Revisting Assumptions

I applaud the Mayor and Council for meeting to examine the assumptions that they have held about growth and planning development in Chapel Hill as described in the 2/28 Herald Sun Article below:

         Council revisits assumptions on high density projects


Feb 28, 2008

CHAPEL HILL -- Last fall, Mayor Kevin Foy requested the Town Council create a strategic plan for how it wants the town to grow. He suggested it was time to test the assumptions upon which the council makes decisions -- particularly the assumption that high density, multi-use development is the way to go.
Wednesday's work session on the strategic planning process brought council assumptions to light, and assured that much remains to be discussed.
"I think we assume that we think things through when we make decisions," Foy said. He believes that the council also assumes it has enough information when making those decisions, and sometimes the council makes decisions that "it is programmed to come to" but didn't really think about.
Foy later stressed that his goal wasn't to create agreement among council members about what their decisions should be, but rather to take a fresh look at what drives the process.
Facilitators from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government guided council members through something of an assumption brainstorming. "This is the building block on which the entire strategic plan gets built," said facilitator Margaret Henderson.
Councilman Jim Ward said he assumes that what worked yesterday will still work tomorrow, while Councilwoman Laurin Easthom assumes that habits -- how much people drive, consume water, etc. -- remain static.
Councilman Bill Strom said he assumes that decisions will bring feedback. For instance, he said he assumes that when the council accepts a traffic impact analysis on a new development, citizens will help guide future decisions by letting the council know whether the analysis was correct.
The word "assumption" was tossed around all night, but what the discussion really came down to was "high density development."
"We assume that mixed-use development is the best development, and on top of that, we assume that people want to live in dense development," Foy said.
Ward responded that he doesn't assume that people want to live in high density developments, but he does assume that it's the best strategy for the growth of Chapel Hill.
Early in Wednesday's meeting, facilitator Lydian Altman said discussions about assumptions can get personal. That would prove prophetic, as Councilman Matt Czajkowski sparred with other council members over the appeal of high density condominiums and apartments like those in development at Lot 5, East 54 and Greenbridge.
Czajkowski questioned whether families in Chapel Hill would live in high-rise developments, arguing that people with children still prefer to live outside the town in a traditional house. He said that high rise residents are more likely to be "transient" or young professionals commuting to jobs elsewhere in the Triangle.
"Guys, you're making a massive assumption that families want to move into high density development," he said.
"And you're making the assumption that they will or will not," Ward replied.
Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt said that Czajkowski is harboring a 1950s perspective on where families want to live.
The council asked town staff to compile the list of assumptions into a document for later review as the strategic planning process moves forward.

© 2008 by The Durham Herald Company. All rights reserved.

I thought it would be interesting to share assumptions that about planning that we think should be challenged.  I'll start it off-First, I'd like to question the projected population increase to 81,000 people by 2035.  What is this based on?  Will the current economic picture alter it?  We are, after all, basing our need for high density housing on it.

Secondly, are we obligated to provide housing units to the extent that it changes the face of Chapel Hill?

What are you thinking?




In addition to challenging the presumption that everyone wants to live in high density urban environments that the planners always dream of, the assumptions that I'd like to see challenged are:

1. that Chapel Hill and Carrboro are somehow immune from the popping of the real estate inflation bubble that's affected so many other areas of the country

2. that Chapel Hill can continue to rely on a service workforce that frequently can't afford to live in town, or even nearby -- What happens to large segments of the CH workforce, many of whom live 10-20 miles away, when the cost of fuel continues to escalate and eventually reaches a point where it's no longer worthwhile to commute into town for a low wage job? High density upscale yuppie developments like Southern Village do nothing to address this longstanding problem.

3. On a similar note, what happens to any town that derrives a large portion of it's income from tourism and external money spent, when fuel costs and a faltering economy make folks reconsider tourism and recreational shopping?


As for the q of whether folks really desire to live in high density housing when given other choices, a quick check of for single family detached houses in Chapel Hill and Carrboro under $200K shows only 22. And roughly half of those are Chapel Hill in address only, with the actual house being in Chatham or near Hillsborough. Yet run the same search including condos/townhouses and multifamily dwellings and there are currently 158 in CH and C'boro from roughly $75K-$200K. There's the answer, or at least a large part of it. When given similar choices, many people, especially those with families, or those planning to stay awhile, consistantly pick single family detached homes. (Whether that choice makes sense or not is a separate issue.)


