The Ephesus-Fordham commercial district hasn’t delivered on its decades-old economic promises, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says.
But he thinks a new type of zoning called form-based code may inspire developers to reinvest in the 190-acre district that stretches from Elliott Road to Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.
Form-based code would guide developers and establish predictability in how buildings are built and fit into the landscape. The draft code makes town staff responsible for approving most future projects, with some Community Design Commission review of building and landscape elements.
The Town Council will talk about the draft code Monday at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road.
Kleinschmidt said the Ephesus-Fordham district’s major issues are transportation, the use of Eastgate’s driveway as a town road and access to Rams Plaza and surrounding areas. The existing development process wasn’t generating projects in the district, he said, but other cities have used form-based code to inspire redevelopment. The town decided to explore one for Ephesus-Fordham, he said.
“We all know work needs to be done, so there’s consensus around it,” Kleinschmidt said. “This is a place (where) we tolerate commercial activity, and we can tolerate more. Why aren’t we getting it? Why isn’t it spitting out the revenue and offering businesses and services people want?”
In packed hearings, however, the public continues to ask how the plan will resolve longstanding traffic and stormwater problems. They want to be sure the district will generate robust commercial tax revenues instead of draining town resources and taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
Kleinschmidt spoke more about the plan in an interview last week.
These are the kinds of things that are the subject of these kinds of conversations whenever you do go through the traditional process, and I think we’ve put them in the code in a way that will produce a good product. If it was as some people claim it to be – and they know better than to say this, but they do anyway – that we are creating a code that will never change ever in the future, and everybody will have this existing right to build whatever the hell they want – by the way, when you tell somebody that’s not true and they say it’s true again, I don’t know if they’re just not hearing you or if they’re just lying, so I’m going to try to help them hear me – we’re checking in.
We’re going to check in every six months for the first two years, and then the council will decide what frequency (reviews) should occur after that. I say I’m fine with it now – I am – but there may be a time in the future when we decide something else should happen. I think we should take a look at what product comes out of the ground with the way things are and see how it works.
I think it’s just a matter of preference for the timeline ... but we’re not going to go ahead and refinance if there’s not a vote to approve the project. ... You need to decide whether we’re going to do something and have the vote, then you go forward and do the financing stuff. You’re not going to go borrow money for projects that may not be approved.
In the past, our infrastructure needs of this kind have been leveraged through redevelopment projects, and that’s just not the option for this area, because (developers would) rather forego a redevelopment opportunity than make the contribution that the town asks for.
(In this project) one developer doesn’t have to pay the cost of a new road. It’s going to be shared with the entire district.
I can tell you with high confidence that a five-, six-story building could produce for the property a lot more tax revenue than an empty lot.
I think it’s bad policy when you have an opportunity to actually address a lot of community needs that are peculiar to a particular place and craft a solution that provides you (with a way to address) multiple needs and problems. They could all be separated, but you’re not going to get the fullness of benefits that could happen if we move forward with this approach. That’s why I’m supportive of this approach, because we get more.
The form-based code actually looks very carefully at that space: where people enter buildings, how far away they should be, the sidewalk to curb to building interface.
I’m sure some people don’t like 140 West. I do. I think 140 West does a much better job at creating a place I want to go to, and I think those couple hundred people who were sitting outside I saw there today at lunch seemed to be enjoying it, too.
The lessons of that project, what they’re doing there, aren’t lost on the design elements of the Ephesus-Fordham district. The best place to see that is looking at the application of the frontages along the particular roads and what’s required in those places.
If you look at Erwin Road, you don’t have any consideration, because there aren’t buildings that create a place. Here, we’re going to have redevelopment of blocks of space with street frontages that are engaging in a human way. We still have this scar that’s U.S. 15-501 running through it – that’s not going anywhere – so we need to hope that we’re going to be engaging in it.
If you drive by Ephesus-Fordham, and you see a parking deck while you’re traveling along a major north-south U.S. highway, OK, that’s fine. I hope it’s a pretty parking deck for you to look at, but we’re not creating it for you to drive by. We’re creating (the deck and surrounding district) for you to live in and to be inside of and to shop in and to work in and that kind of thing.
Erwin Road, it fails at human engagement. In some ways, East 54 does too. I think 140 West does a good job of it. I think it is a little bit better than Greenbridge, but I don’t think Greenbridge fails. I think we’re going to see better product (in Ephesus-Fordham). If we don’t, if it’s just missing here in certain ways, (the town’s land-use rules) can be changed just as they’ve always been changed.
(You can’t change a seven-story building once it’s built,) but right now, we know that code’s going to require that seven-story building to have certain setback, a certain kind of street frontage, to have a stepback in a certain place. It’s going to be designed in a way unlike, let’s say, University Baptist Church, where you have to walk along that blank wall for so long, it’s just ridiculous. That’s not going to exist in the Ephesus-Fordham district.
Once we rezone this and people actually have the opportunity to build more on a property, the value of that property’s going to go up, as well, without any changes, because it’s worth more in a sale to somebody. If you own a piece of property today that you can only build one thing on, you can command X dollars for it. If your property’s rezoned and you can do a hundred things on it, you can get X times.
I think, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen subtle changes. If you compare this conversation to Central West, it may be marginally more challenging, but if you compare this discussion to any discussion, say, five years ago, there’s a stark difference in tone. It’s frustrating, but ... in this particular area, because of the potential for flooding and (how) that affects people’s quality of life – it’s their homes, it’s where they live – I think it’s easy to understand why emotions run high and concern is expressed passionately. I completely understand that, and I wouldn’t expect anything less than the passion, particularly about flooding issues.
But some of it, I think, is just disinformation about things and the kind of fear tactics that have been played on folks. I just try to separate that from the content of the concerns that are being expressed, and I think the council is doing that too, and I think that’s why we’re seeing some changes.
When I first graduated from college, I went to Charlotte to teach. I remember the first month or two I was living there, I had some friends from Chapel Hill who came down ... (and we said) let’s go out, let’s go downtown. ... We went down there, and it was scary. It was scary, because there was nothing there. There were no people, there were no cars. It was a Friday night, and you could hear the wind blowing down the streets.
The reason why is because no one lived there. ... I didn’t want to build a part of Chapel Hill that just rolls up (at night). If you’re going to have it be really active and have it be a people’s place, it needs to have people living there. Same thing with downtown. Downtown becomes a much more vibrant place when you have people living there.
They need more people living (in Ephesus-Fordham). Those people are going to make Great Harvest Bread a better business. Those people are going to keep that liquor store open. Putting those people there makes all the retail much more lucrative than if they weren’t living there.
I think (the Ephesus-Fordham plan is) a very positive impact. It may be short of actually reducing property taxes.
Maybe in future years, (projects could generate more students), but in the short term, it’s unlikely to produce the students, which means in those first few years, the school system is receiving a great deal more than what (the schools are) being asked to absorb. Ultimately, that will help address some of their needs.