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

Make time for budget talks

We need to talk — council members with one another and with key staff. By the end of June, we Nancy Oateshope to pass a budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which starts July 1, and we still haven’t had those all-important discussions about the best way to spend taxpayers’ financial resources. Guaranteed we won’t agree on spending priorities. Think how hard it is to work out with your spouse the best use of household funds. These talks take time, and we haven’t started.

Council has had several budget work sessions, dating back to the beginning of the calendar year. But those sessions consist only of PowerPoint presentations by various departments. We have asked the department heads questions about alternate funding sources, revenue fluctuations and speculation of future costs, but we have not done any long-term planning or strategized about how to maintain or enhance quality of life and what priorities must be shifted to get where we want to go.

For instance, the manager has recommended a 3.5% across-the-board pay raise for town employees. However, that will widen the wealth gap. A 3.5% increase would raise the pay of a $30,000-a-year worker to only $31,050, while a $150,000 worker would be bumped up to $155,250. Legally, all government employees must be treated equally when it comes to pay (though the state seems to have found some workarounds). Why not spend the same aggregate amount as the 3.5% raise by giving a dollar-figure raise instead? Every employee might get a $2,000 raise, say — part-timers’ increase would be pro-rated — which would benefit low-paid employees more than high-paid workers, yet everyone would be treated the same.

On another issue, a council member suggested spending $8,000 to replace signs along MLK Jr. Boulevard that omitted “Historic Airport Road” in small letters under the street name. We could wait a year on that project and instead spend $7,000 restoring the community swimming pool hours. Three days a week were cut from the schedule 7 years ago due to the recession. Swimmers want them back, now that the economy is recovering.

In the area of human services spending, some of us believe that Kidzu should not be rewarded for once again missing the funding request deadline. Last year, council granted Kidzu’s request of $10,000, even though the children’s playspace had missed the funding application deadline. Kidzu wants another $10,000 this year but again busted deadline. Given that the town’s Housing Advisory Board denied a funding request by Empowerment because the minority-run affordable rental agency did not turn in a complete application by deadline, council would have some ’splaining to do if we applied different rules to Kidzu.

And we’re still awaiting information on the budget for consultants.

All of these things and more need to be hashed out publicly. The final budget work session scheduled for tonight has been cancelled because the town manager believes the budget is in good shape.

But, really, we need to talk.
— Nancy Oates

Add to pre-vacation to-do list: Vote

Your vote in the June 7 primary for N.C. Supreme Court candidates Nancy Oatesmatters more than you might think. The seven-judge panel at present has four Republicans and three Democrats, and their votes on civil rights and quality-of-life issues have followed party lines.

The top-two vote-getters in the June 7 primary will vie for the seat now held by Robert Edmunds, a Republican who voted to overturn the state law preventing taxpayer funding of school vouchers. Thus, public tax dollars now subsidize children going to private and religious schools, draining funds that would otherwise go to benefit all public school students. Edmunds also wrote the majority decision to uphold gerrymandered voter redistricting maps that have been challenged in federal court. In fact, the reason we are having a June primary is because a federal panel found two of the 12 congressional districts had redrawn maps that showed unconstitutional racial bias.

Edmunds recused himself from the vote on allowing judicial incumbents to remain in office unless at least half of the voters want the incumbent judge out of office. No one could file to run against the incumbent unless that set percentage of voters first voted to oust the incumbent. The three judges on the state Superior Court were unanimous in finding that law to violate the state constitution. The state Supreme Court heard the appeal, and with Edmunds not voting, the court split 6-6 along party lines, not sufficient to overturn the Superior Court ruling. So the retention-election law was voided.

Edmunds wants to hold onto his seat. He faces three challengers: two registered Democrats and one registered as unaffiliated. The Democratic Party has endorsed Mike Morgan, a Wake County Superior Court judge for the past decade who also has experience as a Wake County District Court judge, an administrative law judge and an assistant attorney general. The other Democrat, Daniel Robertson, and the unaffiliated Sabra Faires both were motivated to run for office by the N.C. General Assembly adopting a law that the Superior Court unanimously determined was unconstitutional.

Early voting has begun already. The Seymour Center on Homestead Road is open this Tuesday through Friday (May 31-June 3) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the Board of Elections in Hillsborough opens at 9 a.m. those days. Both sites are open Saturday, June 4, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Remember to bring your valid government-issued photo ID. You may register to vote during early voting but not on Election Day.

