Fear of heights

It's disappointing to see the Chapel Hill News this week stoking our fears of skyscrapers instead of adding some new ideas or perspectives to the critical dialog about the nature of growth downtown.I am so tired about hearing people simply exclaim over the number of stories a building has without discussing its design, infrastructure, relationship to other buildings to the street and to the sidewalk, impact on transportation, or public service features. It's not that height doesn't matter, but it's meaningless in isolation. You can have an ugly 3-story building or a beautiful 10-story building. We need to move past this one-dimensional focus on height into a more sophisticated vision for the future of Chapel Hill. I am hoping that the upcoming revision of Chapel Hill's Comprehensive Plan will be one venue for this discussion.

Total votes: 174

Comments

I posted a story along these lines some time ago, complete with a crudely photoshopped image of what Eastgate could have looked like from above if it had been built up instead of out.

You're absolutely right Ruby. Someone, can't remember who, remarked on our Madison trip that the high rise buildings in the downtown area didn't overwhelm because they were well integrated into the overall design and because the first two or three stories interacted well with the people on the street. I think their point was that the aesthetics of the first few stories, as well as what occupies that space, is more of a determinant of how the building is experienced than just simply its height.

I also just had a tour of the new Franklin Hotel, and the experience of our town from its top floor balconies is remarkable. You see Tom Tucker's Rosemary Lofts, and the building where the Downtown Partnership is housed--and they look great from that vantage point. It gave me a totally different (and positive) perspective of our downtown and the direction it's taking with the new developments and redevelopments on West Franklin.

What part of Lisa's article stokes our fear of "skyscrapers." I though she presented different views and perspectives. I don't know about others, but rarely do I find "new ideas" in a reporter's news story; editorials and opinion peieces sometimes, but not news stories.

I guess I thought that because the article referred to the height of the buildings but not any of their other physical qualities, Fred.

Ruby,

Like Fred, I didn't find Lisa's article overly slanted against height for new buildings although, as you note, it didn't address many other physical qualities. But I think one reason for that might be that many developers often don't do a good job of explaining how their project(s) will integrate into the surroundings and how the other physical attributes of their project(s) will enhance, rather than detract from, the surroundings. On the Community Design Commission we often have developers bring in marvelous drawings for the proposed elevations of their new building(s) but rarely do these drawings include the neighboring buildings (or even people) in order that one can get some idea of perspective. And when drawings do include proposed landscaping they usually use "mature landscaping" that will be there after 20 years or so without regard to what happens in the meantime. For the Lot 5 project Ram (the proposed developer) at least did provide drawings showing how the building might look from different locations in town.

Hopefully, people will keep an open mind regarding height for new buildings and focus on the end result: are the buildings attractive, do they compliment their surroundings, and will they, in the end, be assets to the community.

George,

Your last sentence rings the bell. As I walked down State St. in Madison with Tim Toben of Greenbridge, he made the same observation about how their "tall" blended so well and were attractive to boot. Clearly they were an asset to their downtown, and of course, Tim was also interested in their "green" components.

While I don't think Vancouver's scale makes sense for Chapel Hill, I think "Vancouverism," as described in this article, or particularly in this article, has some interesting lessons for dealing with density and the public realm.

Excerpt from the latter:

“Vancouverism is an urban, amenable approach to creating high-density neighbourhoods,” says Gordon, whose office receives curious visitors from the US, Europe, Asia and South America. He explains that in the early 1990s, his department began mapping out some new communities that have dramatically boosted the downtown population. Central to this scheme was a style of residential tower now synonymous with Vancouver: thin rather than slab-like, on a podium of townhouses or shops that encourage street life. These towers stand far apart—a good high-density neighbourhood needs room to breathe—and their developers have kicked in a host of amenities: parkland, community centres, daycares, low-income housing. In our livable downtown, people count more than buildings.

The Franklin Hotel, while not sporting a major tower, seems to take the Vancouverist approach with its upper floors by stepping them back, and I think the Lot 5 plans, if I remember them correctly, do so as well.

I remain optimistic about several of the new buildings coming our way in downtown Chapel Hill.

Rubby,
I take your meaning of a beautiful 10 story building to include its looks, function and integration into community life and I agree. Tall buildings are not that foreign to Chapel Hill, there are some at UNC. Won't there be some in Carloina North?

You mentioned a revision of Chapel Hill's comprehensive plan. Is there more information on the web? I was also wondering how much the town committees work with Carrboro and Orange County to coordinate long term goals.

One reason folks might be afraid of 10 story buildings is the impact buildings of that height have on sun/shade patterns. I think the balloon idea is an excellent one--it should help people visualize what impact (if any) the proposed building will have on sun/shade patterns for surrounding properties.

