Name as it appears on the ballot: Mark Kleinschmidt
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website: mayormark.org
Occupation & employer: Attorney, Tin Fulton Walker & Owen
Years lived in Chapel Hill: Almost 27 years
1) Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?
Yes, Chapel Hill is on the right course. In my answers to your specific questions below, I detail the great strides the Council and I are making toward addressing the challenges Chapel Hill faces in this new century. Fundamentally, we are a learning organization. Hard decisions are approached thoughtfully. We reject off-the-shelf solutions and have emerged from the great recession with our Triple A bond rating intact; Chapel Hill 2020, a new comprehensive plan and vision for our community’s future created from the voices of over 10,000 Chapel Hill residents, workers and visitors; new partnerships that are addressing neighborhood stability, transit finance, regional transportation, and youth investment. We are implementing policies to address our debt to Rogers Road, and our solid waste future; and we are developing internal mechanisms that have enhanced our ability to respond to as yet unknown challenges we will surely face in the future.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.
Chapel Hill continues to face a trio of issues that for many years have been at the front of conversations regarding our community’s future: Affordability, Mobility, and Resiliency. And while each of these issues can be named independently, any measure of success or improvement among any of them rely on the creation and implementation of strong and forward thinking policies surrounding the others.
Mobility. One of the most significant changes in Chapel Hill since my arrival 27 years ago is the greater role our community plays in the region. There was a time when the strongest connections between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill were the music listings in the Independent Weekly or the Spectator. Back then, a review of options for what to do on a Friday night required taking a look at the Indy Week, identifying an attractive entertainment option and then fully committing oneself to a long commute to the destination. Many triangle residents made the commute to the center of the Triangle to work in the Park, but returned to their home community after hours. Today, I am one of many who might find themselves in Raleigh in the morning, in Durham at midday, in the Park for a meeting late in the afternoon and then back in Chapel Hill for a meeting later that evening. I am proud of the work I have done as Mayor and as a member of the Council to advocate for and implement policies that help bring our regional communities together. And that has meant focusing not only on the highways that connect us, but also planning for and investing in other transportation modes that will soon link our densest residential areas and employment nodes. It is no surprise that I am a strong advocate for the regional light rail program – a project I fought strongly for when the question of imposing a .5 cent sales tax was put before the voters a few years ago. The questions regarding routing of the line and addressing the environmental impacts of the program have been at the front of mind ever since. I am confident that together we will find solutions to these issues and that our region and its economy will continue to grow to the benefit of our current residents and those who will call the Triangle their home in the future.
In addition to regional issues, financing the state’s best-run transit system and the largest fare-free transit system in the country continues to be a challenge for Chapel Hill and its partners. I am proud that since conducting a financial sustainability analysis last year, we are beginning to implement new models for financing the cost of buses and operations. Success is critical since transit is one of the most influential drivers of our land-use planning efforts and placemaking. We know that creating truly transit oriented development can address concerns about vehicle emissions and congestion. The best example of this is the main UNC campus. Beginning at the start of the last decade, UNC began building out the campus, covering almost every parking lot with a new research, medical, or academic building. After implementing fare-free transit and exponentially increasing ridership, every intersection around the campus has seen improvement for every transportation mode. Traffic congestion has decreased and intersections have become safer for bicyclist and pedestrians. Of course, exclusive residential and commercial spaces differ from university uses, but we have learned lessons from these experiences that we are now implementing as we plan for changes in other areas of town.
