Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mark Zimmerman: Forming a form-based opinion

Last May, the Chapel Hill Town Council started an experiment. It re-zoned the Ephesus-Fordham district with form-based code. No longer would each new development project separately go through a long, expensive and unpredictable process for a special-use permit. Instead, town staff was given the authority to quickly approve any project meeting the new requirements.

How should we assess its success or failure?

First, how not to judge it.

We shouldn’t judge by any one single project. The code is an area plan. It covers 190 acres from Village Plaza through Eastgate and Ram’s Plaza up to the Town Cemetery. The idea is to create a district that holistically works together. As such, look at sum of the parts.

For instance, the first project – new retail and apartments where the old Elliott Road theater stood – was criticized by some for being too tall with too many residents. However, the second and third proposed projects provide quite a contrast. They are commercial-only businesses in one-story outparcel buildings in Ram’s Plaza.

Form-based code is intended to create balance over time. So far, that seems to be happening.

Don’t judge solely on cost. Some complained the Elliott mixed-use apartments would be more costly to the town than strict commercial development. These small apartments probably won’t add much to government expense, as they will house very few children and so won’t burden the schools. Regardless, focusing on costs alone is limiting; the benefits are important too. Introducing residents will help the surrounding new and old businesses succeed. Compact, dense development will also help alleviate the supply and demand problem that has made living in Chapel Hill unaffordable for many.

How should we judge form-based code? By its results. Is it creating the kind of area envisioned?

The Town Council forged this form-based code from the 20/20 Comprehensive Plan and three years of community planning involvement on Ephesus-Fordham specifically. The shared goal was to “renew and transform” the area with this vision: to have people living above a mix of retail and offices, so eventually they can walk and bike to do their shopping and work. On that measure, we are off to a very good start.

Another benefit of form-based code is motivating development interest by replacing the biggest impediment to redevelopment in Chapel Hill: the special-use permit. That convoluted, adversarial process has kept many good would-be investors away. Form-based code is clear and predictable for all parties.

Results have been dramatic. In just eight months, form-based code has attracted three significant projects in Ephesus-Fordham. That’s three times the number of special-use permits granted in the last ten years in this area. Converting a gas station to a Starbucks was the only previous activity in a decade.

We need people to invest in our community. On that measure, form-based code is a resounding success.

Finally, the best news is even the critics of Ephesus-Fordham insist they endorse the idea of form-based code, despite not liking the specifics of this one. That broad community support should encourage the Town Council to adopt a form-based code as a part of the Downtown Master Plan this year. We can debate what form it should take, but if we want to revitalize our town center, this new tool promises to make things happen where everyone agrees we really need it.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at