By John Rees and Melissa McCullough
On Wednesday, the Chapel Hill Town Council will be considering the Aura project, a mixed-use infill project at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive. We believe this is an excellent and appropriate project on a rare, transit-convenient piece of Chapel Hill land. This project exemplifies the vision and goals of the Central West Small Area Plan. While the numbers for uses are different than the plan, it’s important for projects to meet the needs of the time in order to succeed. The use ratio has been based on current commercial needs, per studies by the applicant and the town’s economic development team.
We like that the design was assisted by the town’s urban designer and that it has built-in flexibility for when circumstances change. The commercial footage is alterable, and the top level of the parking lot can become public space like parks on old highways.
Benefits to the town:
More in-town places for people to live. There is a housing shortage nationwide, and Chapel Hill is not immune. The combination of ample jobs and insufficient housing has resulted in thousands of people driving into Chapel Hill for work every day. Past development patterns were heavily focused on single-family in-town homes on big lots; 80 percent of Chapel Hill homes fit this model and are now extremely expensive. This has eliminated space for realistic housing choices for younger people. We keep hearing the mantra “no more luxury apartments In Chapel Hill,” but that sprawl-form, in-town housing stock is the real luxury housing.
More affordable housing. While we would like to see more housing provided at the 65 percent AMI level, this project continues to chip away at affordable housing needs in a corridor that already provides alternative paths to work for people working at UNC. In addition, Aura will be “location efficient,” i.e., having convenient transit means the expense of owning a car isn’t a necessary burden.
Addressing our climate responsibilities. Our town recently declared a climate emergency and adopted our Climate Action and Response Plan. Aura includes a number of the plan’s targeted actions.
Nationally, the largest fraction of greenhouse gases is from transportation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its mitigation report described how you cannot address transportation emissions without addressing Vehicle Miles Traveled, which you can’t address without addressing land-use patterns, and the most effective means to address VMT is to integrate density, walkability and transit.
Generations of unsustainable land use has created many of the town’s problems. The Aura project is an opportunity to take a rare available site and reverse that trend. Even before the NS BRT, the town has enjoyed an unparalleled bus system on MLK, with daily runs of 7- to 15-minute intervals during peak use, making transit highly accessible. We cannot let this opportunity be wasted or watered down.
While some fear that the presence of a lot of parking will mean everyone is driving, that is unlikely as people who move into this site will know about the existing travel problems and the BRT/bus. We are in a time and place where it’s hard to be completely car-free. At Aura, residents can keep their car, but can walk, bike or use transit to get to work or school, cutting down on the peak-hour traffic that causes congestion and contributes the most to greenhouse gas emissions.
Parking. Banks may refuse financing if they believe there is inadequate parking. The project will die because of this issue. Aura includes parking areas that are flexible as use needs change. Better to have this adjustable parking option than lose this transit-oriented development.
More choices for getting around. On May 26, the council awarded a bid for the construction of the Estes Drive multi-use path project that provides a sidewalk the length of the southern side of Estes, as well as a sidewalk AND a 10-foot multi-use path on the north side. The Aura applicant will be responsible for completing this project along their frontage, saving the town expense that can be used on other bike/pedestrian projects. It also offers children a safe bike/ped path to school, if parents choose this healthful mode. The chief real estate executive at the Triangle YMCA also endorsed Aura because Aura families could access the YMCA facilities without car trips. This fits the YMCA’s goal of improving the nation’s health and well-being by promoting healthy living.
No additional traffic burden. A lot of the opposition stems from assumptions about traffic congestion. No doubt, Estes Drive has peak traffic issues, especially tied to school schedules. The town has conducted traffic impact assessments, by accredited traffic engineers, that show that peak hour traffic delays will be IMPROVED after Aura, due to improvements the applicant has agreed to pay for.
The town has a chance to take a tree farm on a major transit line and accomplish several objectives. The project will mitigate our climate footprint, will address the stormwater issues caused by the clear-cut, will create new housing choices for a range of people and new transportation choices for everyone. Please do not squander this opportunity.
John Rees is a member and former chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and, as an advocate for bicycle and pedestrian safety, serves on the town’s Road to Zero task force.
Melissa McCullough is a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and is retired from the EPA as associate director of the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program.