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City or town? Chapel Hill's 2020 plan

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It's likely no coincidence that "The Evolution of a City," the angular, Carolina blue-tinted artwork by an East Chapel Hill High teen, adorns the cover of Chapel Hill's simmering master plan, Chapel Hill 2020.

It's a kinetic piece of art, with tumbling lines, corners and shades with UNC-Chapel Hill's iconic Old Well at the center of the fray.

But look to the title for a moment, a title that reflects a changing air in this college town where residents have long prided themselves on being a town, not a city. With 2011 census figures counting the town's population past 57,000—a 17.5 percent surge since 2000—and the bustling university inexorably stretching its borders outward, when does this town become a city?

Enter Chapel Hill 2020, a visioning statement that leaders see as integral to official decision-making in the next decade. The in-the-works draft marks the evolving town's first attempt at a wholly new comprehensive plan since 2000.

On Monday, Town Council could move to adopt the plan, or at least portions of the draft, after nine months of committee brainstorming and public hearings.

Chapel Hill 2020 originates from committees of residents and officials gathered to mull six themes: A Place for Everyone; Community, Prosperity and Engagement; Getting Around; Good Places, New Spaces; Nurturing Our Community; and Town and Gown Collaboration.

Leaders say they want the lengthy document to capture the personality and the priorities of this progressive college town, but Chapel Hill 2020 is not simply a mission statement, it's also a land-use plan.

Planners identified six prime development areas in Chapel Hill: downtown, the north and south stretches of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, N.C. 54 and portions of U.S. 15-501 on the northern and southern edges of town.

The goals are overarching, albeit vague, in scope:

  • "Foster success of local businesses."
  • "Connect to a comprehensive regional transportation system."
  • Build "a development decision-making process that provides clarity and consistency with the goals of the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan."
  • "Adopt an integrated development review process that is fair and transparent, and that incorporates the Chapel Hill 2020 environmental goals."

Many of the details, like cost and timeline, are absent for the time being.

But Councilwoman Donna Bell lauded the draft for synthesizing a vision for the expanding town by a diverse group of thinkers.

Chapel Hill development has been controversial in recent years over high-density building like East 54, Greenbridge and the under-construction 140 West.

The thinking goes that big-ticket retail and mixed-use development will help ease property taxes and lessen the burden on residents to pay for growing town expenses; but critics warn Chapel Hill could be losing its "small-town" feel in the process.

Based on the draft of Chapel Hill 2020, the town's priorities are not surprising. There's the fiscal: Cut spending and increase revenues. There's the political: Build low-density rural buffers to minimize sprawl. And then there's the environmental: Reduce the town's carbon footprint.

Bell is positive about the plan and said she's confident in town leaders and their staff to deliver on its promises.

"This plan is not a reference document that you would look to, to make decisions, but it's actually a planning document, an implementation document," she said. "It's about action; it's not about sitting on a shelf getting dusty."

Town Councilman Lee Storrow is withholding judgment on the draft before the council, but he hailed its creation for drawing in scores of Chapel Hill residents that have not previously been engaged in town affairs.

"One of the really interesting things about the document is the size of the scales and the hopes and the thoughts Chapel Hill residents have," Storrow said. "It's really just a pure vision of long-term dreams of diverse residents."

Not everyone is pleased with the plan. Some of its harshest criticism has come from within the committees that molded Chapel Hill 2020. Other critics, like Orange Water and Sewer Authority board member Will Raymond, are calling on town leaders to adopt the plan's many visioning statements but delay approval of land-use maps.

Raymond said Chapel Hill 2020 failed in its task of improving the 2000 master plan because it lacks specifics.

"I appreciate the effort put in, I really appreciate the citizens for what they did to turn out, but it's just incomplete," he said. "It's not comprehensive, it's not more specific than the current plan. It doesn't touch on how to make decisions."

Raymond, a critic of developments like Greenbridge and 140 West, suggested the plan is biased toward high-density developments.

Agreed, says Fred Lampe, a longtime consultant and developer of business financial models. Lampe, who sat on the Community, Prosperity and Engagement group, said he constructed an economic model for town officials that projected a 45 percent budget increase by 2020.

How do you meet those costs in a town dominated by residential development? Raise taxes, cut services and expenses, or build, Lampe points out.

To meet those looming expenses through commercial activity, Lampe calculated Chapel Hill would need to add 3.5 million square feet of new office space, on top of 5.6 million square feet of new retail space.

That's about 58 office buildings the size of the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters on U.S. 15-501, added to roughly 14 retail developments the size of University Mall on Estes Drive, he said.

"It doesn't result in the same kind of community, but then again, we're not a town of 5,000," Lampe said. "Change occurs."

Ruby Sinreich, a political blogger and former chairperson of the town's Planning Board, co-chaired Chapel Hill 2020's Outreach Committee until December. Sinreich said she stepped down after criticizing the plan's development in a Twitter message that angered 2020 leaders.

Since her resignation, Sinreich has criticized the draft in blog posts, blasting its development as unfairly excluding input from young people and the poor. On Tuesday, Sinreich said the town leaders must slow down before voting.

"It's quite unheard of for any municipality to do a comprehensive plan in less than a year," Sinreich said. "Chapel Hill's process is nine months."

She added that the draft combines many ideas, some good and some bad, but fails to yield a "cohesive vision."

"I think that this plan is worse than no plan at all right now," Sinreich said. "It's a completely missed opportunity to actually talk to the community, find a vision and bring us together around that vision."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Double vision."

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