Supporting Leaders Who Listen

Has Ephesus-Fordham Achieved Its Purpose?

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September 2017 update

Berkshire Apartments, a.k.a Alexan before it was sold,  was the first project permitted under the new Chapel Hill fast track approval process known as the form-based code adopted by the Town Council in May, 2014. This project sits on just one parcel of what is a 180 acre district planned for redevelopment.

Now this first project is complete, it is a good time evaluate how well the Ephesus-Fordham (E-F)  redevelopment plan measures up to the Town Goals it was meant to achieve. (The district was recently renamed “Blue Hill”.)

The Town Council’s announced purpose to rezone was to: (1) improve the local revenues, and to (2) create a transit friendly area that would provide pleasant walking experience, a mix of commercial uses, upper story residences and offices, bike paths and sidewalk cafes.

The vision for the zone was first developed with some public input through several visioning workshops with residents and business owners that began in July 2010. The community vision was memorialized in the Small Area Plan adopted by the Council in 2011. “Human scale” stepped buildings, restaurants and small parks and gathering spaces and excellent transit  characterized this plan. The Town staff assumed that the increased density of people could be accommodated by more transit and road improvements. The Town Council approved the new zone despite the comment from the Town’s budget director stating that “there was no forseeable funds for future transit service”.

This is the picture staff featured at the E-F public hearings. What is happening on Elliott Road (picture above) does not resemble the building heights, the broad sidewalks and inviting greenery pictured here.













Has the product achieved the Council’s stated purposes?

1. Has the project improved our local economy and local business?

The Form-Based Code was intended to stimulate new interest in developing and investing here. There is no doubt that has happened as out of town investors have moved in to take advantage of the relaxed standards and the quick review. Since the zoning change, three parcels have changed hands at least once.

Local retail at risk.

2. Have the road improvements relieved congestion?

3. Is the area more walkable?

Alexan ApartmentsNew projects in E-F are not creating a walkable, pedestrian friendly experience.  Since the Alexan provides no pedestrian pass-through, the route from businesses on the east side of the building to those on the west side—e.g., from Thimble Pleasures to Whole Foods—is a long, unpleasant experience, especially on a hot summer day. The block size of this structure is about 400 feet – too large for good pedestrian mobility. Curbs with narrow sidewalks along the street front of Elliott Road crowd pedestrian travel and the enjoyment of a pleasant walk.

Willow Oaks along ElliottTree canopy has been replaced by concrete and glass. Beautiful mature willow oaks, such as these on the south side of Elliott Road, were cut down on t he north side of the road to make way for the more “urban” streetscape of the Alexan building. The form-based code (FBC) encourages loss of tree cover during redevelopment by permitting construction right up to the property line. How will redevelopment in E-F deliver the tree-lined pedestrian streetscape that residents want if the FBC does not require building setbacks to make that possible?

greenwayA missed opportunity to enhance the Booker Creek greenway.  A replacement greenway pictured here skirts Booker Creek, located just to the left. On the right side of the greenway path will be a new connecting road and the garage and garbage bays of the 90-foot tall Alexan apartments. Those additions will turn what was once a pleasant walk through natural surroundings into an uninspired sidewalk route surrounded by pavement. Booker Creek and the adjacent wooded landscape would have provided a perfect backdrop for a park and an enjoyable public space.


Is the district transit friendly?  Code approved before bikepaths and mobility plan developed.


Code approved before design guidelines developed.  The Alexan has been compared to a beached cruise ship.

Major problems yet to be tackled. These are just a few of the changes we’ve observed on the ground since the Town Council approved the FBC and applied it to the nearly 200 acre E-F district.  The pictures illustrate only a few of the problems that need to be fixed in the FBC.  Other problem that need to be addressed include the lack of affordable housing requirements, lack of incentives for energy efficient construction, and building densities and heights that threaten to overwhelm our infrastructure.


We see at least three barriers to success for improving the FBC.

  • The fragmentation of property ownership in the district restricts opportunities for green space and large scale storm water planning
  • Need for parking coordination across parcels: If every property owner provides exclusive on-site parking, this will cause additional auto congestion and undermine “walkability”
  • Increased height and density, currently allowed “by right,” must be made contingent on provision of affordable housing, energy efficiency and other community benefits.

Central Questions

Will the Council adopt any of the significant changes suggested by the participants, e.g. lower building height (50 ft vs 90 ft), reasonable setbacks, adequate publicly accessible green space in every development, pedestrian/bicycle connectivity (other than street-based sidewalks) between developments, energy efficient construction, stormwater controls, and incentives for affordable housing units?

Of paramount importance to all citizens is this question: what happens between now and when the FBC is “fixed?“ We worry every second of every day that yet another “Alexan” will be approved, or that The Park Apts. will submit their redevelopment application. In fact, some of us have heard that the new owner of the property adjacent to the Alexan wants to construct another building just like it!

Will the minor fixes the Town intends make enough difference for community members feel it worthwhile to engage in this process?  Will the Town Manager and the Project Managers allow the hired experts to make an honest assessment about what needs to be done to really fix the code, so the town staff can begin to rebuild that trust with community members?


A brief history.  In 2014,  the Town Council rezoned 200 acres with the idea the entire area needed a face lift and that redevelopment would bring vitality and new revenues to the town. That belief fails on both counts. The town’s own fiscal analysis raised doubt that rezoning would bring in net revenues and Orange County commissioners expressed similar doubts. Usually developers pay a contribution for affordable housing units, and a % of road improvements for nearby intersections, but this code allowed a free pass.

The Town Council’s vote in June 2014 to approve a new zoning Code did not follow the small area plan or the community vision.  Thousands of residents who depend on this area for needed services became concerned..


The first project under the poorly conceived new district are these luxury apartments built by East West Partners — a massive 90-ft. tall building on South Elliott Road that was approved by Town Manager Roger Stancil on December 31st. The project will include 266 apartments, 15,600 sq. ft. of retail and an attached parking deck. It is the first project to be approved under the form-based code adopted by Town Council for the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment district.

As long as the Form Based Code stays in place as is, there will be no public review and more poorly conceived projects will be approved by the town manager.

Citizens Objections to the Current Code:

  • Too much residential, not enough office, retail and no light industrial space resulting in negative cash flow for at least the first 20 years of the project
  • Not enough green space
  • Limited public gathering site
  • Overly tall buildings allowed
  • No carbon neutral construction required
  • No appreciable affordable housing
  • No additional transit service to serve the development
  • Council has no authority to “plan” anything in the area

Here are some photos of what we think this area could look like. Let’s work together to make this happen!

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