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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