Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why all the fuss over Greenbridge?

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 24th, 2007:

In my day job for the Sierra Club, I work with volunteers from around the state to get local governments to implement green features into their public buildings. It can often be a struggle to get a few compact fluorescent light bulbs here, some LED traffic lights there. Small victories in the public sphere are much celebrated and appreciated, and in the private sector you can pretty much forget about it even though in many cases those improvements actually would save a lot of money further down the line. That's why it's just beyond me that there's been so much hubbub about the proposed Greenbridge development, which is up for approval by the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday night. We have a chance to locate in our downtown what will be one of the most progressive and environmentally responsible buildings in the country.

We have a great opportunity to solidify our community's reputation as a center of innovation, and we should take it.

A brief overview of the cutting-edge features Greenbridge will include are geothermal heating and cooling, a green roof, rain water harvesting and the incorporation of solar energy.

The proposed development is at the corner of Rosemary Street and Merritt Mill Road, on the edge of the Northside neighborhood. The big controversy then, at least in the local newspapers, is a concern that this project will cause damage to the vitality of the African-American community that has long defined that area of town.

The funny thing about that is when the project went to Town Council for a public hearing last month, the only person attacking it from that angle was a white UNC student. Every black person who spoke was in strong support of the project.

Three people's words particularly resonated with me.

One was Mildred "Mama Dip" Council who has operated a business just down the street from the proposed development for years. She said that she doesn't feel threatened by Chapel Hill's growth and that she's "happy to grow with it."

Another was Virginia Mason. An older African-American woman, her late father used to own the property where Greenbridge will be built. She said he would be proud to see such a wonderful project in this location.

The third was Delores Bailey, who has done an outstanding job as the director of Empowerment Inc. over the last few years. I've heard some folks say that the people speaking in favor of Greenbridge at the public hearing might not be representative of the neighborhood and that the council shouldn't move forward until everyone has been polled.

Frankly, you could apply that standard to any project since it is almost universally a minority of folks who go to meetings and speak out.

The fact that Delores, who pours her entire life into these neighborhoods, is supportive is good enough for me.

Maybe something different will happen Monday night but the discourse over Greenbridge so far puts the lie to the concept that this project is some white vs. black thing.

Rather the opposite, the process has brought white and black people together to talk about a vision for the future of downtown Chapel Hill and the Northside neighborhood.

That doesn't happen enough around here and it's a great credit to both the folks planning Greenbridge and neighborhood leaders that it has happened in this case.

One of the main concerns the Town Council had when this project was reviewed last month was that the affordable units weren't all on site.

The Greenbridge team, made up of folks who live in and understand our community, took that concern to heart.

Not only will they all now be part of the Greenbridge development, but extra measures will be taken to ensure that they stay affordable for the long haul. Condo fees will be fixed, and they will be subsidized by a transfer tax on the sale of market-rate units.

It's not enough for a good Chapel Hill development just to be environmentally sustainable. It needs to be socially sustainable, and the extra steps taken to ensure that the affordable units will remain affordable are encouraging.

It is a rare opportunity for a community to have a building designed by William McDonough, named by Time in 1999 as a "Hero for the Planet," anchor an end of its downtown.

In Greenbridge, the Chapel Hill Town Council has an opportunity to approve a building that will serve as a living, breathing monument to our status as the most environmentally advanced community not just in North Carolina but across the southeast.

Let's hope the council will do the right thing on Monday night.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lots of work going into Chapel Hill growth issues

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 17th, 2007:

Last Monday night's Town Council agenda pretty much summed up the amazing number of growth issues happening now in Chapel Hill. There are three developments on the table this month -- Lot 5 and Greenbridge downtown, the Residences at Chapel Hill North in the northwestern part of town, and East 54 on, well, East 54. There are also the issues caused by the large number of proposed developments -- re-evaluations of the comprehensive plan and tree protection ordinance, and a neighborhood conservation district in the Whitehead/Mason Farm area.

When all this stuff is going on, the Town Council and Planning Board (of which I am a member) get a lot of attention, as do the engaged citizens who speak out and make their feelings known.

Who don't get a lot of attention are the folks doing much of the work behind the scenes to make all of this happen. They're probably perfectly happy to keep it that way too, but the Planning Department, under the direction of J.B. Culpepper, deserves some recognition for all the extra work it's doing to keep Chapel Hill moving forward during this hectic period.

A perfect example of this is the work recently done in regards to strengthening the town's Tree Protection Ordinance. The Planning Board, concerned that the current ordinance is not doing enough to maintain the beauty our trees bring to Chapel Hill, decided to create a subcommittee to look at where improvements could be made.

