By Julie McClintock
Planning and zoning are valuable tools intended to guide the town’s development and growth to ensure a livable town that is sustainable, accessible, healthy and safe for all. The Town of Chapel Hill has a large planning department and for many years has devoted extensive resources to long-range planning and to the implementation of its Comprehensive Plan.
How well are planning and zoning working in Chapel Hill? In 2013, the Town Council conducted the first small-area-planning process to address the first “focus area” identified for future growth in the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan. The town spent over $500,000 on consultants and engaged hundreds of citizens and many staff for a year and a half. This costly process, chaired by current council members Michael Parker and Amy Ryan, yielded the Central West plan for the area near the MLK/Estes Drive intersection. The town hired traffic consultants to assess how many more vehicles Estes Drive could handle and, thus, how much more residential and commercial development the area could support.
One of the obvious strengths of the Central West plan is the tremendous amount of citizen involvement in its development. Another strength was the plan’s recognition of the physical limits to how much development could be accommodated in the area without completely overwhelming Estes Drive, which NCDOT has firmly indicated cannot practicably be widened. A detailed traffic study was conducted to determine how to fairly apportion development among all the property owners in the study area so as not to create gridlock. In the figure above from the Central West plan, the Aura property is area “A.”
The Central West plan also recommended that the town investigate “the appropriate location of a traffic circle or light” and create safer Estes Drive access to the Butler (A) and Rummel (B) properties and the YMCA (F). The plan recommended “internal circulation through the new development(s) … resulting in a traffic grid that reduces vehicle trips that otherwise must use the MLK-Estes intersection.”
Town Council incorporated a town-wide traffic model into the plan. This model, finally developed in 2021, will soon be updated in order to predict future conditions for Estes Drive. The model’s accuracy will depend on the completeness of the data entered into it and the validation of the model.
The entire Central West plan was made part of the town’s Comprehensive Plan and remains in effect. UNC’s development of its 1,100 acres across MLK from the proposed Aura site will be guided by the Carolina North Development Agreement, signed by the town and the university. The only recent land-use change has been construction of Azalea Estates. If Town Council were to determine that the Central West plan is no longer relevant — a slap in the face to all those who worked hard to produce it — the council would need to conduct another planning exercise with all those affected to replace the Central West plan.
AURA ENTERS THE SCENE
Early this year, the owner of the 15-acre Butler tract at MLK and Estes Drive asked the Texas-based Trinsic Residential Group to develop a plan and apply for a permit for the property. Trinsic proposed Aura, using a conditional zoning permit to build up to 360 rental apartments and 60 townhouses with as many as 650 parking places. This amount of parking is not the kind of transit-friendly development expected on a major transit corridor.
The project, in its current form, violates the Central West plan by proposing more than twice the amount of residential space and only one-sixth of the commercial space . Thus, the project proposes to reproduce the same unbalanced pattern of land use as in the Blue Hill district, where development that was supposed to create a balanced mix of uses has instead been almost exclusively residential.
The Central West plan emvisioned lower-cost townhouses for purchase so residents could build equity by owning their homes. Aura proposes mainly expensive rental apartments with which the town is already saturated.
Aura proposes a full-access entrance on Estes only 800 feet from the corner of MLK, hazardous for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles alike crossing the three-lane driveway. In rejecting the plan, the Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board noted it was “not in line with the Road to Zero pedestrian safety goals of the town.”
The Aura proposal requests a permit under OI-3, which allows reduced setbacks and far more impervious surface and density than residential zones. It’s intended for office and institutional uses, especially designed for university research. But the Aura is 98 percent housing. Its application lists 2,300 square feet of office and zero institutional and medical square feet.
A senior planner explained to the Planning Commission that this zone “was chosen” because no other residential zone allowed the density and impervious surface the applicant sought, increasing the risk of flooding in an already flood-prone area.
If Aura is approved under these circumstances, our town planning and zoning processes will be shown to be expensive and time-consuming fig leaves, empty exercises providing cover to a policy of approving whatever a developer requests.
The way forward to a better development project and a workable traffic plan is for Town Council to vote “no” on the Aura proposal.
Julie McClintock is a former Town Council member and an advocate for functional growth. She is one of the organizers of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town.