Does anyone remember how all those charts and graphs of Carolina North never showed much about what lies outside the campus -- i.e., the rest of the town and county? I remember thinking, "hey, the world doesn't end along the MLK/Airport Rd. median strip!" Town planners seemed much exercised about the general town-wide impact of CN, but there seemed to be a general shrug about the impact on proximate neighborhoods except from the point of view of bus and bicycle lanes.
Well, folks, here it comes: pressure on neighborhoods long before a single excavation and before the airport is even closed. The very general Chapel Hill 2020 discussions notwithstanding, we are now apparently at nearly the last minute to think about what is supposed to happen in the immediate vicinity of Carolina North, which promises the largest change to the town in generations. Are town planners and and Council members going to let the process happen piecemeal, reactively, by letting zoning variance applications determine - one by one - what the Carolina-North area of the town will be like?
A first, excellent example is the hotel/apartment complex proposed for the corner of MLK and Estes Drive, on land currently zoned for low-density residential use, with an "Airport Hazard" prohibition on building until the airport is closed. (In case you didn't know it, you can get a zoning variance even with the "Airport Hazard" in place -- and once you do, that means the minute the airport closes, you can bring in the bulldozers.) A zoning variance application for the "Carolina Flats" project will be considered on Mar. 21 by the Community Design Commision. The project entails a 4 story hotel with 125-145 rooms with parking garage, plus 190 apartments in 7 three-story bldgs and 532 parking spaces.
Now I could list for you all the reasons that particular proposed development is a lousy idea -- the intersection is already one of Chapel Hill's most congested, it's set in a residential area with two schools, a church, the YMCA, and an apartment complex occupied by many students, and so forth.
But for the Town to act on this proposal now seems wildly premature. Indeed, it's striking to think that the Town might sit back and let changes to the neighborhoods around Carolina North happen in such a back-to-front manner. Surely, making one re-zoning decision and then another, before dealing with the larger traffic and transport, neighborhood, and environmental impacts on the areas just outside CN is worse than putting the cart before the horse -- it's having no idea where cart and horse are supposed to be taking us.
Of course, speculating developers are already making plans and staking claims -- leaving residents, neighbors, parents, commuters, church members, and Y members in the position of reactive scrambling. Traffic patterns will be substantially altered long before the 2020 or 2030 phases of Carolina North seen on those charts and graphs, yet the Town really hasn't thought about what the rim around the future campus should look like.
Do they really want a barrier-reef of commercial enterprise? Is that what's supposed to make the setting of CN so attractive to those working there and living nearby? After all, Carolina North already includes 100,000 sq. ft. set aside for commercial and retail development within the first 15 years.
Or do Town officials want to get the horse in front of the cart -- make re-zoning the last, not the first step in planning for the neighboring community within which Carolina North will grow?