Chapel Hill News

Group looks to Charlotte for Chapel Hill’s Booker Creek vision

Booker Creek crosses under South Elliott Road in Chapel Hill, NC, through a set of culverts at the South Village Plaza shops before traversing Fordham Boulevard and neighborhoods to the southeast. Landscape fencing and large rocks have been added to the creek’s banks over the years to stem the tide of erosion when floodwaters rise and push their way downstream.
Booker Creek crosses under South Elliott Road in Chapel Hill, NC, through a set of culverts at the South Village Plaza shops before traversing Fordham Boulevard and neighborhoods to the southeast. Landscape fencing and large rocks have been added to the creek’s banks over the years to stem the tide of erosion when floodwaters rise and push their way downstream. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

Little Sugar Creek was one of the state’s most polluted waterways when Charlotte started talking about its future in the 1990s.

About 10 square miles drained into the flat and flood-prone creek corridor near downtown Charlotte, said Crystal Taylor-Goode, a stormwater engineer who led the Little Sugar Creek restoration project.

Most of the creek was lined with concrete, development right up to its banks, and large portions were routed through culverts under parking lots and a shopping mall parking deck. The water, which didn’t support aquatic or wildlife, would rise up to 10 feet within 30 to 45 minutes when it rained, she said.

A 1.2-mile project, funded with $50 million in bond funding, grants and donations, helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg buy private land along the creek. The banks were uncovered, restored and stabilized with new plants and rapids and deep ponds were added for bugs, fish and birds. They worked with the company redeveloping the mall to tie the projects together with a fountain-anchored public space along the creek.

The eight-year project (bit.ly/2eDcidH) also created a new greenway for pedestrians and cyclists, she said. The goal of this project, unlike others, is to restore the natural stream, not reduce flooding, she said.

“We don’t tout (with) our stream-restoration projects that they will reduce flooding ... because we can’t control Mother Nature. If it rains a lot in any watershed, you’re probably going to have flooding,” she said.

Taylor-Goode talked about the project in Chapel Hill recently at an event held by the citizens group Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT). She also met with Chapel Hill town staff to learn about plans for Booker Creek in the Ephesus-Fordham zoning district.

An amenity

Chapel Hill officials want to restore the creek, improve the water quality and help to reduce the downstream flooding risk. The N.C. Division of Water Quality rated that section of creek as fair this year – it improved but still doesn’t support most aquatic, insect and wildlife.

“We’re mostly as a town looking at how we can improve it and make it an amenity where people can go and be, use multimodal paths, and things like that,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

The creek runs 5.7 miles from the headwaters north of Homestead Road through mostly developed land to Eastgate Crossing. The shopping center, owned by Federal Realty Investment Trust, was built before modern floodplain rules.

The creek cuts through a culvert under the parking lot and shops, before moving through mucky lowlands between Eastgate and Village Plaza on Elliott Road. It crosses under Fordham Boulevard and through neighborhoods before joining Bolin Creek at Little Creek, east of South Estes Drive.

The area is “obscured and made relatively inaccessible,” becoming overgrown and a place for trash and homeless camps, by development that turned its back on the creek, CHALT member David Schwartz said.

“In the last several years, people in the town have thought about making better use of what could be a really nice community amenity,” he said. “How could we restore the creek in some way and turn it into a more park-like setting, a green oasis in what is a pretty paved-over part of town.”

Green space

Daylighting, or exposing, Booker Creek through Eastgate is not an option right now, Hemminger said. That would reshape the shopping center, creating issues about parking and the nature of redevelopment, since the floodplain covers the entire property.

The recently released draft of the Lower Booker Creek subwatershed study (lowerbookercreeksws.org) estimated that daylighting Booker Creek would require creating at least a 70-foot span and cost Federal Realty about 70,000 square feet of commercial space.

Instead, the town is looking at how to incorporate the green space between Eastgate and Village Plaza into future redevelopment, she said. They would like to see something different from what’s happening at the Alexan apartments project, she said.

“The Alexan came in and treated it as the back yard. Their Dumpsters are facing the greenway, those kinds of things, (the) back side of buildings,” Hemminger said. “Instead of doing those things, make it be something you do want to look at and you do put balconies or a restaurant or something facing it so it becomes something people want to be looking at.”

The Lower Booker Creek study, which evaluated a 1,130-acre area from Weaver Dairy Road south to Little Creek, suggests excavating some of the open green space in the corridor behind Eastgate so it can store more water. The 5.5-acre, $1.1 million project would be one of the most critical to substantially reduce water in the Eastgate shopping area, the study notes.

“The proposed project also presents an opportunity to the Town to have a signature green space project located in the Ephesus Fordham District that could provide flood control, water quality treatment, and recreational features,” it states.

Taylor-Goode noted that such projects take time and patience.

Charlotte started a project this summer – more like the Booker Creek green space – to replace flood-prone apartments with an urban floodplain, she said. The Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary at Briar Creek (bit.ly/2ffNbPl) will create a pond and wetlands to hold and treat runoff at the confluence of three waterways.

Taylor-Goode noted the importance of planning ahead to meet grant and partnership opportunities. Chapel Hill stormwater engineer Sue Burke said they plan to trade notes and see what the town might glean from Charlotte’s experiences.

“I think everybody (in Chapel Hill) is on the right path as far as the community support,” Taylor-Goode said. “I think if you can get the community support and the town leaders on board, I think it could be a neat little project area.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s next

Chapel Hill officials will lead a public walking tour of the path and green space around Booker Creek in the Ephesus-Fordham district on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The tour will be from 1 to 2:30 p.m. and start at the pathway near Elliott Road and Fordham Boulevard.

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