This required staff members to spend a lot of time pulling together information about what other cities across the Southeast are doing. It also resulted in a bunch of extra night meetings for a crew of folks who already spend far too many evenings in Town Hall and away from their families.

There was never the hint of a complaint about this from Culpepper, development coordinator Gene Poveromo, urban forester Curtis Brooks or Emily Cameron of the Public Works Department, though. This process created a lot of extra work for the four of them, but all they cared about was being responsive to citizen concerns about trees in Chapel Hill.

It appears the council will move forward on some major changes, which will help to preserve one of the things folks most value about our community. The Planning Department should be lauded for the work it did to get us to this point.

Culpepper has aptly filled the big shoes left by her predecessor, Roger Waldon. Fortunately, Waldon continues to make a strong contribution to the town as a consultant for neighborhood conservation district processes.

The five NCDs that have commenced in the past year and a half have also been a big time commitment for the Planning Department. While Waldon and his employer, Clarion Associates, have done a lot of the work, it's also put an extra burden on several town staffers, namely Housing and Neighborhood Services Coordinator Loryn Clark and planner Rae Buckley.

NCDs provide a lot of comfort to folks who are worried about the direction their neighborhoods are headed. Their addition to the universe of Chapel Hill planning over the four years has been a very good thing for the town and is doing a lot to preserve the historical character of our community.

But they're also quite a time-consuming process, and while they go on, the normal flow of development applications does not stop. They, like revising the tree ordinance, create a lot more work for town staff. Chapel Hill residents should take a second to show some appreciation for the good things made possible by the hard work ethic of the folks in the Planning Department.

Renee Zimmermann, an administrative clerk in the department, probably best exemplifies how hard everyone in her office has been working lately. During the first 15 months I was on the Planning Board, she did not miss a single one of our twice-monthly evening meetings.

When she finally did, it was not because of a vacation but due to a death in the family. I wish for her sake she would get away for a while, but she really reflects the effort that's being put in to steer Chapel Hill through this period with a high level of proposed developments.

The high volume of newspaper articles, letters to the editor and blog posts about all the ongoing growth issues in Chapel Hill aren't going away anytime soon. When you read them and think about how much is at stake for our community, please give some thought to the underappreciated town employees who are giving their all to making sure this remains such a great place to live.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tall buildings are not going to destroy Chapel Hill

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 10th, 2007:

Several weeks ago I met Mayor Pro Tem Bill Strom and Andrea Rohrbacher, who is a leader in both the Sierra Club and the Downtown Partnership, for lunch at Foster's Market.

It was the day after the partnership had discussed the possibility of bringing street vendors back to downtown Chapel Hill, so we discussed the possibilities of that when we noticed that Linda Convissor, UNC's director of local relations, was in line. I'd never formally met Linda before, although I give her some of the credit for the current state of town/gown relations, which I've never seen better.

We asked Linda to come sit with us, and she told us stories about her days just out of college when she worked as the planning director in Bradenton, Fla., as well as continuing the discussion about how kiosks might potentially bring more folks downtown.

After a little while Town Manager Roger Stancil came in and he too sat down with us. We talked about the recent comments by the board chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, Anita Badrock, about expansions at Fort Bragg potentially bringing more money into the local economy here. We were interested to hear Roger's thoughts, as the immediate past city manager in Fayetteville, about how that would work.

The group we ended up having lunch with that day was pretty eclectic. While we all share a common concern about doing our best to improve Chapel Hill, we also come at that goal from different backgrounds and work through different channels and organizations toward that goal.

It was not a group that ever would have come together by planning, but we had a great time and some very good discussion. I thought it said something good about Chapel Hill that such a random group of people could meet up and talk about the community.

It got me to thinking about the consternation I've heard a lot lately about Chapel Hill "losing its character." This has especially come to the fore with the Greenbridge and Lot 5 proposals coming to the Town Council for approval later this month.

When I think about the character of Chapel Hill, the two main things that come to mind for me are the beauty of its landscape and the kindness of its people. If anything, I think taller buildings downtown will enhance that rather than diminish it.

Chapel Hill is growing and it will continue to grow. As a community, we have a choice. We can grow together, or we can grow apart.

If we build out in the county, we will be moving further and further away from each other. We will be reducing the contact we have with our friends and neighbors, and we will be destroying a lot of the natural beauty that makes Chapel Hill such an attractive and popular place to live.

If we build up downtown, we will be growing closer together. More people will live closer and closer to each other. We'll have more neighbors, and we'll see them more often. We will be growing in places where there is already a building footprint instead of cutting down trees and threatening watersheds.

Building a fence around Chapel Hill simply is not an option. We can't just pass all the growth of our community off to Durham, Mebane and northern Chatham County. I'm sure there are folks in our community who want to shut the door and keep our population where it is, but that's not realistic.

