Central West, Density, and the Vocal Minority

The Central West draft plan was presented to the Planning Board last night. Given the issues the Central West steering committee had coming to an agreement on a plan, and how the committee ended up costing much more than was expected, I had low expectations for the output of the steering committee. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the draft plan. The plan is mostly multifamily residential, and not particularly tall (3-4 stories, with one 5-8 story area that is completely separate from all the other areas on the map by open space). It makes ample use of trail connectors and other infrastructure to increase bike and pedestrian safety, which will be a welcome improvement to the area. I personally think the buildings at the corner of Estes and MLK could be a bit taller, but credit should be given to steering committee co-chairs Amy Ryan and Michael Parker for putting together a plan that tried to acknowledge and address the wide range of issues and viewpoints of  those that participated in the process.

I live in the Central West impact area, and attended the public interest meeting on September 10th at Amity United Methodist Church. It was a disheartening experience. While I am used to being one of the younger people in the room at public meetings, the people in attendance skewed older than the demographics of our neighborhood. Red and green dots were used to convey like and dislike for areas of the 4 potential draft plans. People were covering up my dots with their own, and there was no way for staff to counter any misconceptions about the plan on a large scale. I left feeling like my voice wasn't heard.

IMG_20130909_154613_608 The people at this meeting are not representative of most of the town. And they weren't even representative of my neighborhood, which has sizeable apartment and public housing populations. Many of them came out to the meeting because of flyers with incorrect information placed into their mailbox (my own included- see the picture). Some of these people have been decrying the Chapel Hill News' portrayal of them as a "vocal minority" (examples here, here, and here).

Demographically, they are a minority. The median age in Chapel Hill is 25.6 years old, and 23% of our population is 20-24 years old (I'm using 2008 data, since the US Census website is shut down). We are a young town, but the young voice is being lost in this process. Also lost are those who are slightly older (ages 25-45). Compared to the percentages of the rest of our region, the percentage of young professionals in our community are miniscule. The university is bringing young people in, but due to a lack of desirable, affordable housing (which are usually the walkable, more urban neighborhoods the "vocal minority" derides), only those with means (or luck to find one of the few affordable places in town) are able to stay after graduation.

I am one of the lucky ones. At age 28, I am a rarity in Chapel Hill. Almost all of my friends who went to college with me at UNC have moved away. Those that have stayed in the area are mostly in Durham, where housing is cheaper, and nicer for the price. I stay here, even though I commute to Raleigh every day, because I love and care about this town, but it's often a lonely place to be. And there is a sizeable population who is trying to derail the development of housing here that is 1) what is attractive to me as a renter or potential homebuyer, and 2) will decrease the price of housing overall by glutting the market.

Much of the language of the "vocal minority" is couched in environmentalism. Some concerns (traffic, stormwater) that they raise are valid. But it boils down to a micro vs. macro issue. What is more environmentally friendly- creating a place where people can bike/walk/take transit, or forcing people without great means to other areas in the region where they would be more likely to drive, due to longer commutes and poorer infrastructure? Nearly half (49%) of all greenhouse gas emissions in Orange County are from transportation. Low-density housing (or no housing at all) will continue to add to our county's footprint, by forcing more people to drive in from other areas to work, attend school, or play, and will create more of the traffic that many in this group of people are concerned about. Low/no dense development is the antithesis of environmentalism. And as an environmentalist myself, the irony that many of the people making the "environmentalism" argument live in large, resource-guzzling homes and do not walk, bike, or take transit is not lost on me.

I want Chapel Hill to be welcoming place for people of all ages and family types to live. Housing prices will continue to increase if we don't add to the housing market, making living here, which is already difficult to achieve for many, impossible. Instead of using environmental rhetoric, those in the "vocal minority" should be honest and tell the truth: you don't want me (and others like me) here. And if you keep trying to yell over the quiet majority, you will probably get your wish.

Note: for more Orange County demographic data while the Census data is unavailable, check out the Chamber's State of the Community Report



Thanks, Erin, for such a thoughtful piece. 

maria palmer 

Nice piece, Erin. But I don't agree with your final conclusion. It's not that older residents (of which I am one) don't want younger people living here. I think it's more that there are different likes and needs between the generations. Instead of focusing discussions on how to blend the two to achieve a win-win situation, it seems the 2020 plan has more firmly entrenched the positions and created such a hostile environment that you would actually feel that "you don't want me (and others like me) here." That's just sad, and hopefully, the vocal minority will step back and rethink the tone of their opposition. I also think the town needs to slow down and promote a vision that defines what win-win (with accepted compromises) looks like--not to the level of detail they are currently seeking but as a big picture so that everyone is working from some degree of shared understanding. I can tell you from the Obey Creek process that when I read the "principles" put forth for that development they are about a million sq feet different from the interpretation of the developer. Which vision is correct? At Central West, it seems to have become a war over whose interpretation will win out. That's a seriously flawed process, and to me, it's unfair to impose all the blame on those you call the vocal minority.

I don't think that older residents (in most cases) are consciously trying to exclude younger people from living here. My intent was to show that one of the major consequences of choosing low-to-no density development is that it makes it harder for certain populations to stay (or come to) Chapel Hill, and that those advocating for it should be aware of that outcome. While young adults are the hardest hit by the lack of affordable housing here, they are not alone. Walkable, transit-friendly places are also becoming increasingly important for seniors, so they are able to maintain some degree of independence as they age. Both populations tend to have limited incomes, and are likely to be priced out of the housing market if low density wins out.I agree that the town needs to rethink their process for these planning efforts, and slow down the pace of our long-term planning. There will always be people unwilling to compromise, but most people are more reasonable, and the "us vs. them" rhetoric that we are currently saddled with isn't helpful or productive.