Resiliency. Community resiliency means more than just growing in a sustainable manner. Social, economic and environmental sustainability remain important considerations. In fact, Chapel Hill has become a community that others learn from regarding sustainability practices. But, lessons learned from the great recession have taught us that operational policies, efforts to address climate change, and other efforts that help our community weather the challenges of yet unforeseen changes in our economy, climate, or even health and safety crises must be part of how we plan for our future. I am proud, and will remain committed in my next term, to ensuring that our policies meet this challenge. Much of this work has remained out of the headlines, because by its nature it is work that does not await the challenges of extant crisis before it is adopted and implemented. As Mayor, I have worked closely with our town’s staff to encourage cross-training and talent identification among our staff. Today we have a cadre of town employees working at all levels of our organization who can be tapped into service as crisis managers. They have obtained the knowledge and necessary skills to direct the work of others without concern as to which department a particular town operation may be part of. An inventory of all of our assets – personal, financial, and capital, is now available and able to be deployed to meet the needs of severe weather threats, housing crises, and the needs of spontaneous events for which our town is well known. This focus has changed the way we handled the flood event of 2013, the loss of housing vouchers for many low-income residents last year, and even how we plan our response to events like Halloween that have brought more people to a three block stretch of Franklin Street than live in the entire town. Concerns about community resiliency are also at the forefront of growth issues and are influencing our responses to the changing demands of student housing and economic development. For example, for all the controversy around the Ephesus Fordham district, much of the work we did bringing together the expertise from public works, transit, housing, planning, police and fire, and stormwater is often missing from the critique. For decades, the district has been an almost entirely paved swath of land dedicated to commercial activity. We have sacrificed to support its existence including tolerating its automobile focus, hazards for people who bike or walk, and its negative environmental impacts. Notwithstanding these sacrifices, the commercial activity, jobs and tax revenue have never – at least in recent decades – produced in a way that justifies these compromises. In fact, in the 14 years I have served on town council, it was such an unattractive focus of investment, there was only one approved project that actually came to fruition – the Starbucks at Eastgate. The property languished, and eyesores developed, like the enormous chain-link fence surrounded vacant lot on Elliot Rd. that had once been a multiscreen theater, and the weed-infested sea of concrete that had once been home to a Volvo dealership. Hotels, including the former Holiday Inn on Fordham Blvd and the former Hampton Inn near Europa Drive lost their “flags,” i.e. their parent companies dropped them from their inventory of properties and today are almost forgotten components of our tourism industry. When we focused on how to improve the area and encourage it to meet the expectations the community must have had when they first allowed it to be paved decades ago, we didn’t just create a tax abatement incentive plan like so many other communities have done. We analyzed the horrendous traffic network, stormwater challenges, inventoried town-owned property and the community need for affordable housing, and developed a cross-disciplinary approach to revitalizing the area.
Intertwined with all three of these issues is of course the impact of growth and our community character. I refrain from purely isolating these issues because I believe that our community’s character requires much more than just being concerned about how tall a building is. I believe a community’s character is much more than just an aesthetic consideration. Of course, what the built environment looks like is important – very important. That is why our new approaches at regulating development, like our newly adopted form-based code for the Ephesus Fordham area, is heavily focused on how spaces look and feel. But not just because it should look and feel a certain way – the focus exists because it’s about creating places where people can be comfortable and feel welcome. It is through people’s work, how they live their lives, how they meet their basic needs, and how they play and engage with each other that creates the character of our town. If there is one thing more important to defining a place’s character than the aesthetics of a space or the view of a building from behind the wheel of a car, it is the people who occupy that space. It is the people, not the brick and mortar that is most significant in defining our character. In the same way, it is what is in a person’s heart and how they behave that is worthy of our judgment, not the quality of a haircut or the designer label on the clothes they wear. As Mayor, I have and will continue to focus on how we grow and the development of our community’s character; and that focus will remain on how welcoming a community we are, how accessible life is here for people of all income levels, and how prepared we are for the challenges of the future.
3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as mayor or as a member of the Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?
