Compact, Connected, Anchored and Green

Draft Downtown Development Framework and Action Plan A few weeks ago I attended a meeting to hear the presentation of a group of consultants that have been working for the Town of Chapel Hill and the Downtown Partnership to create a "Downtown Development Framework and Action Plan." I didn't know much about this plan before showing up at the meeting, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it includes some pretty radical ideas for downtown Chapel Hill and they do not include trying to emulate Southpoint Mall!

The draft plan can be downloaded as a PDF from the town web site.  Here's my brief analysis...

At 65 slides long, it's easier to read than a dense report, but still a lot to digest and a little difficult to follow without the authors to walk you through it.  The good stuff starts in around slide 16, where they compare Chapel Hill's downtown (not Carrboro's unfortunately) with comparable college towns.  On slides 22 and 23 they identify some of the key transportation problems with downtown including the fragmented network with limited north-south connections and few formal pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and also raise the critical question how to connect to Carolina North. Slide 24 talks about the lack of public greenspaces (but fails to mention Carrboro as an extremely successful example).

The plan then goes on to identify "opportunity sites" that are likely to be redeveloped. I'm not clear on exactly how they determine this. The plan also makes the following "market observations:"

Approximately 5-700,000 sf of compatible retail can be supported in the Town – general merchandise, clothing, sporting goods, books, music, and electronics. 

Approximately 3-500,000 sf of compatible office development can be supported. 

Hotel development is maturing but offers associated opportunities in multi-purpose facilities and the group meetings market 

Residential is strong but substantial additions to market-rate supply is expected. 

Affordable/workforce housing in downtown could fulfill multiple goals and add synergy/energy.

And they recommend some development that they think would be successful/helpful:

Mixed-use projects of various types, configurations and locations.

User driven office projects –especially smaller space (10,000 square feet and under) that is tech-connected Infill retail and entertainment projects

Blended market-rate and affordable apartments Hybrid live-work space

Hybrid parking garage and activated space projects

Possibly multi-purpose event facility

Then they get to what I  think is the biggest idea in the plan: dramatically increasing the number of pedestrian, bicycle, and DRIVING facilities downtown. In other words: new roads!

Using a framework based on the principles "Compact, Connected, Anchored and Green" the plan proposes four new north-south and 3 new east-west streets (each just a few blocks long) that would "treat all modes [of transportation] equally."  There a variety of reasons they list supporting the idea of small blocks, but I actually think the need to move people is more compelling.  They also propose new parking decks focused on new development "opportunities."  The whole enchilada is illustrated in the map below.

Draft Downtown Development Framework and Action Plan

 

I have a number of concerns about this plan. One is that I think this would have more impact if it was tried in to transportation networks in the rest of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Also, while I like the idea of more connections in general, I don't think we need more development or an additional streets north of Rosemary Street (especially not in Northside). That's a residential area and as far as I know neither the town nor the neighborhood wants a lot of development there.

Another concern is that I know how Chapel Hillians are.  Unless you have banged down their door and insisted on getting their feedback upon pain of public embarrassment, they will not pay attention to this very important conversation until it is way too late to have meaningful input. When this happens we all miss out - not only do town residents feel that they are not getting their say and that things are changing in ways they don't like, the community also is worse for not having heard and incorporated the good ideas of the very smart people that live here.

So this leaves me with two big questions. 1. What do you think of the plan, and 2. How can we broaden this discussion to get more voices involved sooner? 

Total votes: 160

Comments

It isn't clear to me from just reading the presentation and a couple of reports on it whether they have UNC buy-in on the ideas.  Obviously one solution to greenspace is McCorkle Place (understand it will hurt the trees, but can't we come up with some compromise?).  And the biggest single change in this plan is what they do with Univ Square.  So not sure what the purpose of input is if UNC doesn't agree with this vision. btw, I read the report as saying that opportunity sites are based on spots where the land value is greater than the existing building value (or some ratio.  

