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  • Writer's pictureJon Mitchell

Why you should care about the Complete Community framework

Image taken from December 2022 Complete Community presentation to the Council

Answer: Because the alternative is car-oriented development, which almost nobody likes, even if they don't realize that's the reason.

Let me explain. The Complete Community framework ("CC," for short) is fundamentally about moving Chapel Hill away from car-oriented development and toward walkable, bikeable development. Car-oriented development is designed to maximize the convenience of cars; repelling pedestrians is a by-product. Think of a hypothetical new townhouse development with two-car garages everywhere you look, lots of concrete and asphalt, no significant tree canopy, no useable green space, no nearby restaurants or parks, no reason to leave your residence except by car. Now think of the same townhouse development with inviting porches and stoops in the front and one-car garages behind, walking paths overhung by shade trees, a central green with a play structure and/or community garden, and a coffee shop and fitness center a short walk away by greenway. (Or just look at the picture above.) That's more or less the difference between car-oriented development and the CC vision.

To a point, car-oriented development worked well for Chapel Hill. It's a lovely town, which is why many of us actively chose to live here. But we've passed the point where we can continue to add big buildings haphazardly to our suburban frame and expect good results. To many current residents, each mediocre, car-oriented project brings a renewed sense of uncompensated loss -- loss of tree canopy, street capacity, community character, opportunity to build something more thoughtful.

Car-oriented development also keeps household transportation costs high. Nationally, households with incomes under $150,000, including low- and middle-income households alike, are spending 15-20% of their pretax incomes on transportation. That's working against Chapel Hill's affordability goals. To be sure, walkable, bikeable development tends to increase property values (because there's huge pent up demand for it), which is good news for those who own property here, but not for everyone else. But plenty of families would prefer to live in smaller spaces closer to work if they could enjoy the benefits of a walkable neighborhood and sell one of their cars. The CC framework aims to give them that choice.

For all these reasons, and others (e.g., climate change, public health), the Town has wanted more walkable, bikeable development for a long time. Yet it hasn't been able to reliably get it. Why is that? Essentially, it's because CC-style development requires a higher level of planning, determination, and general scrappiness than the Town realized or was ready to muster. Car-oriented development has been the default form of development in the United States since around the 1950s. It takes an unusually well-organized and committed effort to transcend it.

Developers love car-oriented development, and I don't blame them. It's cheap and easy, and they know it will sell. In contrast, walkable, bikeable development is usually less standardized and therefore harder to finance and otherwise riskier economically (particularly for the first ones to do it). In addition, most CC-style development requires coordination across projects, and sometimes public investments in neighborhood-level infrastructure (parks, paths, pedestrian tunnels or bridges) to make it work. A single developer acting alone typically can't do this, even it they wanted to. In the end, developers wanting to build CC-style projects will get out-bid virtually every time they try to buy developable land in Chapel Hill -- unless, that is, the Town earns a reputation for refusing to compromise on its vision.

Until very recently, the Town took a project-by-project approach to approving new development. It had volumes of planning documents (i.e., the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan and roughly a dozen subsidiary plans developed over the years, now totaling over 1,000 pages), but its approach to implementation was developer-driven and reactive. This approach produced a sizable gap between the concepts expressed in Town planning documents and the reality of what developers built. Walkable, bikeable development does not arise spontaneously anymore. It must be planned and executed using the regulatory tools available. Voting up or down individual development applications cannot produce it on its own. Don't take my word for it. These are points consultants have made repeatedly and emphatically to the Town Council over the past two years. The messages resonated with the current Council, which unanimously approved a resolution to adopt the CC framework in December 2022. (A subsequent resolution to formally incorporate the CC framework in the Town's Comprehensive Plan also passed, but a disagreement about implementation strategy led to one dissenting vote.) The implementation work has far to go.

In my time on the Planning Commission, I've often heard smart people say that they are reluctantly supporting or voting for a somewhat car-oriented project because, after all, the Town needs more housing. I've probably said it myself. Going forward, we should resolve this dilemma by actively coordinating projects that reflect the CC vision and accepting nothing less. Walkable, bikeable neighborhoods are the key to realizing our values of equity, sustainability, and livability, and to making growth less divisive. The only thing standing in the way is effective planning.

The Complete Community framework is both a broadly-appealing vision for future development and an admonition that more effective planning is needed to make it real. This affects all of us. Let's work together to make it happen.

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Nov 07, 2023

I'm glad to see I'm not the only urbanist in Chapel Hill. Oh how I dream of moving into a human-scale neighborhood, not a car-scale sprawl.

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