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Living on the Edge

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     The Edge 

Will “The Edge” be another missed opportunity for Chapel Hill and another bailout for developers? On the evening of February 23rd, the Mayor and Town Council resoundingly answered “yes”.  After expressing their dislike for various aspects of the proposed project, the Council members all held their collective noses and voted to approve it. By doing so without first nailing down key elements of the project, such as provision of affordable housing and how much subsidy the Town will deliver, our elected officials have again given away all the leverage they had to get community benefits for the Town.

Perhaps this capitulation might be forgiven if the Edge were going to create something truly special for Chapel Hill, but that doesn’t appear to be in the offing. The design guidelines for the project include some schematic illustrations of possible development scenarios. The overwhelming sense one gets from looking at these illustrations is that the Edge is basically going to be a giant parking lot.

For more than a year Council members, staff, and others have lectured us on how unattractive, wasteful, and passé this form of development is, and that it was therefore necessary to transform the “ocean” of parking lots in Ephesus-Fordham into a more dense, walkable urban environment. It appears, however, that last night our elected officials, at staff’s urging, voted to create in Northern Chapel Hill exactly the kind of auto-centric suburban development that they found so abhorrent in Ephesus-Fordham. A big disappointment all around.

Below is the Living on the Edge article that appeared in the CHALT January-February newsletter.

In late January the Town Council resumed its discussion of a project that has been trying to get off the ground for eight years now. The 53-acre site under consideration, on Eubanks Road just off Martin Luther King Blvd. and I-40, has always been regarded as a prime location for increasing the commercial tax base. And as everyone knows, the town needs more commercial tax revenue. Yet even a commerce-friendly council couldn’t help noticing the flaws in the most recent proposal by developer Northwood Ravin.

For starters, Northwood Ravin appears to be trying to craft its own definition of a special use permit (SUP). By definition, a SUP includes a site plan that gives predictability to what will be built. But Northwood Ravin says it needs 33 zoning variances for “flexibility” to make The Edge up to 75 percent residential – that’s a third more residential than the current ordinance would permit. Northwood Ravin’s spokesman also declined to commit to any particular styles or types of building, saying the company would need to wait and see what kinds of tenants they could attract.

As for affordable housing, a pressing need in Chapel Hill, the company said it could not guarantee any affordable housing, but would set aside land for five years or more, for as many as 50 units of affordable housing, and apply for state grant funding. If during the specified time period the funding failed to materialize, neither would affordable units, nor any payments-in-lieu.

Here’s another serious problem: On the eastern half of the property, an intermittent stream and a perennial stream fall inside the Resource Conservation District. The RCD provides critical environmental protection for our water supply. Northwood Ravin wants permission to regrade this site, locate storm-water facilities alongside the stream, and reserve the area for future commercial development. Setting this precedent would likely encourage other applicants to demand equal treatment.

To their credit, council members have greeted Northwood Ravin’s various excuses and complaints with skepticism. To the claim that it would be hard to attract a big-box retailer because the site is not visible from I-40, at least one council member pointed out that neither is Southpoint – and that hasn’t stopped shoppers from beating a path to the popular mall. Other shopping areas, Cary Town Center, Crossroads, and Crabtree Mall all are similarly “challenged,” yet their success has not been affected.

Northwood Ravin also complained that it would be hard to attract big chains because they’ve already gone elsewhere and don’t want to cannibalize their other stores. The Planning Commission heard the same reasoning from the developers of Weaver Crossing just down the road.

So what about recreation and green space, also high on the town’s list of priorities? Northwood Ravin’s offer to reserve 10,000 square feet for open space, from a total of 2.3 million square feet, should fail to inspire confidence.

In an ominous late development, the town staff is now recommending using a development agreement (DA) for the Edge, in addition to the SUP, to negotiate significant issues, including a request that Chapel Hill contribute over $1 million for planned road improvements. Council members must bear in mind that if they approve a SUP before this issue and others are settled, their negotiating power will be lost.

The Edge does not deliver what Chapel Hill says it needs or wants – significant commercial development just off of the I-40 corridor. Northwood Ravin is asking for major concessions with no guarantees of success if they get them. It’s not a winning hand for the council – unless they refuse to play cards.

Del Snow, the former two-term chair of the town’s advisory Planning Board, lives in Chapel Hill.

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