Town should move forward with Lot 5
Monday's upcoming vote by the Chapel Hill Town Council on whether to authorize the manager to negotiate a contract for the redevelopment of Lot 5 has led to a high level of public dialogue about the project. A recent public hearing drew 22 speakers on the proposal, and the debate has continued in meetings, letters to the editor and the blogosphere.The level of interest is not surprising considering the active citizenry we have in this community and the importance of the decision. Nonetheless it is always heartening to see so many people take an interest in the future of our town.
I think the project is exactly what downtown Chapel Hill needs.
Chapel Hill voters have repeatedly supported candidates who are averse to sprawl and support the rural buffer. You can count me in that camp. But the town still needs to grow.
That means dense housing needs to be built somewhere. But at the same time many neighborhoods close to downtown have recently sought protections to ensure that their character is preserved as the town grows larger. I sympathize with their concerns as well.
I was somewhat horrified to hear a speaker suggest at the public hearing two weeks ago that this project should be pushed back to Northside. That kind of gentrification could truly be disastrous to the neighborhood.
So downtown clearly is the most appropriate place for this kind of development. One of its key goals is to attract folks who are transit- and pedestrian-oriented, and will have less of an emphasis on the car.
Some folks have criticized this approach, saying that the lack of a downtown grocery store and the ability of other basic retail needs to be met downtown will make it futile.
But when it comes to businesses that meet folks' core daily needs locating downtown, the adage from "Field of Dreams" clearly applies -- if you build it, they will come.
Those kinds of businesses don't set up shop downtown because the level of population density is not enough to support their existence. But if this project was built, it, combined with the housing developments built or slated for Rosemary Street, would likely increase the population enough that it would become a desirable location for a grocery store and significant retail.
Some folks have criticized the financial aspects of the deal, but the voices I heard in favor of it at the recent public hearing put those concerns to rest for me.
One affirmative speaker was Anita Badrock, the chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce (although she was speaking as an individual). Business leaders usually aren't inclined to support something if they think it's a potential boondoggle.
Another speaker in favor was my Planning Board colleague Gene Pease, who has been a citizen leader in fighting for responsible municipal budgeting. He's also a national expert in return on investment, and if he says this is a good one for the town he's probably right.
He was joined in support by Roger Perry, a UNC trustee and respected leader in the local business community. I'm no business major, but if these folks think it's a good deal, that's good enough for me.
Delaying the approval of the project is not a good idea, either. Bottom line, the longer you wait on things, the more expensive they get. We've been working on this project for years. It's time to move forward.
With all the bumps that have happened along the way, this project could have easily been abandoned, which would have been a big waste of time and money. Kudos to the negotiating team, chaired by Bill Strom with support from Sally Greene and Cam Hill, for their work to get the town the best deal possible. When the three of them ran in 2003, this was an issue they all promised to work on, and it's always nice to see elected leaders who keep their word.
On a personal note, one of the reasons I love this project is that I would like to live in it myself.
I don't own a car and I commute by TTA to work in Raleigh every day. Lot 5 is about two minutes away from where I pick up the bus. It would be great to be able to walk right out of my house, catch the bus, and then come home at night and meet my daily needs within walking distance of my condo.
Right now there's nowhere that meets both the niceness and affordability criteria I would need to see to live on Franklin or Rosemary Street.
Certainly the ability to buy any significant number of groceries downtown is not currently being met.
The Lot 5 development is a strong means toward that end. I hope that when the Chapel Hill Town Council takes up this issue Monday night, it moves forward with a unanimous vote to show its strong commitment to a more vibrant downtown.