Shortbread and Joint Development Review: critiquing the process

This Wednesday, the Chapel Hill Town Council will be holding a public hearing on the proposed Shortbread development- a seven-story mixed-use building across from Breadman’s on Rosemary Street. The residential component of the building will be rental units that will cater to students- a much-needed addition to downtown that will help alleviate pressure on the adjacent Northside neighborhood.

Besides being a large-scale downtown development, Shortbread is important because it was the second time the Planning Department tried a Joint Review process for advisory boards. Last year, the Town Council, responding to comments from developers about the length and cost of the review process, tasked the Planning Department with piloting a joint review- where all the pertinent boards for a project gather together, hear the developer’s presentation, ask questions, and vote on the project in a single evening. The first joint review occurred last summer for the Chapel of the Cross expansion, and Community Design Commission (CDC), Planning, and Transportation boards participated.

Because of its size and its residential component, five boards (the three above, plus the Bicycle and Pedestrian Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission) participated at review on November 29th. Prior to the meeting, the board chairs (I am chair of the Parks and Rec Commission) met with Planning staff and Jennifer Phillips (the Town’s Community Participation Coordinator) to discuss the process and to give input on the meeting agenda. Staff was very open to suggestions, and significantly altered the structure of the meeting at our requests for a more efficient way to conduct board discussion. However, even with those changes, the process left a lot to be desired.

What worked well:
-Three boards (Planning, CDC, and Parks and Rec) were able to complete the review process in a single night. By having these groups in one place, this saved the developers from doing three different presentations on two different nights. So, the intention of Council was somewhat accomplished.

-Planning Board leading the meeting. Since there were five board chairs, leading the meeting would have been difficult if we all shared the responsibility. Having the Planning Board chair lead everything but individual board discussions helped keep the meeting moving.

What did not go well:
-Two boards (Transportation and Bike and Ped) were unable to make quorum. There is a 35 day window between when a board hears a developer presentation and when they must make a decision on the application. If they don’t take action by that deadline, it indicates tacit approval of the project. Transportation voted to recommend the project at their December 8th meeting, and Bike and Ped did the same at their meeting on December 20th.

-The format did not work well for my board (Parks and Rec). Very little of what our board does is development review, and since we usually only comment on the recreation stipulations, development review rarely takes more than half an hour. Even with the changes in the meeting format that allowed Parks and Rec, Transportation, and Bike and Ped to adjourn before Planning and CDC, the process still took two and a half hours.

-Another format issue: the board chairs sat at the council dais and the rest of the board sat at the audience. It made it very difficult to conduct discussion, especially since a microphone had to passed around between the commission members.

- I think that this process, in its current format, asked too much of the board members. My board meets once a month, and that meeting usually last two hours. Joint review made the members more than double their commitment to the Town for the month. Because of this, it made getting quorum very difficult.

I have shared some of these thoughts with Planning staff through an online survey they sent out to advisory board members after the meeting. I have also developed three specific recommendations for Council and staff if they decide to pursue this program further:

1) If joint review becomes the norm, if needs to be the same night every month, so board members can have it in their schedules. This will help with getting enough people for quorum. I have talked to Planning staff about this, and they said that this would be likely to happen.

2) Either have boards discuss the development in their regular meetings, or let them break up into groups at the joint review. This would help make discussion between boards less awkward. Staff was more resistant to this idea because it would require either the developer to go to the individual board meeting like the were already doing, or to bring enough manpower to joint review to have someone in every room where there is discussion (up to 6 people, depending on the development).

3) Find a way to better control questions from board members. The board member questions took well over an hour, and many of the same people were asking at least half a dozen questions each. Limiting each person to two to three questions, and allowing for more developer questions during individual board review would be a more efficient use of time.

Carrboro has done joint review for quite some time. Carrboro Planning Board Chair (and my fellow OP editor) Damon Seils told me that their advisory boards meet once a month during one of the Planning Board’s regular meeting, where they hear the developer’s presentation and ask questions. The individual board discussion then occurs in their regularly scheduled meetings, and each board, if needed, can ask the developer to come to that meeting to answer additional questions. This format sounds more reasonable. I was told that Chapel Hill Planning staff met with Carrboro’s staff last month to learn more about their process, and I hope that they were are to find some insight in how to make review work better.

