, “Aye.”

I rationalized my vote as at least putting in place a minor limit to block size for applications that come in over the summer. But I have since suffered buyer’s remorse that we squandered a chance to make E-F a place that serves the community better.

Finally, we made some appointments to advisory boards. Some of us tried to fill all of the vacancies, but other council members reverted to voting for or against a candidate based on whether they “liked” the applicant, thus interfering with the likelihood that an applicant would get the necessary five votes. Unsavory as that strategy is, like the Bell Leadership tactic, it worked.

For real fireworks, go to Kenan Stadium on July 4. Gates open and music begins at 7 p.m.; pyrotechnics start at 9:30. Free, though donations gladly accepted to ensure we have fireworks next year.
— Nancy Oates

‘We’re moving too fast’

Every Town Council member should be required to watch a video of one of our council meetings. Nancy OatesWe’d be mortified by our pettiness.

I missed the June 20 meeting because I was part of a church polity updating positions on such issues as the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community, interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the efficacy of divesting from fossil fuel corporations. We held passionate and diverse views, yet for the most part we conducted our debates “decently and in order.”

Then I returned to Town Council, where at our June 27 meeting, the group devolved into power struggles over what time to start our six work sessions next fiscal year and whether to vote on receiving and referring petitions.

One of Mayor Pam Hemminger’s first initiatives after taking office was to create a process for taking action on and tracking petitions so the concerns the community brings us are resolved. Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, yet Sally Greene fretted, “We’re moving too fast!”

That sentiment explains much of the puzzling behavior of some council members. A few weeks ago, Donna Bell balked at the proposal that council discuss a way to compensate staff that helps close the wealth gap. Then Greene, Bell, Michael Parker and Maria Palmer boycotted the vote to fill a vacancy on the Community Design Commission, leaving the commission with an even number of members and vulnerable to tie votes that stall progress.

This week, along with her motion to require a vote before receiving and referring petitions, Bell insisted we revert to starting work sessions at 6 p.m., instead of 7, despite that posing a hardship for council members and constituents who work traditional hours or want to have dinner with their families. (Jess Anderson suggested a compromise – start at 6:30 – which we agreed to try.)

Change is hard for many of us. But council members need to keep in mind that we serve the public. The summer away from one another may give us room to reorient ourselves to that notion, and maybe grow up a bit.
— Nancy Oates

Ask the experts

Lead, follow, or get out of the way. When it comes to working on the problem of not enough Nancy Oatesaffordable housing, town and county elected officials would do well to choose Door #3.

At the joint board meeting of county commissioners and Town Council members on June 2, county commissioner Bernadette Pelissier suggested forming a task force to encourage towns and county to work together on supplying affordable housing, or at least not duplicate efforts. Unfortunately, county staff proposed that the function be taken on by the Home Consortium, a group of four elected officials: a council member from Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, an alderman from Carrboro and a commissioner from Orange County.

Not that these four women don’t mean well, but they don’t know as much as someone who has made a profession out of trying to increase the supply of affordable housing.

A passion is not the same as a profession. I’ve been championing the need for safe, affordable housing ever since my first apartment – a five-flight walk-up in a vermin-infused tenement in a high-crime area – and I’ve been researching and writing about real estate and the housing industry for almost 20 years. Yet every time I talk with someone from Community Home Trust or CASA or Habitat for Humanity, I learn something I didn’t know before. Which makes sense. Passion is no substitute for expertise. No elected official could possibly know as much as someone who deals with all aspects of affordable housing, all day, every day, and has for years.

Ideally, we need to convene a group of directors of affordable housing nonprofits who handle rentals as well as owner-occupied units, and invite some developers of workforce housing and some relevant county and municipal staff members in charge of their government’s affordable housing. Most important, we need to include a real estate lawyer. Let’s sit them down together and see what they come up with.

Elected officials would be in charge of finding the money to implement this group’s ideas. And, after adopting the group’s strategic plan, we need to follow through on it. Chapel Hill has an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, but so far, only one developer – an out-of-state company with a strong record of philanthropy – has met the zoning ordinance, and that was with a nearly $1 million payment-in-lieu, but no units. A majority of council has voted to give all other developers so far an exemption.

At the joint boards meeting, George Cianciolo noted that every elected official in the room had campaigned on a platform that included affordable housing. But to date, we’ve only come up with band-aids when what we need is a comprehensive care plan.

Thus, I was pleased to learn at our June 13 Town Council meeting that a group of nonprofit directors had approached our town manager, asking to brainstorm with him and relevant staff and come up with a strategic plan that would be presented to elected officials.

With the right folks combining their expertise to problem-solve, then we, as elected officials, can get out of their way. We’ll step up again when it’s time to do our job – approve, fund and clear obstacles to implement.
– Nancy Oates

Shedding stereotypes

If the members of the political salon that organized the panel discussion had wanted to set up Nancy OatesSunday afternoon’s event at Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist as a game-show spoof, they had all the elements. First the title: “Straight Talk With Real Muslims.” Then the cast: two hijab-wearing women, one black and one white; a redneck man raised in Mississippi; a red-headed woman raised a Southern Baptist; two swarthy men, one middle-age, the other college-age. The emcee was a blond woman who looked suspiciously Midwestern.

If we in the audience had to pick out the “real” Muslims, we would have fared poorly. All of the people on stage were Muslim, diligent in the practice of their faith.

The program aimed to raise awareness of our stereotypes and prejudices and to distinguish media archetypes from actual people. As panelist Muad Hrezi, a Carolina alumnus preparing for med school, said: “I turn on Fox News and see Muslims as wild suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their chests, and I’d be afraid, too.”

The discussion took place only hours after we learned of the mass murder of at least 50 people in a gay bar, with more than 50 others critically injured, reportedly by a man who professed allegiance to the Islamic State who was upset after seeing two men kissing. Hrezi said when he heard the news, he braced himself for another period of having to defend the Muslim faith.

Panelist Tanzeel Chohan, a teacher who wears a hijab, recalled how people reacted to her on 9/11. She had to defend her beliefs and all other Muslims, too, she said. “And I still have to, 15 years later.”

Emcee Krista Bremer, author of My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story, urged the audience to lay aside political correctness and ask what was in our hearts. Questions ranged from “What is the Muslim stance on apostasy, blasphemy and secularism?” to “What is the difference between muslim [lowercase], Muslim [uppercase] and Islam?” to “How can you condemn the shootings in the gay bar when Islam preaches against homosexuality?”

The answers varied, because the panelists all had different experiences and viewpoints. In addition to Hrezi and Chohan, the panel was composed of Nsenga Knight, an artist from an Afro-Caribbean family in Brooklyn; Deonna Kelli Sayed, who wrote The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women; Shane Atkinson, a ball cap-wearing hospital chaplain and imam; and Dr. Mohammed Abu-Salha, a psychiatrist whose daughters and son-in-law were killed last year in Chapel Hill because they were Muslim.

I hope all of us in the audience realized by the time we left that Muslim extremists don’t represent all Muslims anymore than Christian extremists represent all the varied sects of Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism. As Dr. Abu-Salha said, “Your faith is how you treat people.”
— Nancy Oates