Future Focus Sessions Fall Flat

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the town of Chapel Hill conducted charrette-style Future Focus sessions designed to understand how town residents would like to see Chapel Hill grow from the urban design perspective. The overall event was split into three sessions, one on Wednesday evening and two identical sessions on Thursday. The first session included several presentations on town growth and an urban design exercise where participants were asked to rate 50 different images on their favorableness for fitting in downtown. The second and third sessions were map mark-ups for five study areas along key transportation corridors (i.e. MLK, 15-501 and 54).

What Worked. The overall style of the event was successful. Participants were given some information and then asked to act and make decisions on that information. This model led to some productive discussions. The participation was also great. A good number of people came out to each sessions and the participation was more diverse than probably at any other Chapel Hill 2020 event that I’d been to.

What Didn’t. Though the format and level of participation were both good, the content of both the presentations and the exercises was slightly troubling. On the presentation front, there seems to be a tendency on the part of the town to constantly invite certain groups to participate to the exclusion of others. For example, the Downtown Partnership presented on the future of downtown. Why is it that their vision constantly gets so much attention? Everyone—not just the business community—has an interest in what happens downtown, and the presentations just haven’t reflected that.

Both the downtown-focused exercise and the study area-focused exercise also had some fundamental flaws. The entire downtown exercise seemed somewhat pointless to me. I found it nearly impossible to rate images of individual buildings, parks or streets by themselves. Planning is all about context, so how can we make design choices without considering the context? The study area map mark-up was a great idea, but there simply wasn’t enough time to do any substantial work. In the end, the groups had a less than an hour to talk and make decisions.




Jeff, you should know that the Downtown Partnership consists of downtown landowners and business operators, but also UNC and the Town.  Funding comes from the district property tax, but is largely sourced from the Town and the University.  A presentation from the Partnership is not accurately described as merely a presentation by the business community. Follow me on Twitter @MayorMarkK or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/groups/91222152476?ap=1 or http://www.facebook.com/mark.kleinschmidt

"The study area map mark-up was a great idea, but there simply wasn’t enough time to do any substantial work."I agree Jeff. I wasn't able to attend the Wednesday night session, but the Thursday night exercise had great potential that was cut short by staff trying to exert too much control which in turn restricted the conversations. It seemed like every time any degree of real discussion got started, the staff was moving us on to a different question. (Not our staff facilitator--he was great.)As with the rest of the planning sessions, it seems like this process is pushing for answers without any degree of deep discussion or thought. For example, I was at one of 3 tables that looked at south 15-501. When we first started the exercise, most of us were saying that due to steep slopes and vulnerable creeks and watersheds, no degree of development should be allowed on the east side of 15-501 from Southern Village down to the county line. But after some discussion, we came to a mostly consensus agreement that under certain conditions, light to moderate density development could be acceptable. But at that point, we really needed more detail. For example, what would constitute light to moderate density that would make sense for economic development? Retail space, housing only, office space? I realize that the staff doesn't want that level of detail, but the devil is always in the details. Shallow input will lead to shallow output.In any kind of design project, the customer needs to provide the designer with a detailed, comprehensive list of design requirements within which to produce a preliminary mock up. That's stage 1 of the project. Stage 2 is a review of the mockup and a review of the design requirements to make sure they work in practice as well as in principle. I feel like our planning group got part way through the process of writing the initial design requirements. But there were 2 other tables that night reviewing the same area as well as 1-2 during the morning session. And they all have to be integrated before Thursday's session. It will be interesting, and possibly very frustrating, to see the mock up on Thursday.

Jeff,Tell me more about how you think we should plan for downtown.  I think I may not be understanding what you meant by:  "For example, the Downtown Partnership presented on the future of
downtown. Why is it that there vision constantly gets so much attention?
Everyone—not just the business community—has an interest in what
happens downtown, and the presentations just haven’t reflected that."  Dwight Bassett presented parts of the Downtown Framework Plan, particularly the concept of breaking up our very long blocks with cross streets connecting Franklin St. to Rosemary St. I'm not sure if it's the plan that disappointed you or the audience.Although one of the town's last emails prior to the meeting mentioned the downtown focus, there was no special invitation to the CHDP board or the downtown business and property owners - I think there may have been 2 CHDP board members at Wednesday's session, and the director, but overall I think the audience was about the same as it was at Thursday's sessions.  I actually wish the downtown community had been at Wednesday's session; I think their input would have been very interesting. Chapel Hill's long, linear and relatively small downtown presents very different development challenges than that of other downtowns of cities our size, especially mid-size cities that have a major research university and a research hospital essentially adjacent.   For those who weren't at the Wednesday night event, the process and format were completely different than Thusday's sessions.

Thanks for your comment, Linda. I should have been a little more clear. What I meant by the quote you pulled out is this: the town has given the Downtown Partnership what I consider a special voice in Chapel Hill 2020 conversations more than one time (see my previous post). Though I understand that the partnership includes more than the business community, I think that there is room for interest groups that represent other perspectives and people to have an equal voice in these conversations.It's my feeling that when the town gives an organization the privilege of making a presentation on a given topic, it tends to come off as more of an "official" view or at least an endorsement of that group's thinking. While personally I would rather the town not give this privilege to any group at all, since they already have I think it’s their responsibility to include other voices in the conversation.

One of the events that precipitated the Northside moratorium process was the feeling by Northside residents that this entire downtown plan had been developed which will have big impacts on both downtown and its neighbors like Northside, but that their input wasn't really sought. Is the Downtown Framework which was presented at this meeting the same plan which the Northside residents felt ignored them, was it modified in some way to reflect the Northside residents' concerns, or have Northside residents otherwise been brought into the conversation?

I don't know the answer to your question, but for readers who are curious for more info on the framework, here is the OP index to prior discussions -- http://orangepolitics.org/tags/downtown-framework


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