I lived in northern California in the late 80's and saw this same kind of discussion regarding growth in that area as well as in the Seattle/Portland areas. And more recently I've heard it spoken by a Wake County Commissioner who stated that 9 out of 10 of his constituents don't want want further growth (and thus there's no need for public transit). I feel very priviledged that coming back (I lived in Durham from 78-87) in 1989 to North Carolina from California that I was able to live in Chapel Hill. I'm not prepared to roll up the bridges and say that now that I have my piece of the pie the other people should look elsewhere. I think we need to develop plans that alllow our community to continue to grow, but to do so smartly. I do think that the majority of people who live in the new downtown condominiums are going to be young professionals or empty nesters, not families. But such residents as those will not burden our school systems and, in my opinion, will be frequent patrons of our downtown restaurants (and won't need to worry about parking). Young people are buying homes at an earlier age and the ones I know want a place to unwind, relax, and entertain but with minimal maintenance because their professional careers consume much of their time.

As to the question whether families would live in high-rises, I would say that one only has to look at places like Boston, New York, San Francisco to realize that families not only do so but in many cases prefer such living. There is no doubt that high-rise developments in Chapel Hill are a novelty but change is not necessarily a bad thing.


I truly don't want you to think that I am saying that "as long as I'm here, shut the gate."  I realize that there are a lot of complexities involved, which is why it is important to pin down the variables (aka the assumptions).  Coming from NY, which has on of the best bus and subway systems, I certainly favor public transport, just as you do.  I understand that a certain density is required to support that transportation infrastructure.  What I am curious about (not necessarily of one opinion or another) is what the population projections that will support density, and therefore transit, are based on. 

 I also know that at one point Chapel Hill will stop development because we will have reached buildout.   If buildout occurs with too heavy an emphasis on density, will the character of Chapel Hill suffer and the price have been too high? 

 AND, just for the record, I spent many years in high rise dense development, both as a child and after I was married-and there is both good and bad in EVERY kind of living situation.



Del Snow


I wasn't trying to imply thay you're trying to shut the gates but responding to your question with my take on what I've been hearing (including that comment from the Wake commissioner). I think it's perfectly reasonable to revisit how assumptions were made but I think it's also reasonable to allow that Chapel Hill might, and perhaps should, accomodate many styles of living.

I'm really perplexed lately because I hear many Chapel Hill residents complain that their taxes are too high. And yet, when a developer proposes to build 100 units of housing (e.g., Greenbridge) which will significantly add to the tax base while having little impact on the school system, and to use a relatively small area of land in the process, people complain (Del, please note I'm not referring to you). The cost of running Chapel Hill will grow by 3-5% a year just to stay even with inflation. So if people don't want to increase the size of the town they will have to learn to accept regular 3-5% increases in taxes. But I hear people complaining about both so it's not clear to me which they're more willing to accept.

fire/food/family service workers can't afford Orange.

taxes/land/whatever is more and more every year.

so...Burlington, Bear Creek, and Bahama are home base.

the gates have been closed and locked and are

fortified by land-use policies and politics.

you already know this...i just wanted to post it.


Some of us are complaining about Greenbridge and other new downtown developments because they are catering to the very wealthy. My preference is to retain the diversity of the community (e.g., minimize gentrification) and look for means other than of generating revenue. One of the assumptions I challenge is that requiring affordable units is a means of maintaining diversity.

The embedded assumption in the concept of "smart growth" is that growth is either inevitable or a measure of success. A mature community should be able to determine when it has reached it's peak in terms of quality of life, demand on natural resources, and other measures of sustainability. When growth creates more problems than it solves, it's time to stop and reassess. I'm very happy to hear Mayor Foy is questioning some assumptions.


All the points you make about measurements of sustainability are true and I have no problem with people raising them. What I do have a problem with is that when there is no longer any growth (because it is not sustainable or because it is built-out [as we so often describe CH]) then people need to stop complaining about their taxes going up because we need to give the teachers, the police and fire personnel, and the municipal employees wage increases so they can maintain some reasonable standard of living. Just because we (CH) may stop growing doesn't mean the cost of maintaining our community will stop growing so people need to be prepared to bear the responsibility of handling that cost.


Even in your response, there is an assumption that town services must continue to grow even if population growth slows down. When did we, as a society, adopt that expectation of "more and more and more?" Why wouldn't we assume that if population growth slows down, we would adopt maintenance budgets--where we make choices to add new services but discard old ones--instead of heaping more upon more? I think many of us have unconsciously come to think that growth equates with progress and/or happiness. Maybe that's the base assumption we each need to challenge individually before we can think about applying it to the community.

If anyone is interested, the FAQs for the Center for the Advancement of a Steady-State Economy present more details about a maintenance economy vs a growth economy.


My assumption is that employees would get cost of living increases in wages to allow them to "maintain" a reasonable standard of living and to keep the town competitive in maintaining their workforce. I also assume that the costs of goods and services for the town would continue to increase at COL levels (or more) and that there needs to be something extra for infrastructure maintenance and replacement. Thus I assume that with no increase in the tax base that taxes might increase by COL+1-2%. Of course, advances in technology, efficiency, etc could cut into this increase but those would also be assumptions.

