Downtown through the crystal ball

Today the Orange Chat blog published some thoughts about the "Lot 5" downtown redevelopment effort from a reporter's conversation with Chapel Hill Town Council Member Mark Kleinschmidt. In a perfect example of the utility of blogs for having unmediated communication with the public, Kleinschmidt responded by adding and clarifying his thoughts on his own blog.

I often wonder if the full impact of the Lot 5 project is wholly understood by those who don't follow Council discussion on all the other projects that come before us. Since the earliest days of conceptualization of the Lot 5 project, I've sense a change in the way Council approaches every project. We are more articulate about our interests in affordable housing, environmental sensitivity, and the appropriateness of redevelopment efforts.
- Kleinschmidt 2005: Parking Lot 5, a press pot and a cup of tea, 4/4/07

The main point is that we have already seen the impacts of the Downtown Economic Development Initiative before the manager even inked the contract for the Town's new building complex on Lot 5 (which he did yesterday). One change is in how the Council views development and redevelopment. Kleinschmidt says there's more consideration of "the concepts of mixed-use, pedestrian and transit oriented development, high quality design, energy efficiency, and public art." All of which adds up to higher quality of life and preservation of the environment.

He also points out that the Lot 5 development has helped to set the tone for downtown by helping potential developers understand both the Council's vision and the direction of real change we will see downtown. He cites the other proposals for more dense and eco-friendly building such as Greenbridge and Shortbread Lofts that, along with the DEDI, can help transform our downtown into a more functional urban area that supports a community less dependent on cars.

So haul out your own crystal balls. What's your vision for downtown? What do you want it to be like in 10, 20, or 30 years?



So Lot #5 will be the fount of all goodness Downtown and none of the ensuing ills?

I've become quite a fan of Jesse's reporting, this conversation (or large dollop of revisionist history) shouldn't be confused with an interview. In an interview Jesse probably would've followed up Mark's assertion that Lot #5 lead to the "green" Greenbridge and Shortbead with a question about how he knows that for sure? I imagine Jesse might have called Larry, Michael, Tommy, etc. or checked the timelines to make sure one flowed from the other.

I'm pretty sure Council's recent turn towards growth/density/tallness at any cost has emboldened developers, the hazardous consequences we've yet to fully see.

As far as setting precedent, the DDI still exemplifies more of missed opportunities - affordable commercial space for local businesses, communal foci (like a grocery store) servicing the needs of both Lot 5's residents and surrounding neighborhoods, family-oriented affordable housing, public amenities, transit locus, room for business incubator, etc. - and bad public policy - more million dollar condos, transitional over stable housing, boutique shopping, missing infrastructure - like a grocery - necessitating off-site travel, poor value proposition for our citizens (ROI sucks), etc. than anything else.

To wit, if Lot #5 - the project itself and the process that delivered it - is an example of what is yet to come, Chapel Hill is in for some sad days.

What would I want of Downtown 20-30 years out?

A return to a human-scale ethic.

In my work neck of the woods, a central park where Lot #5 is creating a common area tying Downtown's neighborhoods together (maybe with a pond where we'll drop a couple million digging the moneypit, of course ;-) ). A roundabout between it and a reworked University Square. Granville Towers gone, replaced by a mini-village following Greenbridge's example of an intensely environmental design ethic. Public amenities - bathrooms, drinking fountains, pocket playgrounds strategically placed along Franklin and Rosemary.

In the East End, Wallace Deck reworked with another mini-village of family-oriented affordable housing (we'll very soon have enough million dollar condos to last a lifetime). NCNB Plaza nuked with some of the centrally located buildings on the North expanded to 3-4 stories (ala the old Intimate Bookshop). A different orientation and integration with UNC campus (more of a melding along the Porthole Alley axis ). A retention of the historic skyline (sans NCNB).

On West End, retention of its current scale on the street-sides with higher density/height (still less than 90') wedged both between Rosemary-Franklin and along the alley parallel to Franklin stretching behind McDonalds/411 West/the Courtyard. Better integration of Cameron neighborhood with enhanced pedestrian access to Franklin St.

To make this more accessible, a reworking of the greenway coming in from Carrboro. More greenway approaches from the North (up into Cobb Terrace), East (up through Battle Park) and South (several choices) to tie the remoter parts of Downtown together. A free electric trolley looping back and forth along Carrboro's Main St. to Franklin' East End back along Rosemary (hey, we're dreaming here, right?).