Thanks for posting this link. Comments: 1) One of their recommendations was to "Change the regulatory environment so that it is easier to develop downtown than on the outskirts of town." I would strike the last part of the sentence. I'm not for favoring one part of town more than another. 2) I like the grid comparisons of block sizes and layouts between CH and other college towns. It explains a lot.3)I think they are right that improving access adds value. I agree that there is too much traffic on Franklin Street. A system of alleys and more streets would relieve the bottleneck, improve safety, & make things more pedestrian/bicycle/moped/car friendly. They note that 31% of land is devoted to parking with 840 public spaces, 161 on-street spaces and 3,362 total spaces. They say we need 1280 spaces. My reaction to this is that define and cut the parking pie anyway you wish, access to convenient parking all too often can be counterintuitive, frustrating, inconvenient & slow. Some off-street places have a high risk of towing. I would characterize it as not citizen friendly. The recent town announcement to test a new credit/debit card payment system is encouraging as is the possibility of breaking up huge streets into smaller blocks, although I'm sure there are particular neighborhood issues of which I am unaware.4) I agree that the town needs university and neighborhood buy-in. 5) One low cost way to improve access from distant neighborhoods and I-40 to downtown is more simple, clear signage. The town has done a bit of this. More, more, more!4) Things that would make me want to come downtown more often: a public square lined by cafes where people could dine outdoors and watch street musicians (the report endorses this public space idea), perhaps including a small grocer with fresh veggies, fruit, bread, flowers, etc. A small public library branch, perhaps something like Carrboro's cyber-library - can't have too many of those, especially for people without access. Free wi-fi. The skateboard parks are good ideas. Perhaps a few small, community pea patches in places that otherwise would go unused.   

It seems like they are planning the town as if they were still living in the economy of 2006. The next ten years are going to be nothing like the last fifty. As an economist, even a tertiary look at the numbers would tell me this plan of development is based more on hope than on economic reality.

For instance,  when they note "Approximately 5-700,000 sf of compatible retail can be supported in the
Town – general merchandise, clothing, sporting goods, books, music, and
electronics." Even optimistically, June retail sales were bad at best, and the commercial real estate market has just begun to show signs of collapse. But their retail formula was a real laugh; "VA=V+(A*B) x (D*w) x (E*w) x (F*w) x (G*w)/SSF(sales per sf)". They seem to still hink economics is a hard science.

Let me ask you, if the consulting company, Strategy 5, are so good, why did they not see the recent economic collapse coming? Right now, LAs Vegas has has an estimated 40,000 to 50,000
excess housing units, 23 percent office vacancy, 13 percent retail
vacancy and 10 percent office vacancy, but they felt building Symphony Park there was a good idea.

There are times when a business, and a town, need to halt develpment and focus on the already existing product. I am afraid this plan is the "New Coke" of town development, a desparate hope to hang on to the old economy.

 

The retail sales projections are based on approximately 1.6 million SF of sales available in 2009 for sales leaving the Town. It is not a projection but a number that should be looked at as helping Chapel Hill become more sustainable by not having to leave Town to buy goods. The Town completed this Retail Analysis in 2009 to assess how to grow the market and have a better understanding of what is being lost. It is 21st century reality.

I think you are right on the money Ruby!

The plan is a start and we really need to start looking at building a strong economic base in Chapel Hill.

As far as how to get the word out, you are doing it!

Mary

The formula that was quoted was about the benefit of the cross streets and additional grid in downtown, it did not have anything to do with the analysis of space and market.

While this plan does mention making downtown more "walkable", it does not seem to have near enough focus on making Franklin Street TRULY pedestrian friendly and dramatically transforming the VIBRANCE of the downtown pedestrian zones.   We really should be looking to BURLINGTON VERMONT and similar college towns as a wonderful template.   Please take a moment to click these links for photos of what Chapel Hill downtown COULD be:

http://www.vtrimblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/burlington-vt1.jpg 

http://www.cooltownstudios.com/images/burlington-chst2.jpg 

http://www.storycorps.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/blogger/blogger/3450/1037/1600/IMG_5334.jpg 

 http://blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping/files/2010/03/sidewalk-cafe.jpg 

Franklin Street has fantastic POTENTIAL that is not being realized.    In the block between Henderson St and Columbia, we need to eliminate parking on each side (there are not that many spaces there anyway, and can be moved to new decks), and narrow the road to ONE lane open ONLY to bikes and buses/trolley.  The other traffic could be routed around streets like North and Rosemary (preferably by widening Rosemary if feasible), and route delivery trucks into newly expanded alleys.  This would create wide and beautiful bricked sidewalks on each side of the street with ease of pedestrian crossings.  This expansive pedestrian zone would be filled with an exciting new streetscape including vibrant sidewalk cafes, a performance area,  planters, flowers, gathering spaces, and so forth.  

People get so nostalgic about the past of downtown, but this could create a truly picturesque and almost European "village" feel that is far more inviting to the eye, and to pedestrians, than any era in Chapel Hill's past.   More imporantly, this would give downtown a unique character that would server as a true competitive advantage in attracting shoppers and visitors compared to SouthPoint, Univ Mall, and other orange, Durham and Chatham shopping centers.

Thanks!

Christy 

 

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