Advisory Boards Weigh Pros and Cons of Proposed Aura Project

By Staff Reports

A developer contends that the benefits of a high-density mixed-use project it is proposing for the clear-cut lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive will outweigh the drawbacks of an estimated 3,000 additional car trips per day on an already-congested main road.

Some town advisory boards disagree.

Trinsic Residential of Dallas described its proposed Aura development as a mixed-use, transit-friendly project consistent with town goals. Many community members warn that the project will create traffic and flooding problems.

Trinsic has applied for a rezoning to build 375 apartments and 44 townhomes plus a small amount of commercial space on the 16.2-acre property. The developer has pledged to designate 40 housing units as affordable for 30 years. The apartment buildings would have a maximum height of four stories, and the project would be supported by 634 parking spaces, 175 of them in a below-ground deck. There would also be 20 electric vehicle charging stations and 119 bike parking spaces. Access to the development would be via a right-in right-out driveway on MLK and a driveway on Estes that would allow either left or right turns. To alleviate potential traffic backups, the developer is proposing to lengthen the right turn lane on westbound Estes Drive.

The developer has requested that the town rezone the site from its present low-density R-1 status to high-density Office/Instituitional-3 with a conditional zoning overlay. In written materials presented to the town, the developer states that “[t]he new development will be a vibrant transit-oriented mixed-use development” with a variety of housing, a commercial component and substantial green space, as well as proximity to the bus rapid transit line proposed for MLK. Based on this, the developer contends that the project is consistent with the town’s overall Comprehensive Plan and with the principles of the Central West Small Area Plan that was created for this locale in 2013.

At an April 5 meeting of the Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board, Aura representative Dan Jewell of Coulter Jewell Thames civil engineering firm described the project as “an urban village that provides a walkable destination” and said it was “the best opportunity for transit-oriented development on the MLK-BRT corridor.”

Many nearby residents don’t share that rosy view. They see key issues of traffic congestion and traffic safety on Estes Drive, one of only a few crosstown roads in Chapel Hill. They point out that the addition of approximately 3,000 car trips per day from Aura will cause further congestion at the already jammed Estes-MLK intersection, thus causing delays for commuters and for parents bringing children to the two schools on Estes. Because the state has jurisdiction over both roads, the town is powerless to widen them.

Residents note that the driveway on Estes will be a safety hazard since at rush hour a driver leaving Aura would have only approximately two seconds to cross two lanes of traffic when turning left.

Furthermore, the town’s traffic planning for the area does not include future high-density development of other vacant parcels of land on Estes.

The response to Aura has been mixed as the project moves through evaluation by the town’s advisory boards.

The Housing Advisory Board unanimously recommended approval of the project. Board members “expressed their appreciation for the applicant’s commitment to providing 15 percent of the units as affordable.”

At a meeting of the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board, several local residents expressed concern about runoff and flooding from the property, which is to be 63 percent impervious surface. The developer plans to install a stormwater management system that will accommodate up to 25-year storms. However, some residents questioned whether this would be enough to deal with increasing rainfall due to climate change. This board recommended approval of the project by a vote of 6-4, subject to a number of conditions relating to improvement of plans for stormwater control.

The Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board unanimously recommended denial of approval of the Aura project. Among the reasons given for the denial were that “[t]he development does not reflect the goals of the Central West Small Area plan. The development does not meet the transit priority goals of the town due to the number of parking spaces and the increase in single occupancy vehicle trips. The Estes Drive site access is a major safety hazard and should be right-in right-out.”

The Planning Commission has heard the Aura presentation and comments from residents but has delayed its decision until its May 5 meeting.

Estes Neighbors, a citizen group, has formed (https://estesneighbors.org/) to oppose Aura in its current iteration. Group members have communicated their concerns to Town Council and at several advisory board meetings.

Estes Neighbors also contends that Aura is not really the mixed-use development recommended in the Central West plan, because 97 percent of its space will be residential and only 3 percent commercial. The group has also termed Aura “a Vehicle Oriented Development not a Transit Oriented Development.” On these grounds they contend that Aura is not consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan and should not be approved.

Town Council will open a public hearing for the Aura project at its May 12 meeting. Information on this meeting will be posted at https://chapelhill.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx.

Whether Aura is built or not will clearly have major ramifications for adjacent neighborhoods and for the traffic flow in the area. Residents can express their views on the project at the upcoming public hearing or by email to mayorandtowncouncil@townofchapelhill.org.

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