I'm not advocating either for or against growth. All I'm saying is that citizens need to be prepared, if there are no or little increases in the tax base, for increases in taxes to cover the necessary increases to maintain our workforce and infrastructure.

While I have a child and prefer a single detached home - so we can garden - if I suddenly found myself a single mother I would prefer a townhome or condominium. That might be because I have a disability and couldn't keep up a yard alone, but I bet I'm not the only one. (This unfortunately happened to my mother when she was widowed with a small infant - me - at 38, so I think about this.)

I just read that only 23.5% of Americans live as a nuclear family. I know a fair number of families that maintain two households because of a divorce and their housing needs and their pockets are slightly different than a two income family.

While we've seen many lovely family-oriented neighborhoods built in Chapel Hill/Carrboro in the last ten years, I've watched single professionals who work in town buying into Durham neighborhoods including the warehouse condo renovations. (I just looked online to see what the name was and saw that as of 2006 there was a 300 person waitlist.)

While the realty reports may show many townhomes/condos available, it may not reflect the quality of those properties. Some "condos" are fairly worn out student apartments.


Terri-I agree with you entirely-"smart growth" should know when to stop!  But George does have a point-even after reassessing and possibly eliminating unneeded services, COL increases and infrastructure improvements could result in increased taxes.  That is why it is so important to approve the right mix of development.  Commercial development generates more money that residential.  For whatever amount of growth that occurs, we need to develop a formula for balancing commercial/residential development so that taxes are kept affordable.  

Today's Herald had some interesting assumptions to challenge:

 "In response, we are now told not to pressure wash our houses or top off our pools, all of which is good and essential. But are we missing the point? Is conservation only a Band-Aid? Is finding new sources of water -- such as tapping Jordan Lake for additional reserves, as is now being discussed -- only a short-term fix?

In other words, at this point shouldn't we be asking more basic questions -- such as, how big can we grow? Should we grow? Can we afford to? What are our limits, our -- as the jargon has it -- carrying capacity, for not just water, but for traffic, energy, schools, quality of life? "

Sorry-forgot to log in (The Balanced Mix)


Del Snow

This is very interesting - I am so glad that we are talking about this now so that we all understand our planning assumptions.

In one of the newpaper articles about assumptions, Jim Ward was quoted as stating that while he assumed that families with children might prefer to buy single family homes, he believed it was best for CH that there be greater housing density. I trust Jim to make the right decisions for us, but I don't understand why so many folks believe high density residential is in our best interests.

Why is there an interest in residential development as opposed to mix use with a good % being local commercial. I was surprised to learn that the new large residential community on Homestead, Winmore, has no plans for a grocery store. To me, that just means more traffic and congestion because of poor planning. Cities I have lived in with multi story condo/apartment living always had an ice cream shop for the kids to hang out, a grocery store, and a liquor store - maybe even a small restaurant all within easy walking distance. I'm glad we are rethinking or assumptions.


Great discussion.   to the last poster's comment,  I suspect that there isn't a grocery store or ice cream shop in that development because someone in the private sector has taken a look at the numbers and determined that it isn't viable financially.   So that's the next thing we have to factor into our assumptions---I think we are hearing that there is demand for these types of services, so why don't the numbers work for someone to make that investment and build/open those things?   What would make it work? 

I suspect that the difference between "then" and "now", between "wherever we grew up" and "Chapel Hill/Carrboro" is that the value of land is so high that it is impossible to operate a small shop that has limited traffic. Anything that gets built nowadays is going to require a rent that is prohibitively high when you are trying to service a small neighborhood/community. Even existing buildings because of tax assessments and intrinsic value are commanding high rents.

We have asked developers to provide affordable housing as part of their projects. Would there be any value in asking developers to provide affordadable rents to retail as well? It might help to solve the problem of providing retail/services near where people live/work but would that be starting down a slippery slope of more extensive government intrusion into the private sector and would that be something we'd want to see happening?

Johnny Morris made this point last Thursday in his presentation to the Friends of Downtown. Of course, this always leads to the never ending question of is it the parking, the panhandlers, the poor lighting, the (fill in the blank) that keeps people from coming downtown. As reported by Jesse DeConto in the Friday CHH:

Morris, a commercial real estate broker with 34 years of experience, said during a presentation to the friends of downtown on Thursday that the average price for rental property is about $25 per square foot downtown. That means the renter of a 2,000-square-foot space pays $50,000 each year) -- an expense that does not include operating costs like inventory or employee salaries.

Morris believes that rental average is double what it should be and addressed a compounding of complications: old buildings in need of pricey renovations, outdated rental agreements that have been passed down over time and lead to disagreements among building owners and tenants.

As we look at the competition for our dollars by the big out-of-Orange County malls, either we will take whatever personal hit that there might be for shopping local or we won't. I personally don't think we want to put another requirement on developers to underwrite what should rest on us consumers. In the end, we still pay one way or another, and pay more in some cases!

Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.