The Republican ballot also asks voters to select a challenger to U.S. Rep. David Price.
– Nancy Oates

Do-good discount

You get what you incentivize, or so hopes Todd Neal, a Northside Nancy Oateslandlord. Neal sees the benefit of having more people in the neighborhood who care about the community. To attract those civic-minded tenants, he is offering a rent discount of up to $50 a month to tenants who will volunteer up to 6 hours a month at St. Joseph’s food bank, across the street from one of his properties.

Neal said his goal is to create a tighter relationship and better mutual understanding between student and non-student residents.

Over the past several years, Northside has been losing the battle to remain a family neighborhood. Northside is the historically black neighborhood whose residents in years past provided the manual labor needed to keep the university and hospital functioning — laundresses, groundskeepers, cleaning staff, orderlies, and other modestly paid positions. But over time, as Northside homeowners retired, moved away or died, they or their heirs often sold their homes to investors who rented the compact homes to students.

Landlords found they could increase their profits by renting by the bedroom, which caters to students, than by the house, which fits families better. Thus a three-bedroom, one-bath house that in any other neighborhood might rent for about $1,000 to $1,500 a month would rent for $1,800 to $2,400 a month at the going rate of $600 to $800 a bedroom.

As the mother of two former college students, I’m not going to issue a blanket criticism of student behavior. Some students are loaded down with responsibilities and take their commitments seriously. Others are exploring the limits of their freedom for the first time in college and don’t think about how their actions affect others. Northside residents have had to contend with more than their share of long, loud parties, more parked cars than there are spaces to park them and trash piled near, rather than in, trash receptacles.

Neal hopes other landlords will pick up on his marketing idea. He’d love to see a volunteer workforce of, say, 50 students connecting with some of the need for mentors, tutors and other service work at the Jackson Center and neighborhood nonprofits and churches. Right now his offer is only for prospective tenants in his two vacant properties, but he may extend the deal to some current tenants. As the discount comes out of his profit, he has to work out the details as he rolls out the program. He says he is open to ideas.

The deal is a win-win-win: His offer appeals to more civic-minded, responsible students who presumably will treat his rental property with respect. More serious students moving in leaves less room for hard-partiers. The neighborhood benefits from a small influx of young people interested in contributing to the community.
– Nancy Oates

What makes a house historic?

Last week, the Historic District Commission reluctantly pulled the plug Nancy Oateson a house in the Gimghoul Historic District by approving a request by the owners of 704 Gimghoul to demolish the home.

The couple had purchased the house in March 2015 and had come to the HDC with a plan to make it live better for them — adding a main-floor master’s suite so they could age in place and adding space so they could entertain easier. The HDC approved the plan in August, pleased to usher this home, built in the 1920s, into a new generation.

But the estimates for the renovations came in double what the couple expected, so they returned to the HDC asking for permission to tear down the historic house and build a new one in keeping with the neighborhood.

Yet even if the owners were to build an exact replica of the original house, it would not be historic. It would be beautiful; it would fit in with its neighbors; but it would chip away at what is both a National Register historic neighborhood and a local one.

The HDC essentially had no choice but to approve the demolition. Had they denied the request, state law allows the owners to wait a year, then tear it down. The commission decided it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to ask the owners to pay for an engineering report to document that the house was structurally unsound, nor to allow the house, which is vacant, to deteriorate into a neighborhood eyesore for a year, given that it was inevitable the owners would tear it down.

Such situations illustrate the pressure Historic District commissioners face in their decisions. Many historic homes are in very desirable, expensive neighborhoods. These days, buyers of historic properties have to be well off financially, and the wealthy often live differently than the rest of us. They entertain large groups frequently, for instance, and want more interior space and outdoor living space for entertaining; they want extra parking, fences for security and outbuildings for guests.

Often the buyers of these homes are well-known in town, perhaps are well-connected and may have made significant contributions to the community. They may have worked hard all their lives and now are in a position to afford their dream home. That makes it all the harder for the HDC to have to turn down requests for expansion and renovation that change the character of the historic property.

Historic District commissioners bring nuance and balance to their work. They are protecting something intangible that goes beyond cost and design. They preserve structures that carry the story of our community from the past, through the present and into the future.

Especially as our town grows and changes, we rely on those preservationists to escort us from who we were to who we will become.
– Nancy Oates