I'm still amazed that other parts of Town are either still ignored - Eastgate/University Mall/Ramsgate - or are just now getting some attention - like the NW quadrant - not because of a shared vision but because of emerging problems.

Seems like the Eastgate+University Mall+Ramsgate area - serviced by some of our highest capacity roads, with well-developed "living" infrastructure - grocery , hardware, pharmacy, clothing stores, bakeries, restaurants, banks, etc. - all within a short walking distance - would be a prime location for Greenbridge like dense developments. Where's an emphasis on developing that vision?

Downtown, 20-30 years from now, will be part of a larger ecosystem of mini-town centers - Meadowmont/Southern Village/Chapel Hill North/Eastgate+University Mall+Ramsgate/Carrboro on the edges - East 54/Carolina North/UNC Campus closer in. It's about time we start considering an integrated vision recognizing both their unique strengths and the contribution that each can make to the whole.

So Lot #5 will be the fount of all goodness Downtown and none of the ensuing ills?

This was my initial thought at what appeared to be some heavy spin. Pretty much a free ad for Kleinschmidt by the Chapel Hill News - the kind of press that politicians dream of - where heavy spin is not challenged by the interviewer. Reminiscent of Fox "News". "Has already succeeded" = "Mission Accomplished"?

In the Lot 5 deal, Chapel Hill is basically giving away rare and valuable downtown land while also handing the developer large amounts of cash. Pretty sweet deal - if you are the developer. I think that once the council members had invested their time, they wanted to make it worked even after it grew way beyond the what many would consider a reasonable town investment for what will ultimately become private property. Sure, it will have some affordable housing that may or may not be affordable, but that same money would have housed many more families somewhere that is still reasonably convenient. Only Easthom seemed to be asking the tough questions - but she wasn't getting many answers.

Now that the decision has been made, I do hope that Lot 5 truly ends up being an inviting place for residents of the entire town and that we make the most of it for the next 50 years.

The other two projects should be able to stand on their own. I don't buy that Lot 5 made them happen.

Can we all just put our heavy heads together to find some things to DO while we're downtown that doesn't involve heavy drinking?

Even kids now have the Kidzu, but what is there if you're not under four feet tall? I'm not a paint-a-pot kinda guy. A large space with spraypaint might be more fun.

How about a mini bowling alley? A climbing wall on the side of the post office? How about an incubator space that's open for a year at a time to whoever comes up with the most creative and interactive business plan? (That would, in my vision, be rent-reduced)

How about a less onerous downtown district tax?

How about a public art system that didn't involve random hiccups of art here and there, but a unified approach that had some kind of plan. Something that lured folks and encouraged them to walk from block to block?

How about more places that are dog friendly? I would spend so much more time uptown if places would accept me, my dollars and my Kai.

Even if you keep adding buildings and places to live, if those people have nothing to DO, there is no anchor holding them (and their glorious money) downtown


Cam Hill has a very articulate guest column in the DTH today about the evolution of his views on growth in Chapel Hill over the last six years-

David Godschalk's counterpoint is worth a read as well-

I read both the Hill and Godschalk articles very carefully; they
both make excellent points. I disagree with Cam's supposition
that building vertically reduces sprawl, because growth
is not a zero sum game. Only if our laws stated, for example,
that in 2008 we will add only 1000 people to our town,
then would a high-rise condo project indeed reduce new single family homes on cul-de sacs. Returning to reality however,
as long as our three
magnets (UNC, UNC Health Care, K-12 schools) remain
healthy, we will get sprawl with its commensurate auto
congestion and pollution, whether or not we build high-rise
housing downtown. High-rise housing doesn't reduce sprawl;
it joins it. We must evaluate each high-rise on its
particular merits and problems, and not justify it based on
the notion that it will reduce something undesirable in some other part of town.

Growth may not be a zero-sum game, but that doesn't negate our responsibility as a part of a larger or regional community. Though I agree that each high-rise should be judged independently in its own context, that's not exclusive to a more general goal of getting the Triangle out of sprawl, North Carolina out of sprawl, or the country out of sprawl. Building up DOES fight sprawl, though maybe not as locally as Cam and others might like. Personally, as long as a project is sound and adding something positive to the community, I don't care if the sprawl it offsets is here or in Topeka. The environmental and social consequences of sprawl are not isolated to the communities in which it exists.


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