I have been mayor of Chapel Hill for six years; before that, I served on the Town Council for eight. Unlike some who might approach relatively long tenures in public office, I believe my approach to leadership has demonstrated my ability to remain creative as our community takes on new challenges. I believe this is why my leadership was recognized when I was tapped to lead our Metropolitan Planning Organization, the steering committee of the Mayors Innovation Project – a national organization of progressive “high road” policy focused mayors, and as a member of the executive committee of the North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition. My participation in these organizations has allowed me to access the knowledge and experience of other leaders from around the country as we seek to learn from and adapt new approaches to the issues I outline above. Our success in addressing affordability, mobility and community resiliency has drawn the attention of others. I have never been so bold as to assume that there is only one “best” approach to meet the needs of any particular issue. The process we engage in to adapt and modify our governing policies has honestly become a model for other leaders. The values that define my leadership approach are also evidenced in my personal and professional life. From my days on the Equality NC Board, as president of the NC ACLU, as a former teacher and as an attorney, I have championed the causes of some of North Carolina’s most marginalized people: criminal defendants, inmates, persons with disabilities, racial minorities and the LGBT community. I have undertaken these challenges humbly and avoid the demagoguery that mars the work of so many others.
4) Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.
I am most dissatisfied with the pace of progress of reforming our permitting and inspections department. These government functions are critical to the ability of small businesses to open their doors and to our goal of job creation. They also have a great impact on families seeking to improve their homes, remodel to meet the needs of aging-in-place, and create living environments that respond to the needs of people with disabilities. The current state imposes a significant and unnecessary hardship on too many. While we have re-structured these offices to create greater efficiency and have finally begun to make new hires, improvement is occurring much too slowly. This issue should remain at the top of the list of Council priorities.
The town has accomplished a great deal over the last year that unfortunately hasn’t always made the headlines. Among these accomplishments are the re-writing of our Personnel Ordinance for the first time in 40 years, the hiring of a town Youth services coordinator, the funding and operations of the new Rogers Road community center, the extension of the Town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to encompass the Rogers Road neighborhood, the partnership with DHIC to create new affordable housing, the UNC-Self Help partnership that created the Northside Neighborhood Initiative, the adoption of our new Bike plan, and dedicating a Penny for Affordable Housing – an effort that led to Chapel Hill winning the Public Official of the Year Award from the NC Housing Coalition.
5) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?
I have been called a Progressive Liberal by those who have both supported my efforts and those who have opposed my political positions on issues. Honestly, I can’t disagree with them. I am proud to have been outspoken and to have created change on issues from environmental protection, climate change, LGBT equality, women’s health, and rational gun regulations. I have been an active member of the Mayors Innovation Project that describes itself as a learning network among American mayors committed to “high road” policy and governance: shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government. I have found that often, support for such policies earns you the label of Progressive or Liberal and I am fine with that.
6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?
Over the course of my time as mayor and on the council, I have not hesitated to use my office to not only work toward building a just Chapel Hill, but also using the office to amplify the values of fairness, justice and equality that Chapel Hillians share. During my most recent term as mayor, I worked closely with community advocates to reform our Public Housing policies. Today our policies have been changed to make sure that old and non-violent criminal charges don’t wholly disqualify individuals from being able to access Public Housing. I have also been a strong advocate and have worked closely with community members to reform our Personnel Polices that had not been changed in over 40 years. Today our employment policies, including our grievance policies, operate to create a fairer, more welcoming, and more just workplace. Finally, I am leading the council advocacy to join our neighboring jurisdictions in implementing a written consent to search policy for our police department.
Beyond these internal efforts, I have not hesitated to add my name to amicus briefs for marriage equality and immigration lawsuits. As Mayor I have visibly joined national efforts on immigration reform and reasonable gun regulations. I have defended our “sanctuary city” policies and the need for reasonable gun regulations on Fox News. I am an active member of Mayors for Peace that boldly stands for eliminating the nuclear weapons threat for future generations. I walked with Planned Parenthood and NARAL and personally delivered petitions to Governor McCrory urging him to remain true to his campaign pledge to not further limit a woman’s right to choose and her access to comprehensive health care. In addition, my office is one of the lead local agencies responding to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. I recognized the folly of the Trans Pacific Partnership and joined hundreds of other mayors in leading our town to pass a resolution against adoption of the trade agreement. I believe that participating in these regional, state-wide, and national efforts are aligned with our community’s values, and I look forward to continuing these efforts in my next term.
