By Rita Marie May
Our town traffic engineer chose the proposed Aura development as the first scenario to analyze using Chapel Hill’s new townwide traffic model, concentrating on the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive. The model included traffic improvements to this intersection that were approved and funded by our governing bodies and that are scheduled to commence in the spring of 2022. These traffic improvements will occur not because the developers of Aura created a project but because our council recognized the current traffic need and acted in 2014. Though the developers would like the public to believe otherwise, Aura deserves no credit for these changes to the intersection.
However, because the Aura project will add a projected 2,950 daily trips to the intersection, Chapel Hill drivers who use that intersection may not experience any improvement at all in the level of congestion. Our Chapel Hill Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board therefore unanimously rejected the proposed Aura project.
As to the computerized townwide traffic model itself, all who viewed its May 4 “maiden voyage,” when it was used to predict the effect of the Aura project on traffic patterns, realized that it is still in the development stage. For instance, the model creator, HNTB, had not considered school dismissal hours as an important factor in the data set.
Unfortunately, as a model of vehicular traffic, this model can never capture the actual people who will be traveling on Estes Drive. With Estes Elementary, Guy B. Phillips Middle School, the YMCA and the Amity Church daycare utilizing the intersection of MLK and Estes Drive at congested periods, it is clear that parents and children are the passengers and drivers on Estes more than on any other road in Chapel Hill. And the nascent model does not even include crossing guards. To insist on utilizing the new, out-of-the-box computer model for decision making regarding the town’s principal east/west corridor, on which so many of our children travel, can be seen as raw expedience. But why the rush?
Aside from the traffic issues, the amenities the developer proposes for the Aura project are undeniably appealing. The transit–friendly extras included in the project will be attractive to people who:
- Ride the fare-free Chapel Hill bus regularly to go to classes.
- Are eager to attend UNC athletic events — the bus pickup is steps away across MLK.
- Will own cars but only use them a couple of times a day.
- Find the developer’s marketing of environmental construction materials appealing.
- Would find a walkable Sheetz 24/7 year-round restaurant highly inviting and only ¼ mile up MLK. Sheetz even claims to have gourmet coffee.
- Prefer a luxurious, newly constructed apartment or townhouse they can share with their friends over decrepit dormitory housing.
- Have parents wanting the best for them.
The proposed Aura project developers do state that the floorplans of the apartments they have created will discourage students who might be initially attracted to living in apartments at this intersection. But let’s not kid ourselves. The residents of Aura, if it is built, will be primarily UNC students, as they are in Carolina Square and other newly constructed high-density apartments around town. We shouldn’t have a problem with that, lest we forget what a university town means and whom it ultimately serves.
Rita May, a longtime resident of Chapel Hill, has a master’s degree in organization development and institutional studies from UNC.