Carrboro Election

I saw at the Herald website that at last week’s forum at Town Hall Mayor Chilton “…suggested telling developers what type of development the town wants in its commercial districts to make it less risky for developers to spend time and money on proposals to present to the town.” Hurray for that. The Board has the ability to put in place street plans. The most recent I’m aware of is the Roberson St. Plan. This plan addresses widths of sidewalks, on-street parking, and street trees and landscaping. All of these components of the plan are intended to improve the general streetscape, to make our town better for all of us. The plan serves the town, meaning us, by making pleasant sidewalks, more general parking, and by increasing the width of the right of way. New buildings are pushed back, making sure that we’re not too shadowed or leaned upon as pedestrians.

But the Roberson St. Plan is fairly modest in its ambition: these plans can be made robust. Form-based zoning can be added to these streetplans. Where typical zoning addresses use considerations, form based zoning deals with the relationship of building facades to street, toward the feel of the street and the buildings that make that experience. It deals in questions of scale implicit and explicit. In many ways form based codes begin to re-address the urban/urbanizing entity as an aesthetic/experiential phenomenon rather than as a use/economic phenomenon. The project becomes a participant in the improvement of the street. We’re making a town and not simply approving projects.

These plans would make clear to a developer/owner, prior to the initiation of the design, before even a dime is spent, the expectation of the town. As it is now, we are asked to get our heads around each new project. This entails time in the review process for citizens, advisory boards and the aldermen, and considerable expense and uncertainty for the developer. With clear street plans and clearly indicated form based zoning, developers will make proposals that to a great extent are broadly acceptable when submitted. It makes Carrboro a place ready to do business, or in popular idiom, we’re shovel ready. With plans for the streets, like the Roberson St. plan, as well as strong and clear form-based zoning in place, the citizens’ level of comfort with proposed projects increases and the developers’ level of uncertainty decreases. When the two get close, Carrboro get projects, and the subsequent review, approval and construction of projects becomes a cooperative venture, not an adversarial one. The current land use ordinance in Carrboro works with some of these means, but what are needed are street plans for each portion of downtown. Each street is a little different, and the respective street plans should reinforce these differences. East Main is different from West Main, and West Weaver St. isn’t like either of them. We can have all of them – the brick built-to line of the 100 block of East Main as well the set back, front yard feel of West Weaver St. We should want all of these – established, planned, preserved, enhanced and expanded. This is the stuff of character. The development of these street plans is not the huge task it may first seem. This is not another monumental community visioning effort. The end product would likely be a single plan with location specific variations, variations on the theme of Carrboro. The effort will produce an infill checkup and inventory as a byproduct, which will further clarify what can happen. The time spent in this effort would be won back in a review process that would be considerably shorter, far less rancorous and with few of the discouraging inconsistencies that currently characterize the approval process. Part of these street plans will be graphic: form based zoning sounds hard until you see it. It makes zoning a lot more engaging and easy to comprehends for non-design professionals, and even for them, too. The graphics will convey, in broad terms, the street and fascades and the mass of the buildings behind them.


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