This is a change election, but not necessarily in the way you think
Updated: Sep 15
Sometimes elections are about renouncing leadership that proposes to, or is expected to, keep doing the same thing that people dislike.
But what about when current leadership self-identifies longstanding problems (perhaps not entirely of its making) and begins to correct them?
That's another kind of change election – an election about whether to continue, and even accelerate, an internal reform process that's already begun. It happens to be the situation we're in.
This post describes how the Town's approach to growth is becoming more discerning, why some candidates seem to be avoiding the topic, and why that's concerning. Spoiler: it's because process changes don't work unless we stick with them for more than six months.
Change is afoot
The self-identified problems just mentioned tie to overly car-oriented development and a lack of holistic planning. This resulted in a long-term failure to deliver fully walkable, bikable development that provides clear community benefits while also addressing current housing needs. In these respects, the Town has fallen short. I'm not aware of any candidate that believes otherwise.
The self-correction, which is by necessity in its early stages, began with the Council's recent adoption of the Complete Community framework. For those new to my blog, here's a synopsis: The new framework rethinks the Town's growth strategy from the ground up. It starts from broadly shared values – livability, inclusivity, sustainability – and converts them into a specific vision involving, among other things:
Quality public places and amenities;
Walkable, economical housing options; and
A rapid expansion of the Town's greenway and linear park network.
It rejects indiscriminate growth, including "density for the sake of density," in favor of its opposite: "excellence in the public realm." It says that for a community to be "complete," it must balance buildings with natural areas, growth with infrastructure, housing with amenities.
While these ideas may sound abstract, the Town is making real progress toward operationalizing them. During my term as chair, the Planning Commission started evaluating development applications using its own "Complete Community matrix," which has noticeably raised the bar for acceptable proposals. The Town is in the process of incorporating Complete Community standards into its land use management ordinances. In addition, the Town is transitioning toward a fundamentally different approach to planning, starting with three "pilot" projects (discussed below).
This shift will take several years to be visible to residents, but the groundwork is being laid.
More about the pilot projects
One is to pursue federal funding for a massive expansion of the Town's greenway and linear park network. So far the Town has obtained a $1 million federal grant for initial design and feasibility work on 25 miles of new greenways. According to the Town's successful grant application, that's nearly a 150 percent expansion of our current 17.6-mile network. The study will look at things like whether we can leverage existing utility easements for greenway routing. The goal is for 6 out of 10 Chapel Hill residents to live a quarter mile or less from a greenway. Want to skip the car line and bike with your kids to school without being next to a Mack truck? This is for you.
Another pilot project is to partner with UNC to coordinate redevelopment of the UNC office complex adjacent to Midtown Market (which contains the Root Cellar, Flyleaf Books, etc.), as well as Midtown Market itself and some of the other properties adjacent to it. The goal is to demonstrate the Town's will and capacity to bring about, in that prominent location, the kind of well-designed, amenity-rich development the Town proposes to replicate elsewhere. (Protections for existing commercial tenants, some of which have attained the status of community institutions, will be critical.) Town staff is currently in discussions with UNC and the other relevant property owners. Residents should follow this effort closely, as it's the Town's first serious attempt to rebuild community trust in the Town's capacity to coordinate quality redevelopment of an entire "node."
The third pilot project concerns the 20 acres of buildable land surrounding The Parkline, which is the recently-renovated glass building next to Wegmans. The Town will be talking with interested developers about what that area needs to advance the Complete Community vision, and how to make that a reality. The lesson learned from past mistakes is that effective planning is Town-driven, not developer-driven, and starts well in advance of any re-zoning applications.
It's not at all clear where all the candidates stand relative to this major shift in planning approach
You'd think all the candidates would be eager to position their platforms relative to this unfolding change, which drew unanimous support (and much fanfare) from the Town Council in December 2022. In some cases, you'd be wrong.
This is partly because most voters aren't yet familiar with it. Explaining it involves an extra step, potentially bogging down a candidate's political messaging. Indeed, my own website is part sales pitch, part public service announcement.
Some candidates might not be especially familiar with it either, particularly if they're new to Town governance.
Finally, some candidates (perhaps semi-overlapping with the previous category) may view the Complete Community framework as beside the point, somehow tainted by its association with specific officials or consultants, or just hard to shoehorn into their preferred "change" narrative. So they've chosen to ignore it. This I find troubling.
Why? Because it's hard for busy voters to ferret this out.
Candidates' views on the Complete Community framework should be on the table
Campaigns are ultimately about governing. The Complete Community framework constitutes our governing land use framework. Implementing it will be a primary focus of Council and staff attention over the next four years and beyond. If candidates disagree with that framework, or don't think it's relevant, or realistic, let's get those positions and underlying reasons out in the open, where voters can examine them. Progress requires better planning, not no planning.
I've been open about my commitment to effective implementation of the Complete Community framework. As the most recent past chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, I feel strongly that the framework represents better development that will please the broadest swath of residents, existing and new. Notably, nothing about this vision says "let's keep doing what we did before." It is explicitly and unapologetically a change vision. That's precisely why I pushed for it.
And while I believe effective implementation poses an enormous challenge, I see no insurmountable obstacle, and no better alternative. So I'd like to get on with it.
Ignoring the Town's new planning framework means more of the same
In Chapel Hill, public discourse about growth and development is unusually contentious. Perhaps people just pay more attention here. But I suspect it has something to do with our history of developing inspiring plans that we don't implement.
Instead, we as a town ricochet from pro-development sentiment to anti-development sentiment, depending on the election cycle. It would benefit us to move beyond that, and the binary trees vs. housing reduction that fuels it. Our lack of consistent focus makes staff talent drain and bad development outcomes inevitable.
The Complete Community framework offers a thoughtful, well-balanced alternative. If we can find the political will to focus on it for more than six months, which is the time between the Town Council's formal adoption of the framework into the Comprehensive Plan and the upcoming election, before long we'll start to observe many of the changes we've sought. Otherwise, no matter's who's in charge, it’s more of the same.