Chapel Hill: Opinion

Dale Coker: Chapel Hill needs connectivity, but for whom?

Raleigh

In the Modern Age, buzz-words have become code to make new agendas seem cool or smart, even when they’re not.

A few years back, the Chapel Hill town manager, through his economic development officer, initiated the Ephesus-Fordham plan and hired engineering consultant Kimley-Horn to conduct a traffic study, which culminated in a 43-page report in 2011, with possible street widenings and extensions for re-developing the district, including “connectivity” in the Village Plaza area along Elliott Road.

Meanwhile, the manager hired another consultant (this time from Texas) to initiate Form-Based Code development as a means to speed up the municipal approval process, because FBC is based only on the form of new, higher-density zoning, with little to no regard for everything else that is already here.

Then, last year, Town Council hastily adopted this recommended code to facilitate 7-story, high-density development throughout Ephesus-Fordham, starting with the Village Plaza Center, and with no adequate consideration for pre-existing, problematic conditions like flooding and traffic.

The town uses hip, cool expressions like “energy efficiency,” “environmentally friendly” and “connectivity” to promote redevelopment. And although it ignored the first of these expressions in green lighting the Ephesus-Fordham re-zoning, it has facilitated connectivity in spades, thanks to its interpretation of the Kimley-Horn report.

When most people consider the term connectivity, they no doubt imagine improved openness, inclusion and accessibility for all: that we will become better connected.

When you, however, consider what the E-F plan requires of East West Partners – in their soon to be deployed Village Plaza Apartments – as well as any subsequent Village Plaza developer, you will come to know a different, more exclusive, less public-oriented kind of connectivity being brought to the traffic patterns along Elliott Road, Franklin Street and Fordham Boulevard.

The E-F plan shows three new unnamed street segments within the Village Plaza redevelopment which I will call “Staples Street,” “Red Hot and Blue Boulevard” and “The Burger King Connector” (BKC). Please note that Staples Street and the Burger King Connector appear as one through-road in plan drawings.

These three segments converge behind the proposed Village Plaza Apartments parking deck and its 463 parking spaces. While Red Hot and Blue Boulevard and Staples Street offer sensible, centrally located vehicular passageways, the Burger King Connector imposes itself onto Elliott Road at a location of questionable sight-distance and unreasonably close proximity to Fordham Boulevard, with the potential for 1,000-plus new daily vehicle trips generated by the apartments alone, and many thousands more with a fully redeveloped Village Plaza.

So why would any potential Village Plaza re-developer accept the town’s connectivity requirements to place its traffic in such a problematic, unacceptable and potentially dangerous location? Could it be that developers assume the BKC will be so onerous to the existing stop sign controlled curb connection that the town will need to install a new traffic signal to manage traffic brought by their projects to this location?

And why would proposed Village Plaza re-developers want a traffic signal at Burger King/Elliott? Maybe because a BKC/Elliott traffic signal will provide future Village Plaza residents and customers exclusive access to Elliott at this near proximity to Fordham, even while it imposes a significant disruption to the rest of Elliott/Fordham traffic?

I petitioned the town to remove the BKC. On Jan. 14, a town engineer responded stating that adequate sight distance exists at the proposed BKC/Elliott intersection, if considered at the posted speed limit of 25 mph (it is more likely many vehicles travel at speeds of 35-plus mph), and that the town might consider installing a median in Elliott Road to prevent left turns onto it from the proposed BKC, which, ironically will also prevent left turns into Village Plaza at this location – a real blow to the town’s stated connectivity goals.

The engineer’s letter also states there is but 348 feet to the Elliott/Fordham vehicle stop bar from the BKC/Elliott intersection and that 500 feet is the minimum allowable distance between traffic signals (greater distances are desirable), but that the town had the “flexibility” to consider a traffic signal when safety becomes an issue.

Safety is an issue, but so is access to travelways. Exclusive access to Elliott Road is the only reason to introduce a signalized Burger King Connector, and the proposed Village Plaza re-developments are its only logical beneficiary(s), while this poorly conceived potential signal/intersection will become a huge negative impediment to all others using these existing neighborhood streets.

Tell the Town Council and Manager Roger Stancil to remove the Burger King Connector from the Village Plaza redevelopment plan and the Ephesus-Fordham district. As responsible citizens, we must give lucid discussion to what “connectivity” really means.

Dale Coker lives in Chapel Hill.

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