Listening to downtown

I wasn't planning to blog this, but I just attended the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership's Annual Meeting and Public Forum and there are a few things continuing to nag at me.

DP chair Tom Tucker started the meeting by discussing their three "clients": UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill, and downtown businesses. These are the same constituencies represented on the DP's board. For all their talking about importance of residential development downtown, no-one is working to include the voices of those who currently live downtown (or would like to). If they did, I think they would hear a very different set of priorities and concerns.

For example, many families who want to live in urban settings also want to be able to walk to work, the grocery store, and the playground. We have to get out of our suburban single-family-home mindset to understand the needs and desires of our potential downtown dwellers.

It really concerns me that this well-intentioned organization is so focused on old-fashioned economic development that they seem to be missing the boat on many critical issues that are essential to our downtown: local and regional transit connections, attracting the "creative class," land-use patterns, residential community, economic diversity, preservation of green spaces, etc.

Why isn't there a reserved seat on their board for people who live downtown just like they have for their other "clients?" Until the DP (and the Town) brings residents to the table, they will continue to miss the mark in their effort to create and sustain a vital and healthy downtown.

Also notable:
...Robert Poitras (owner of the Carolina Brewery) said that west end businesses are being hurt by "the panhandling epidemic." He says they want to field candidates for Town Council.
...The open mic portion of the meeting included a lot of comments for and against the proposed development on Lot 5.

(Posted from my phone, pardon any typos etc. Updated.)



Three quick comments.

Last year Ruby and I brought up the lack of general community participation - lack of invitation to that community - difficult scheduling. Unfortunately, that was still the problem this evening. One person asked how we could get more folks to fill the seats (instead of the "usual suspects"). Maybe popcorn and a free movie?

A chunk of folks there from "the business community" don't seem to like lot #5 for a variety of reasons: a distraction from remediating some basic problems, financing, high-priced housing for students from affluent families, narrow-base of business opportunities, inverted use-cycle for parking (parking is fallow by day, occupied at night instead of vice-versa), no plan for jobs, etc.

Good emphasis on achievement over the year - the DPC has done well in quite a few ways. Still, play areas, bathrooms, signage, drinking fountains, benches, reducing the number of planters to a number we can manage, etc. were skipped over... Those elements generated a lot of discussion last year.

Bless you both for paying good attention to this.

Though I know it's not the case, it still seems like deja vu all over again to me. Will,the elements in your second paragraph look like pretty darn good reasons to have angst about the lot five plans.

Very interesting. If Kevin runs again I imagine the four incumbents would too and would be virtually unbeatable.

If Kevin doesn't, a lot of things could happen.


I understand your point about representation on the Partnership board, but I wonder if they have the authority to change that themselves. The board was created, along with membership requirements, by the town council. Are they an autonomous board (they'd have to change their charter) or semi-autonomous board of the council?

That's a good point, Terri. According to their web site:

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership Board consists of seven members. Four of the Board members are appointed by the Town and at least one appointment is a downtown property owner and one is a downtown business owner. Two are appointed by the University of North Carolina. These six members serve staggered, three-year terms. The seventh member is chosen by the other six board members and serves a one-year term.

I have also been persistently reminding the Council to think of downtown as a neighborhood for the last few years. For example, they added two seats for residents on the Downtown Streetscape Review Committee after prompting from the Planning Board.

The CHDP are among the many lately who say that residential growth is key to downtown's success (which I agree with). If this is truly their goal, they will simply be helping themselves by paying more attention to the values and issues of those they hope to attract.

Hopefully, when the board turns over again this summer, the current members will hear you Ruby and use their only vote to appoint a 7th member who is a downtown resident--with no other competing agendas (like being a developer or business owner).

That would be a good start, but I'd really like to see a reserved seat like they have for business owners and other stakeholders.

Well, also remember that the downtown district has a defined boundary and that plays into who is eligible for Board Membership. Technically Northside or other nearby communities aren't part of that district. I believe the Town Council would have to change the district boundary. Right now it is defined as the same boundary as the special district tax.

When I looked back at the founding documents I saw this interesting bit of mission creep.

From the DPC's site:

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership is charged with bringing the resources of the Town, University, and the downtown community together to maintain, enhance and promote downtown as a social, cultural and spiritual center of Chapel Hill through economic development. Our role is to manage and to lead downtown for sustainability and denser growth by educating, promoting, and building community vision for downtown.

Denser growth? The original bylawa from June 14th, 2004 stopped here:

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership is charged with bringing the resources of the Town, University, and the downtown community together to maintain, enhance and promote downtown as a social, cultural and spiritual center of Chapel Hill through economic development.

Through out the minutes preceding the formation of the DEDC (now DPC), there didn't seem to be any real reflection on board composition beyond downtown's monied interest or much specificity to what "economic development" included.

Liz spoke of the 330 businesses downtown but the bias in the DPC's actions, to date, has been retail. The DPC's retail focus has been fairly successful, and that's great. But it's time for Liz and company to broaden their perspective beyond retail-only as that's only one part of a sustainable downtown. Jobs, affordable commercial space, a rich ecology of diverse businesses (beyond the one per genre, as Liz noted), non-business economic development, etc.

Further, to adequately fulfill its charge to "enhance and promote downtown as a social, cultural and spiritual center", I think, by necessity the DPC needs to draw leadership from a wider sample of downtown's denizens - residents, artists, religious and charitable organizations.

BTW, I couldn't find the basic by-laws, amendments, etc. on their site. They only have posted a few minutes from 2006 (need to get the rest online).

Hey, at least they're exceeding the Town's site by having a Privacy policy ;-).

Was there any discussion last night about the need for more office space in downtown? This goes back to my concerns about Lot 5 and why no office space is being programmed in. The response I got was that there is no demand (per Ram), but to my knowledge there hasn't been a viable marketing study (the one by Stainback was highly questionable). I was hoping the downtown constituents might have a different take on the situation, but I was unable to get to the meeting last night.

Also, I just started a discussion thread on Squeeze the Pulp in response to the lead story in this morning Chapel Hill News on what makes us a community.

Terri, yes. Scott Maitland, for one, made the case for office space - and how that inverted parking pattern, as compared to residential use, helped merchants more...

I think the key to getting more people living downtown is to build viable services and restaurants for consumers. I think the approach of building offices (which should include more parking spaces for the town) is a great start. If we can get more restaurants and stores, supported by businesses at first, downtown becomes more attractive.

I understand the desire for transit in the Triangle as a whole, but right now we need to build population density or it's a complete waste of money and effort. I know it's not popular, but I think people rely on cars in the Triangle because they have to for the large part. I lived in Raleigh for years and never came to Chapel Hill to eat or play or shop because parking can be a nightmare. We need to support our businesses because they offer an anchor for the community and allow us to have local choice and build a strong local economy.

NC State Senator Fred Smith recently proposed legislation for protection the property rights of all North Carolinians. The need to protect the environment while continuing economic growth need not be in opposition to one another.

A good selling point to attracting “creative-class” people is the promise and delivery of a healthy environment in which to work and live with their families.


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