Chapel Hill will launch a new townwide planning model by seeking federal greenway grants and working with partners to redevelop two office buildings near downtown and a commercial campus on U.S. 15-501.
On Wednesday, the Town Council voted unanimously 8-0 to launch the move to a Complete Community planning model with three pilot projects. The pilot projects will let town staff and council learn as they plan and rebuild trust with the community, said Jennifer Keesmaat, a consultant with the Keesmaat Group and former chief planner in Toronto, Canada.
Mayor Pam Hemminger, who was sick Wednesday night, left before the vote.
Complete Community won’t be the project-by-project development process that people have come to expect, Keesmaat said, but it will create a clear vision of what the town wants from developers and what the public can expect to see as the town grows, she said.
It’s about the bigger picture and the connections that create walkable neighborhoods where people can live, work and play without getting into a car. Chapel Hill needs that denser form of growth to meet future housing needs, she said.
“It will be achieved by creating an ‘everywhere to everywhere’ greenway system, where the option of doing at least some trips … by bike and in particular, an electric bike, becomes a viable transportation choice in the context of Chapel Hill, enabling some families, as an example, to have one less car rather than needing multiple cars for commuting and for short trips,” Keesmaat said.
The town has room to grow along its greenways and transit corridors, in small infill sites, and in larger infill sites where the town can better use the land and correct past mistakes, she said.
Complete Community could build on Chapel Hill’s assets, protect its natural spaces and make the town “a very, very exciting place for planning,” council member Amy Ryan said.
“This is a really big deal for our town. We have done planning before; we are actually doing very amazing and, I’m going to say, world-class planning. If we can pull this off, this will be, for a town of our size, we are going to make amazing things happen,” Ryan said.
Pilot projects planned
The work to get to Wednesday’s vote started in June with a review of existing town land-use rules and planning documents, as well as meetings with different stakeholders in the community.
The first pilot project will seek millions of dollars in federal greenways funding so that Chapel Hill can close gaps in the existing network and add connections to other neighborhoods. The town budgeted money earlier this year to hire a grant writer.
The other two pilot projects will focus on a new way of approaching development.
One short-term project will involve working with UNC on a master plan for two office buildings the university owns on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, uphill from the Root Cellar cafe and the Midtown Market shopping center.
UNC wants to sell the land but will help the town plan a shovel-ready redevelopment project first, town staff said. The next owner could build the project.
A longer-term development project could involve multiple partners interested in The Parkline office campus (formerly the SECU building) between U.S. 15-501 and Old Durham Road.
Private developers are interested in buying 21 acres at The Parkline, most of which is undeveloped, and working with the town on a plan, said Dwight Bassett, the town’s director of economic development and parking services.
The Parkline campus is across the road from UNC Health Care’s Eastowne medical campus, where an expansion also is proposed, and also near four residential projects that have been proposed near the highway and along Old Durham and Pope roads.
The residential developers already are working together and with the town to create a better sense of community and walkability throughout the area. The town also could have an opportunity at The Parkline to build a significant amount of housing, add greenway links and take a strategic approach to stormwater management, Keesmaat said.
A project that was not chosen but that will go through a future process is the redevelopment of Timberlyne Shopping Center and the surrounding land on Weaver Dairy Road. That work could include an affordable housing plan to help mobile home park residents near Timberlyne living under the threat of redevelopment.
Next steps, learning process
There was some support on the council for moving slowly with the projects, in part because town staff is already handling more than a dozen projects. Completing one at a time also gives everyone time to learn as they go, Council member Jessica Anderson said.
Council member Tai Huynh said, however, that he would like to explore whether staff could find time to do multiple projects at once, because he’s “not 100% confident that given all of the different variables associated with each of these very large-scale projects ... that they will 100% come to fruition,” he said.
The next steps for council and staff will include drafting a two- to three-page checklist that clarifies for developers “what council and staff are looking for in a development application,” Keesmaat said.
“Their objective will be to get as high a score as possible for their compliance with Complete Communities, and the higher their score, ideally, the more expedited through the process they would be,” she said.
The town also will begin planning detailed steps, a timeline, and a process for getting to its goals, she said, urging the town to move quickly to draft a memorandum of understanding for working with UNC and its partners at Parkline, she said.
That work could start early next year, Town Manager Maurice Jones said.