If you stand at the front door of Breadman's and look east
up the hill, across the parking lot, toward the western wall of the Warehouse (sp?), it is not an attractive sight.
The wall dominates the view and its
height is further emphasized by the elevation of its base, perhaps
15 feet about Breadman's. When we approved the building,
we made a mistake, I believe. We should have required that
the wall be broken into sections, or some other architectural
mechanism that would render it less dominating, as Anite
has described above.

Since that time, new computer tools have evolved and I would
hope that town councils will use them to make sure that
tall buildings and large walls are treated in such as manner
as to enhance, rather than detract from, their surroundings.

Melanie, Joe:

I agree with Joe that I'm sure that there are computer tools available now that can allow one to visualize what a building might look like in the context of existing surroundings. As a matter of fact, that is essentially what RAM Development did for the Lot #5 and Wallace deck proposals. But I wouldn't be surprised if similar computer programs aren't available to predict the effects of various building designs on the sun/shade patterns of both the adjoining public spaces and adjoining buildings.

We currently require traffic impact analyses and lighting plans for new projects so why not require engineering analyses to demonstrate that there will be no overall negative impact on natural lighting.

Question to all. How is it that tall buildings will not mean more traffic and congestion down town? The simple equation seems to indicate more businesses and or residences down town equal more of the things we seem to rail against.

While I agree a taller building can be as beautiful as a smaller one I can not escape the conclusion that we are whistling pass the congestion/traffic graveyard on this issue.

There will be more traffic as long as commercial "support" infrastructure - grocery stores, etc. - don't exist. How many tenants will incorporate trips to the store into their daily runs versus those making a special trip? Also, the commercial aspect of these developments are supposed to entice folks downtown - it's silly to suggest that they won't serve to increase congestion.

Moreso for RAM's lux-condos project on Hillsborough. What a traffic mess that'll create as their target demographic drives to-and-fro to RTP, etc.

Of course there will be more traffic as a result of denser development. That's the point of denser development.

Steve, the idea is that things being closer together can make walking (and therefore transit as well) becomes a much more viable option. Having lived downtown, I can tell you it works. It's obviously not automatic, but requires good design that is oriented toward the needs of a broader range of residents than downtown Chapel Hill currently serves.

Ruby, where are these folks going to work? Where will they get groceries, dry cleaning, gasoline, etc. ? The current proposal does not compute.

I just was in the quite charming burg of Brattleboro, Vt. Their downtown was quite vibrant, diverse, had retained its historic charm, mixed housing and commercial elements, and, at least for me the best attribute, was quite human-scale.

The fear isn't of skyscrapers. The fear is of a monumental screwup.

Will, that was what I meant by my last sentence above. If downtown development is designed well, people will be able to meet many of those needs within a 1-mile (or 20 minute) walk. There are already thousands of jobs withing walking distance and many more accessible by TTA.

I think the current proposals (both public and private) are going in the right direction, although I'm not crazy about some of their details. We're not going to get a whole new downtown sprouting fully-formed from one project. Each new effort builds more momentum for or against a certain kind of downtown. I want it to be a downtown where a wide range of people live, work, and play.

Wow, I sure didn't think Lisa's article was stoking fears.
What I had hoped is what's happened here. That people would talk about the issue before the construction starts.
Thanks for the comments and this blog. Please, if anyone wants to add their two cents for the paper, send them to us at my e-mail or the one we set up for this discussion: chnspeakout@nando.com

Question to all. How is it that tall buildings will not mean more traffic and congestion down town? The simple equation seems to indicate more businesses and or residences down town equal more of the things we seem to rail against.

Well, it depends on the choices available to the people who live in those tall buildings, their awareness of them, and their willingness to use them.

Let's consider parking lot 2. Right now, there's no downtown grocery. But they are right on the corner of Columbia/Franklin, and can catch roughly 5-7 buses per hour to bring them within an extremely short walk of Weaver St Market/Harris Teeter.

Then they could catch several buses back a little later on. Or, they could walk.

Of course, right now there is not a critical mass of residents in downtown Chapel Hill to have some of the variety in terms of goods and services that really obviates the need to drive for some thing or another from time to time. ZIPCAR may be an excellent mitigation strategy in this regard and should be something considered by the Town as an experiment worth subsidizing for a limited period of time once significant build-out of these projects occurs.

Brattleboro's a town of 12,000 people with a rural hinterland. Chapel Hill/Carrboro's six times that size, has a burgeoning exurbia and hosts a mega state university with big expansion plans. Options are limited: either the downtown grows in place by growing in density or it becomes a quaint appendage in a major metropolitan area where all the action is elsewhere. Look at Cary: 110,000 people, a rinky dink little pseudo village in the middle, a sprawling shopping mall near the interstate that calls itself the town center. Whaddya gonna do. It's time to grow up or die.

Chapel Hill isn't some kind of shark that is forced to move constantly to live.