UNC gets bigger year after year, and that means it's constantly hiring more employees. If they're commuting from afar it creates a personal toll in terms of paying for gas and a communal toll in terms of all the extra pollution it creates. It's a win-win to have them living in this community, and it's a win-win to have them living in this community where they can walk places and not have to plow down currently undeveloped land.

Contrast downtown development with the other area of Chapel Hill that has gotten a lot of attention lately, the northwestern quadrant. While downtown population growth will likely generate more walking and bus trips, the proposed rapid growth around Weaver Dairy Road and the surrounding area will just serve to put more and more cars on the road. Certainly some expansion will have to happen both places, but growth downtown is much more in keeping with Chapel Hill's environmental values.

Beyond these land-use issues, it's our personal connections that give Chapel Hill its character. And as a long as a group of random citizens like Roger Stancil, Linda Convissor, Andrea Rohrbacher, Bill Strom and myself can meet for an impromptu lunch and have a good, friendly discussion about Chapel Hill, we'll preserve our small-town charm. Building a few tall structures downtown can never change that.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

College Park sparks big-time disgust

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, February 3rd:

Sometimes it takes a road trip to make you appreciate how well you have it at home. That's certainly how I felt after going to College Park last weekend for the Carolina-Maryland women's basketball game.

I don't know whether I was more disgusted with the people or the landscape associated with the town and the University of Maryland. There's plenty to discuss about both.

I'll start with the people. Maryland students are not knowledgeable about sports. In the second half of the game, the Terps made a roaring comeback after UNC built a 20-point lead.

The Maryland fans were cheering a little bit about the comeback but what made them really excited was when there was a promotion during a timeout where a loud fan got a pizza. Forget the basketball game, the possibility of getting a free pizza was the thing really worth making noise over!

That left me wondering whether I was at a basketball game on ESPN2 between two of the three best teams in the country or a minor league baseball game. Because the only other time I could think of where some stupid in-game promotion was more important than the action on the field was at a Hickory Crawdads baseball game.

Needless to say the strong minority of Tar Heel fans there far outclassed the Terps fans, even on that hostile ground.

In their defense, it was not just the free pizza that produced crowd noise from the Maryland partisans. They also piped up when the scoreboard told them to! When they put a little noise meter up on the Jumbotron, that really got them going. I guess since Maryland students are intellectually inferior to Carolina's, they just need a little extra help knowing when to get excited.

Cole Field House was the home of Maryland basketball from 1955-2002. In addition to seeing many great Terrapin triumphs over the years, it also played host to the historic 1966 NCAA championship game lost by the all-white starting lineup of Kentucky to the all-black one of Texas Western.

It is in many ways similar to Carmichael Auditorium on UNC's campus. Both were great facilities for many years but eventually became too small for their purposes.

Carmichael has been well preserved as a facility for many UNC sports teams -- women's basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling.

Cole Field House has been turned into an indoor soccer facility. Blasphemy! One of the most historic venues in college basketball and it has just been ruined. Thank goodness UNC has more respect for its historic sports spots instead of turning it into an after-thought for intramural silliness.

I know a lot of people think UNC has a parking problem, but after seeing the copious numbers of parking lots on the Maryland campus I was grateful for our problem. There didn't seem to be a square inch on campus where you could stand without seeing a surface lot or a parking deck. And they're not nearly as well integrated into campus as the ones at Carolina. I certainly don't approve of the new Cobb deck, but at least it's decent aesthetically and sort of blends into the scenery. I think if the University of Maryland was a shopping mall its name would be "The Parking Lots at College Park."

After the game we were hungry so we decided to go check out College Park's version of Franklin Street. The nicest restaurant we could find was Applebee's. There was also an enormous wall separating the sidewalk from the road. I don't know if there's a problem with motorists trying to run down pedestrians or what but it was certainly unattractive.

My disdain for the university and town notwithstanding, it was an outstanding trip. Ivory Latta's 32-point performance shows that she's the kind of player who steps up to the plate for the big games. She should definitely be the national player of the year. Erlana Larkins and Camille Little had big games as well, and everyone on the team stepped up for a key play at one point or another.

For the second consecutive game I've seen classless Maryland's coach Brenda Frese, who seems to be molding herself on the Bobby Knight school of leadership, hurt her team with out-of-control behavior and a technical foul. It makes you very proud to have Sylvia Hatchell and her universally classy coaching staff.

It was great to beat Maryland, although I'm sure we'll see them again sometime down the road and it will be tough again.

And seriously, if you're ever feeling down on Chapel Hill or UNC, go to College Park and the University of Maryland. It will definitely make you proud of what we have in this community.