By Jill Blackburn
Over the last years, our town has seen a tremendous increase in high-density apartment developments. Aura is yet another proposed apartment development at the corner of MLK Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive. Aura, proposed by Trinsic, an out-of-state developer, also proposes some light retail and some townhomes, along with over 600 parking spaces, all feeding out onto Estes Drive.
The proposed development has many citizens concerned about the consequences of such a proposed plan, including further traffic congestion, public safety, increased stormwater and the absence of vegetation, mature trees and needed wide buffers on Estes Drive.
The Aura project did not receive approval from the town’s Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board and for good reasons. The new computerized traffic model gave the project less than stellar scores, and even without a traffic model or study, area residents already know they daily contend with traffic and safety issues on the corner of MLK and Estes Drive. Over the last years, according to the Chapel Hill Police, there have been over 70 accidents at the MLK/Estes intersection. Parents of school-aged children who attend Estes Elementary and Phillips Middle School know firsthand the traffic challenges as they attempt to pick up their children on time and take them on to other after-school activities. Parents already find themselves very delayed as they sit in backed-up traffic on Estes Drive.
Many residents have voiced concerns at the town meetings and with substantial research have provided reasons why the Aura Project should not be approved as proposed. The biggest concern regarding Aura is: Does Chapel Hill need more expensive rental apartments when our town is already saturated with apartments? Aura provides only a limited number of townhomes for purchase and no single-family homes to purchase, at a time when mortgage rates are low and there is a shortage of homes to buy and an increase in citizens wanting to buy in Chapel Hill.
Citizens not supporting Aura are not NIMBY’s. Instead, they are advocating for the Town Council to support reasonable and environmentally responsible developments. Why is the Town Council not supporting or urging the developer to provide varied housing types: i.e., single-family homes, more townhomes and cluster homes? Why are multi-family apartments being supported when most of them are not affordable or for low-income workers? Why is there not a greater variety of housing being built? Is there really a need for more apartments?
If the data support that Chapel Hill does need more apartments, then could these developments not be built as smaller groups or buildings without the proposed streetside, large, dense buildings that do not fit in with the “village” character of Chapel Hill that the community has cherished? Even in major cities like Washington, D.C., many new developments are being built with fewer units per building and only a few stories tall.
Aura as currently planned provides for an unsafe entrance and exit on Estes Drive that will endanger pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Longer and even more delays will be experienced by residents and those transporting school children. Additionally, unless the impervious surfaces are decreased, flooding and stormwater management will be a substantial issue to residents and properties. A streetlight is needed for Somerset and Estes Drive. Wide canopy and tree buffers are especially needed on Estes Drive, at least 15 feet in width to support the healthy growth of mature trees and shrubs. A very green vegetative buffer is a must-have on Estes Drive, not only to help with storm water, but to prevent road distractions and to blend development in with the existing surrounding neighborhoods.
Please urge our mayor and Town Council to vote “no” for Aura. You may email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. After all, we are Chapel Hill, the flagship town for our state. We should and certainly can attract a better designed proposal that benefits our citizens and improves the quality of our environment and natural world.
Jill Blackburn is the author of Historic Coker Hills: A Botanist’s Neighborhood in Chapel Hill.