Change is going to happen. Growth is going to happen. But I don't think growth at any cost is the answer ("grow or die"). And it's one thing to "host" growth, like the private Greenbridge development, and another to "shoot yourself in the foot" with inappropriately scaled, publicly-sponsored, development.

I brought up the "rinky dink" Brattleboro because it's growing quickly (larger than the 2000 census 12,000 residents by 1/3 to 1/2 I was told). Its downtown is also under-going redevelopment. Given both of these factors, its managed to retain its charming, walkable, human-scale vibrancy.

I'm sure there's other examples, say Vermont's Burlington, that are more akin to Chapel Hill in size, population and potential, even moreso than Madison, but that's kind of beside the point.

Will the currently planned developments distort Chapel Hill's character? I, and others, think yes.

Will that kill Chapel Hill's charm? Many folks seem to think downtown already has lost its previous vibe, so maybe it's a moot point. I believe, as Ruby underlined, that without a balanced approach that - yes - what sets Chapel Hill apart will die.

Maybe the death of the old Chapel Hill will be fine. Seems like there should be more discussion, though, before that 9 story stake is driven through its heart.

Will, Greenbridge will be 10 stories. Is it inappropriately scaled? I'm trying to understand if your objection is to public participation in the development process, or to the height of the buildings, or both, or if you're willing to overlook your height objections if it's privately financed, and if height is the dagger through the heart of town character, why not fight Greenbridge, too?

Sorry for such a subordinate-clause laden question.

10 stories seems out of character for that part of Chapel Hill.

Patrick, my experience of downtown is long term and, for many years, almost daily. I guess you say I've internalized the current pattern logic.

Working across the street, University Square and Granville Towers serve as a ready reminder of density gone bad. As much as I like Josh G., I think the new hotel is a bulging presence on West End. Like Joe C., the Warehouse's bulk catches my eye - and reminds me of how the vista from Tom Tucker's Rosemary Village to downtown's University United Methodist's steeple will probably be blocked by Shortbread.

And then there will be the 9 (or more) story complex rising from lot #5 - which acts as a visual connector between Franklin St. and Northside. RAM must share some of my concerns as the last few presentations I've attended (the last this Spring), they show surrounding buildings taller than they are - replace the Pharmacy building with an office complex and fill in Pantana Bob's with a similar sized unit.

I keep hearing that economics dictates scale. Maybe we should wait until the economic dynamic changes so that a more appropriately scaled downtown can be built out.

I understand that you have to have some faith in the process and philosophy behind the redevelopment project. There's a bit of "if we build it, they will come". But certain aspects of this project are measurable before one brick is laid - certain consequences are predictable. Where's the "fair-and-balanced" presentation?

So far, the PR is wildly tilted towards the faith-side of the equation, away from the measurable. Like, density is good, always. Really? Or that these publicly-supported developments won't go the way of Warehouse, etc.

Finally, I know I'm swimming against the OP tide here, so I'll be following up on my site, generally (hey, I'll pipe in here also), on my specific concerns once the RAM/Council proposal firms up.

Hey Will--I think you're right on this one. Growth at any cost is simply not acceptable--whether the growth is up or out. Focusing on new residential development in the absence of a realistic and achievable economic development plan sounds like the coup de grace for Northside and any other low-income neighborhood in town.

Where are the people in those 9 story buildings going to work? Drive to Raleigh/Cary 5 days a week and then walk around town on the weekends complaining about the panhandlers, increasing the speed of descent away from being a charming, liberal college town?

What's the end goal here folks?

Terri, don't forget the 970 million-dollar school bond before
the Wake citizens next month, a direct result of too-much
growth, too-little-regulated. At least here in CH-Carr,
we're not doing year-round schools yet.

Terri, that is a great promise, but it sounds like it didn't actually happen (from what I heard).

Did you all see the strongly worded editorial in the Chapel Hill News on Wednesday about Greenbridge?

It's here:
http://www.chapelhillnews.com/108/story/4737.html

I'd be very interested to hear others' comments on this.

My problem with Greenbridge right now is that Queen of Sheba, one of my family's favorite restaurants, has to move. The owner shared with me that she was offered a smaller space at an incredibly high price. So, she's moving to Durham (near Mt. Moriah Rd), and Chapel Hill loses a great business. And my family has to drive much further for our twice-monthly (or more) visits.

Of course, development changes things, but it seems to me that restaurants like Queen of Sheba are just the kind of thing we want in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. And it's double unfortunate that a green building values seemingly can't coexist with this small, locally-owned business.

Queen of Sheba does have some great food, Joan. It's a shame they can't find a spot in the area. Perhaps in a different location, they would do more business and pay the higher rent. I don't know. I'll follow them to Durham, but I won't get there as often.

I'm pretty sure I heard the Greenbridge developers developers promise at one of the public hearings that locally owned businesses being displaced would be offered the opportunity to relocate at comparable rent to the retail portion of their development.

 

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