7) Small businesses, particularly those on Franklin Street, continue to open and close at an alarming rate. Please give one new idea that you believe will help small business owners steady their operations.
Franklin Street, our main street, has seen significant changes over the years. As Chapel Hill became more connected to the region, Franklin Street’s retail options shifted dramatically. For a long time, the 100 block focused almost exclusively on students and west Franklin’s economic fortunes went into decline. The focus we have put on downtown over the last 10 years has revitalized West Franklin Street. Today it is one of the top entertainment and dining destinations in the Triangle. We worked to increase residential development including 140 West, Greenbridge, and the Courtyard as well as what was once University Square. As a consequence, the West End experiences something much closer to a 12 month economy – a goal I have had for downtown throughout my time as mayor and something that hasn’t existed since before University Mall was built. As we continue to maintain the efforts that have brought along that change, our focus now must be more on job creation. 1789, Launch, and the prospect of more diverse office workers in a quickly changing CVS Plaza look to create similar changes on the East End. I believe that this focus on job creation is the “new idea” that will help create a more stable commercial environment for the 100 block. The transition will take time, but we must remain vigilant, and to be honest, somewhat tolerant of business turnover, especially on the 100 block. Business owners will need to adjust their models to not limit their focus on student customers. Student business just can’t sustain multiples of the same kinds of businesses any longer, particularly given the increased options for dining and retail that exist on campus. To keep our “main street” vibrant, residential development and job creation must be the focus. I am proud of the planning work that is underway to create this environment. Beginning as “Rosemary Imagined,” then “Downtown Imagined,” we will finally be prepared to adopt a new policy agenda either in the late spring or early fall of 2016 that will have a focus of creating a business climate benefits from students, but will not solely rely on them. The planning process has benefited from conversations and input from a broad array of stakeholders. In a way, this is a return to what worked for downtown Chapel Hill long ago – residents living in and near the downtown, day-time office workers that don’t necessarily have a direct connection to the University, great dining and entertainment options for all ages, as well as the boost generated from student traffic.
8) Between the Ephesus-Fordham district redevelopment and the newly approved Obey Creek development, Chapel Hill has seen a bevy of high-density, mixed-use proposals move forward in recent years. How do you balance such development with lingering environmental concerns such as protecting local creeks and limiting stormwater runoff?
The headline here is that our interest in remaining the state’s most environmentally vigilant community was never compromised during consideration of these new development proposals, and I am committed to remaining true to these values as we continue to plan for our future. Let’s look at both of the projects you mention in the question.
Ephesus Fordham. The rezoning of this district includes the strongest stormwater regulations in North Carolina. In addition to imposing the highest stormwater quality standards, the district will create revenue to address the entire watershed. When I made this district an area of focus when I first became mayor in 2009, flooding issues were at the top of the list of priorities. Through the process, it became apparent that the solutions to runoff problems required more than just creating facilities within the district boundaries. The water comes from higher land and the solution to the flooding has to address the source – the driveways, rooftops and inadequate stormwater controls upstream from the district. These solutions require revenue and a top spot on the list of priorities for our stormwater utility. Critics of the plan often forget to mention that the Ephesus Fordham work was more than just a rezoning task. It also included providing a revenue source for stormwater facility improvements upstream and quality controls within the district, both of which outpace any similar work done anywhere else in the state.
Obey Creek. The prior zoning of the Obey Creek property would have permitted hundreds of single family homes, complete with rooftops, roads and driveways that would have been catastrophic for Wilson Creek. Instead of allowing for that outcome, 2/3rds of the parcel was placed into perpetual conservation. Moreover, it was determined that we could do even better than the Jordan Lake rules, which are usually the starting point for stormwater when we consider any development. Incorporated into the Obey Creek Development Agreement are stormwater quantity and quality controls that exceed every standard and that are now being considered for implementation as the general policies for all future developments in town.
Of course with both projects, we will continue to monitor the impact of these regulations. The intentions that led to the creation of these strengthened policies are a positive indicator that our community will not hesitate to modify these regulations when necessary and that we will always continue to hold future development to only the highest standards.
9) Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Chapel Hill. We've seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.
For many decades Chapel Hill has grappled with affordable housing issues. It is clear to me that because of our community’s desirability, its outstanding school system and its location in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the country, this will be an issue our town will have on its plate for the foreseeable future. And while candidates for local office talk often of this issue, I am proud to have been a part of a team that has actually delivered on the rhetoric and remain committed to continuing to develop creative approaches to addressing affordability in the future.
In terms of affordability, I tend to see it through this lens: If you want to live and work in Chapel Hill, there should be quality, safe, affordable options for you to do so. The market does a fine job providing for folks with higher incomes, but fails to do so for those in the middle class and those with lower incomes. I am proud that the strategies we have put in place have created an environment in which affordable housing is always at the top of the conversation.
Our work with the Home Trust has generated 230 permanently affordable for-purchase units over the last 15 years. That work has won recognition from cities and affordable housing advocates around the country. Over the last several years, as the market changed from producing for-purchase units to more apartments, we have remained innovative. Over the last two years we have developed new partnerships with developers that, for the first time, will create affordable rental units in new developments. This is an achievement that I don’t believe has been made anywhere else in the country in a market similar to ours. In addition, the town, for the first time, is leveraging its own property to create affordable housing. There haven’t been similar efforts since the town first created its public housing program. The success of the DHIC project in the Ephesus-Fordham district is just the first of similar projects I hope to lead. The Ephesus-Fordham district is also serving as a laboratory for another first for our town – the creation of a zoning district with a built-in incentive for the creation of affordable housing. The east side of Elliot Road, when brought into the district, will be the first time Chapel Hill has used an incentive plan, outside of our Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, to create affordable housing. I am looking forward to monitoring this effort over time and hope we can replicate the use of this tool in other parts of town.
We also recognize that the University must play a role in stabilizing housing prices, particularly in our near-in neighborhoods. That recognition is what inspired the effort, begun almost three years ago, that is now known as the Northside Initiative. In partnership with Self-Help and UNC, we have created an investment fund to stand between potential investors who would otherwise turn homes that had housed families into student residences. This effort is the first real opportunity to address the investment pressures in a gentrifying neighborhood that we have been able to implement. This kind of creative approach should be applauded. We have learned that addressing affordability in future markets will require a similar innovate approach.
Before I became mayor the town relied solely on a very limited number of tools – our public housing program and our partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Empowerment and the Community Home Trust. Alone they weren’t and will never be the complete solution to Chapel Hill’s affordability problem: the maintenance of our relationship with these organizations, the development culture we have created that includes the expectation that affordable housing will be addressed in some way by every development, along with the creative partnerships with the University and new regulatory tools we are creating to provide development incentives are signs that our deeds are correlating with our rhetoric. I look forward to nurturing more creativity around this issue in my next term.
Before leaving this question, I must point out that those who call for arbitrary height and density limits, particularly in the absence of any thought about design, are in fact calling for policies that strangle our efforts to create affordable housing. Smaller buildings on large parcels (the extreme being large single family homes on large tracts of land) do nothing but exacerbate the affordability problem. Combined with calls to limit our mobility options, which currently take the form of attacking the plans for the Orange Durham Light Rail plan, growth critiques that appear to focus solely on heights, density, and limiting the options for local retail and other amenities, are only arguments for turning backward.
10) In Chapel Hill, the university provides a prosperous retail base, fuel for a feisty cultural scene and a pipeline for local leadership. But its presence also contributes a great deal to Chapel Hill's housing problem. What could the university do better with regard to local housing needs? How would you work to foster such agreements?