Finally, I was glad to see several Council Members (Rich, Bell, Storrow, and Ward) at the joint review. As outside observers, they may have a more objective view of the meeting’s strengths and flaws, which will be helpful if this program is implemented permanently. I think that joint development review can work, but only if staff and Council can find a process that is not too onerous for both the developers and the advisory boards. Because, right now, they are asking a lot of their volunteers just to help save developers a few bucks.



"...[Carrboro's] advisory boards meet once a month during one of the Planning Board’s regular meeting..." Actually, one good thing about the Carrboro approach is that the joint advisory board meets on a day when most of the relevant boards—not just the Planning Board—already hold regular meetings.

wouldn't "across from Breadman's" be where Breadman's originally was?

Very well said.  Place is a funny thing.Linda Convissor

and to be technical, where Breadmen's used to be was preceded there by Burger Chef.

As a former Planning Board and CDC member I attended both joint development review experiments. Erin Crouse's observations and suggestions about what worked well and what needs improvement are thoughtful and good.  My experience with this type of format in other communities in which I have lived and worked professionally have included four other structural elements that I believe the town should incorporate if future experiments are to take place.1)  Hire a professional meeting conductor.  I am told the town has no money to do this, but I can not believe that the Council couldn't find $500 per evening for 2 annual joint meetings for significant projects.  Don't the citizens who give time via board membership deserve at least $1,000 of support for their commitment.  A professional running a meeting would have many benefits including letting the board chairs sit with their board members and focus on the substance, not the process of keeping everyone happy.  2)  After the adoption of a fixed day (3rd whatever for example) and time for the joint meeting, one additional filter could be added.  If a board does not have sufficient attendance for a quoram 10 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to start, that board is dismissed for the evening with those in attendance sent home.3)  Boards get one shot - If a board and its members are dismissed, they have missed their opportunity to participate and provide the council with a recommendation. This sounds somewhat undemocratic, but what I would say is that peer pressure works wonders.  I would also comment that when an applicant and many town staff have spent over a year working toward such a joint review meeting, they all deserve to have all advisory boards available and engaged at this meeting.4)  Erin Crouse is definitely correct in her observation #3.  At each of the meetings I attended one or more board members provided multiple comments of extended length that were more like ideological speeches than fact finding or probing questions about the application at hand.  I personally find those type of statements interesting, challenging, and almost always I learn something I did not know.  However, they do drag a meeting along and I did see board members start to tune out several times.  These views are important to get into the discussion, but a professional meeting manager and a Q & A time limit would help everyone, in my opinion.I don't think we should give up the experiments - and as I said - if the Council can not find $1,000 to hire a meeting manager to assist advisory board members in this process how serious is their commitment to listening to the board recommendations.  

Thanks for posting this, Erin.I agree that the process, however well-intentioned, left much to be desired.  I made some comments to that effect at Wednesday's Council meeting on Shortbread Lofts. I would like to see a public posting of the on-line opinion survey that was taken after the Joint Meeting.  I believe that this would help to inform the process for refining the streamlining process.I would also note that there are 3 distinct stakeholders in this process-developers, board members, and citizens.  As I said at the Council meeting, the Joint Review MAY have worked for developers (one of the Shortbread Loft applicants wasn't even sure if it did, in a private comment to me), but it certainly did NOT work for volunteer Board members or citizens.  It significantly lessened the opportunity for public comment, which is needed because it is the only way to hear about the deficits of a proposal.  The meeting took significantly longer than a regular meeting and resulted in a  lack of clarity and difficulties in communication.My thought is to meet midway and reduce the number of review board meetings.  Boards that typically take less time and look at specific areas could meet as one.  As an example, there could be a "mobility boards" meeting, combining the T-Board, Bike & Ped, & Greenway (when necessary).  The Historic Commission. again, when necessary, could meet with the CDC.  I believe the Planning Board should continue to have dedicated meetings on applications because the PB would be able to take all of the other boards opinions into consideration.This would help developers reduce meetings, help presentations to be focused on specifics, give concerned citizens a little extra opportunity to speak, and spare Board members very long meetings with disjointed discourse. Del Snow


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