Chapel Hill: Opinion

Dale Coker: Our roads are not ready for densification

By Dale Coker

After prevailing in the American Revolution, the 13 original colonies gradually became independent states in a new Union, and in late November 1789, North Carolina became the 12th. A few days later, the University of North Carolina was born.

Our original state government (then located in Hillsborough) placed the new university near a chapel several miles away, and commissioned surveyors to stake out the 500 and 450 foot contours because this land was the most desirable. A map provided courtesy of Stewart Dunaway, author of “A Historical Overview of the Village of Chapel Hill” shows the initial university/town grid was oriented on a northwest by southeast axis, rather than the traditional north/south/east/west pattern. The town would come to be known as Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill was a necessary adjunct to UNC, and it existed at the pleasure of the University.

Fast forward 200 odd years to find a somewhat different “town/gown” struggle, with one entity desperate for taxes and the other not paying any. And poorly planned growth has spread Chapel Hill well below the 450 foot contour. The town-approved Ephesus-Fordham, newly densified re-development district exists atop a few feet of fill in the Booker Creek floodplain at approximate elevation 250, making the eastern gateway to Chapel Hill an area subject to floods.

Through the years, UNC has grown its “gown” role to something more resembling big business than an institution of higher learning, operating hospitals and clinics, performing proprietary research for private corporations, and building national championship athletic squads to the delight of so many university and non-university fans. It is by far the dominant Chapel Hill revenue generator, and none of it is taxed. UNC even holds real estate in a tax-sheltered trust, so the town and county are deprived of badly needed property taxes.

Most recently, this growth paradigm is attributable, in part, to a former trustee and a former UNC planner who were instrumental in the creation of the 250-acre Carolina North concept and plan in 2009. That former trustee is now Chapel Hill’s primary developer while the former planner has become executive director of Planning and Sustainability for the Town of Chapel Hill. And both push a dense urbanization agenda. Recently, the executive director advised the council as it considered the developer’s new 1.6 million square foot project called Obey Creek.

Such massive urban development might be considered a reasonable accompaniment to the massive proposed growth of UNC/Carolina North if adequate transportation infrastructure existed, but it doesn’t. And it might make sense if everyone in the town and university walked, biked or rode local transit, but they don’t, and they won’t. Worst of all, these new urban areas, as well as out-of-town regional growth will depend on transportation corridors like U.S. 15-501 – a truly frightening scenario.

Workers at both the town and university routinely drive considerable distances to fill jobs. I recently met a man who commutes 45 miles from Siler City to earn $18 per hour driving buses for the town/gown transit system. Still others drive through town to jobs at Duke, Durham, RTP, perhaps Raleigh. Most of them view Chapel Hill as unaffordable, which is why they drive from lower-cost, out-of-town locations. They place a major, growing burden on local roadways. Such workers will never live in Obey Creek, or in other high-density developments unless they are one of the few token recipients of compulsory affordable housing. Dense urban development in Chapel Hill is not targeted to affordable housing, and it won’t likely.

Intense urban re-development is not the solution for the town/gown relationship without massive build-up of transportation infrastructure, but it cannot be clearer that both the town and university leadership support it, even without said infrastructure.

Citizens have a right to know how big our transportation corridors must become, how much it will cost, and who will pay for it before approving projects like Obey Creek and the densification of Ephesus-Fordham.

This growth overture first proclaimed by the gown, now refrained by the town, may result in a ballad lamenting how a college town became an urban nightmare.

Dale Coker served two terms on the Chapel Hill Community Design Commission.