One of the most significant achievements of the last two years has been announcing the Northside Initiative – a partnership between the Town of Chapel Hill, Self-Help Credit Union and the University of North Carolina. Together we will invest and manage a new neighborhood stabilization tool that requires significant contributions and effort from all of us. The land bank we are creating will serve as a mechanism that will intercede between homeowners and investors who might seek to turn single-family homes into student residences. The creation of this partnership was born from conversations between me and former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorpe. It took many years, but I couldn’t be more pleased with Chancellor Folt’s continued attention to this issue or more excited about the possibilities moving forward. I point to this work as an example of UNC’s commitment to playing an active role in addressing our Town’s affordability challenges. We are not in the same place we were years ago when the Town and UNC were locked in battle.
11) Certain Chapel Hill neighborhoods have objected to the light rail line that is currently being planned. They are concerned that the rail line will create dangerous traffic problems and otherwise disrupt their quality of life. What do you believe the city can or should do to address their concerns?
First let’s acknowledge that the residents of Chapel Hill overwhelmingly approved a sales tax hike of ½ a cent to fund the local portion of the Orange-Durham LRT. Some of the revenue has gone into enhancing regional bus services, but the most significant portion is being invested in planning for and implementing the Light Rail. Both proponents and opponents of the plan advanced their positions on the sales tax referendum noting the focus on light rail. It is nothing short of demagoguery to now argue that the light rail was not the centerpiece of the referendum effort.
I continue, like the vast majority of Orange County residents, to support the Orange-Durham LRT. As we move toward the implementation of the plan, there is still a lot of work to do. Even today, the environmental assessment is not complete. Questions as to where the maintenance facility will be located and how at-grade crossings will safely be constructed are still being worked out. I have confidence that these questions will be answered satisfactorily. We are not the first community to implement a plan such as this and we have learned a great deal about how light rail impacts automobile traffic and how the two modes of transportation can intersect safely. We have every reason to trust the due diligence of GoTriangle, the review by the Federal Transportation Administration, and the NC Department of Transportation and we expect every best practice will be implemented. As we move ahead in this review, I look forward, as the chair of the MPO, to continue being actively engaged in ensuring that any safety issues are promptly addressed. I hear from many of the residents you reference in the question. Their voices remind me that Chapel Hill must continue to work closely with our neighbors in Durham. Many of those voices come from neighborhoods just across the city line and it will require efforts by Chapel Hill, Durham, Orange and Durham Counties to successfully address their concerns. I am grateful that residents who are currently engaged in this analysis are sharing their concerns about traffic problems and disruption, because I know we are committed to employing the most effective mitigation mechanisms available. Nonetheless, since we are still in the middle of the 45 day comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, I am committed to keeping an open mind. GoTriangle’s responses to the comments they are receiving during this period will inform how the MPO votes at its November meeting when it considers endorsing the plan.
12) Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homegeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?
Our community’s efforts to encourage diversity are very well-intentioned and have led to much of the work I mention above related to job creation and affordability. But of course there is still much more work to do. I would like to point out that the work the Council has done in recent years to direct development in our community goes right at our interest in diversity. Improving transit options, the neighborhood stabilization efforts of the Northside Initiative, responding to pressure created by investors seeking to create student rentals, and responding positively to the debt our community owes to the Rogers Road neighborhood are all aspects of our commitment to diversity. Maybe not as obvious is our focus on redevelopment. For example, the Council has generally rejected what amount to arbitrary height and density limits. While both are important considerations for placemaking, it must be noted that arbitrarily setting them is anathema to our goals of diversity. What becomes of this is an absence of diversity in housing stock, which by its nature is a way of keeping people out of our community. Diversity means making Chapel Hill a place where people of different ages groups, incomes, living preferences, and racial backgrounds can feel welcome. We should refrain from giving preference for a particular kind of housing stock and embrace a diverse array of living environments.
Among the kinds of residential development we should be seeking to create, and I have already been discussing this with our largest employers, is employer-provided-or-subsidized housing options. A great example would be university created housing that provides residences for new faculty and non-faculty employees. I can imagine housing options created on Carolina North, or even in repurposed renovated residence halls that now sit empty on the edge of the main campus. We have a diverse workforce in Chapel Hill, but we need diverse housing options so people can live here too.