Thanks so much for this great post, Erin. I have been feeling the same concerns but have trouble articuating them this clearly. I have also come to the same conclusion that maybe after living here for over 30 years that Chapel Hill and I may be growing apart. I hope that's not the case, but we have to really step it up and not let the vocal minority shout us down.It would help if our local governments worked harder to get more diverse voices truly engaged instead of using the same old processes that are dominated by the same old people. The comprehensive plan broke out of this mold to some extent, but could have done much more. And as we can see it is still leaving plenty of room for the loud ones to dominate and obstruct. Maybe the town should have a staff facilitator (someone like Andy Sachs from our local Dispute Settlement Center) to help safeguard and improve community engagement. 

Thank you Erin for such a well articulated article.  I agree that the majority of the population (<45 yo) is not actively engaged in the political process of the town.  How can that be changed?
Caroline Sherman 

One way to increase turnout about local issues is to have more opportunities for input that are appealing to younger citizens. The Rosemary Imagined input sessions have been better attended by the under 45 crowd. Laid-back settings that solicit input in a variety of ways are more interesting to me than sitting through long meetings.Many in the under 45 population work long hours, or have young children at home that make getting to evening meetings difficult. The town could do a lot more with technology to engage younger adults on their own time. Raleigh is using a program called Mindmixer to solicit input for their new park master plan, which has been working well for them.Two way engagement on line is critical, though; people are not going to respond if they don't feel like the town is listening. For example, Triangle Transit does a great job at providing responsive help and feedback on their Twitter account. I think that the town (particularly the CHPD twitter account) has been improving in their use of online resources, but they could be doing a lot more.

Compromise is tough, and frankly, certain compromise on density may lead to an end result that is worse than what either 'side' wanted. Why? Because along the sliding scale of no-growth to high density growth is a big gulf of possibilities. Since "build nothing" (no density) is about as unviable politically as "build skyscrapers" (high density), neither of those options are really on the table in our discussions. In reality we're talking about finding a balance between low density growth advocated by some and moderate density growth advocated by others.What is scary for me is that within this range of potential compromises is the exact land use intensity of the suburban sprawl and strip malls that we built with at great frequency in the second half of the last century. The challenge is finding a way for compromise that addresses the concerns of both sides but doesn't allow that compromise to be a recipe for an automobile-centric future.Where I believe we have the ability to make progress in our conversations is to take a step back and stop talking about density directly, but rather ask ourselves what are the concerns greatest to our existing neighborhoods under a scenario of increased density? Traffic concerns and stormwater runoff are two that I hear most frequently. What I hope we can have a conversation about then, is how to minimize traffic in any new development (through a combination of transportation demand management, increased and optimized transit service, better bike and pedestrian amenities, and drastically reducing both the minimum and maximum parking requirements in any zoning district applied to the site). Likewise, how we could reduce impact on Booker and Bolin Creeks (through restoration of the existing stream corridors, high standards for BMPs on new development, and a retrofit of many of the suburban homes in their watersheds where a combination of bad grading, gutter runoff spewing out too fast, the wrong plantings in big lawns and big impervious driveways are causing many of the problems we see).I don't think higher density is a problem; I think higher density with unmitigated externalities is a problem. If we could have an honest conversation about what those externalities are and what we would have to do to minimize them, we would be making much more progress towards compromise. But in that conversation we also must recognize that the low density in the area today also comes with externalities we have not adequately managed, especially in the form of a huge contribution to global climate change through energy and location inefficiencies, and that these externalities are unacceptable to maintain in their current state moving forward.

Jason, your post above is eaxctly the sort of deliberative conversation I had hoped we would have when working on Chapel Hill's new Comprehensive Plan. That's why I was advocating for a new revision almost 10 years ago when I was on the Planning Board.Unfortunately, the incredibly fast pace of the plannning process, as directed by the Town Council, made such thoughtful dialogs impossible. Whenever major questions did arise, I got the sense that the staff and leadership were trying hard just to minimize the shouting from the vocal minority that they just sidestepped the questions completely.This is why Erin's point about not letting the loudest and most active control the public conversation is so important. I don't have time to serve on a lot of boards and come to every Town Council meeting, but that shouldn't make my views and my needs less important. 

There's also a certain amount of education that needs to occur for those conversations to be trustworthy. Here's an example: One of the major concerns since Obey Creek was proposed has been traffic. Not just traffic in front of the development but that which is imposed on surrounding areas as a result of the development. Sally Greene came to one of the Compass Committee meetings to speak on this very issue. There are technical advisors though that say there's nothing that can be done to mitigate against impact on those surrounding areas other than increased transit, and that's not something the developer should have to pay for. Since there are no city, state, or MPO transit plans for those surrounding areas, the underlying message is that we should support Obey Creek and just placidly accept that everyone around it will have to deal with the fallout until there's money to fix the problems. That's not an acceptable approach. Answers like that create the opposition to "density" since ultimately, it is the density on the site that will create the problem, and it's the lack of planning and vision that means its a long-term problem rather than one that can be turned into a win-win. This is why I am so supportive of the Fordham-Ephesus plan. They actually identified the problems development would create first, came up with solutions, and also figured out how to pay for the mitigations before a commercial developer got directly involved. 


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