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Downtown Chapel Hill could be compact, connected, anchored and green, just as the motto calls for. Or this could be just another expensive exercise in how to win "Sim City: The Chapel Hill Edition."

New downtown plan: promising, but susceptible to "Chapel Hill Syndrome" 

Chapel Hill may have uncovered a map to revitalizing Franklin Street, spurring the local economy and renewing a sense of place for a fabled street.

Town planners could create new street corners and public spaces. They could increase walkability and redevelop areas where the buildings are worth less than the land they sit on. They could establish much-needed parking and a transit hub. Downtown could be compact, connected, anchored and green, just as the motto calls for.

But the plan could be just another expensive exercise in how to win "Sim City: The Chapel Hill Edition"—it's just an imaginary world, not real life.

Money (can the town afford it?), politics (will taxpayers support it?), nostalgia (can folks get past their own memories of Franklin Street and embrace a new vision?) and time (how long is this consultant on the payroll anyway?) could make the plan just another idea idling on the shelf. In fact, the 2010 plan would sit next to its impotent 2001 predecessor, which called for many of the same strategies.

"You are going to have to decide as a community whether you want the downtown to grow and prosper or not," consultant Dan Douglas of the Raleigh-based firm KlingStubbins told residents at a town hall forum.

Sounds simple. It isn't.

Douglas says his priorities are creating a transit center, a west-end greenway and a town green. But first, the town must tackle decades-old issues—most important: parking.

For all of the reportedly successful recent parking initiatives—valet, free weekends and credit card meters—the perception persists that Chapel Hill lacks a place to put your vehicle. That perception is reality, Douglas says. The town needs 1,280 parking spaces to meet demand.

"Parking drives all new development," he explains. "I don't think there has been a downtown in my 12 years of doing this that doesn't have a parking issue."

Downtown also lacks well-defined edges and clear separation between residential and commercial zones, planners say.

"Chapel Hill has a disjointed and not well established grid," says Douglas, who pinpointed 47 acres downtown that could be developed.

To fix it, Douglas proposes adding or extending cross streets, four running north and south—Mitchell, Mallette, Pittsboro and Henderson—and three running east and west. They would be 58 feet wide, the minimum allowed, and with almost equal space afforded to cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

Douglas says adding new streets will create more "100 percent corners," planner-speak for profitable stores or restaurants. The strategy would also break down Chapel Hill's blocks, some of which are the length of a small runway. In an ideal downtown, blocks are no longer than two football fields, or 600 feet. Chapel Hill's are 2,000 feet at some stretches, notably on Franklin Street from Raleigh Road to Columbia Street.

"Police often run [to calls] because it's quicker than driving," Douglas says.

The problem is most evident at the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, where green arrows clash with clusters of pedestrians, and motorists can idle for multiple light cycles.

"Basically everything is on the verge of failing," Douglas says. "This is going to be a big problem if you don't make some adjustments."

When Douglas presented his plan in July to the Friends of Downtown, a group of business owners and their supporters, he began to explain the "resistance to change" variable.

The room erupted in laughter. Locals often call it "the Chapel Hill Syndrome." It's the idea that everything was perfect the day they arrived and has been rapidly deteriorating ever since. While rife with hyperbole, the point remains. Change doesn't happen without a fight.

Even supporters of the plan worry that it hasn't been publicized enough. Ruby Sinreich, creator of Orangepolitics.com, is concerned that many Chapel Hill residents have not attended public presentations about the plan and will complain after the fact.

"Because I love this plan so much, I'm extremely concerned about the process," Sinreich said. "That's what always happens in Chapel Hill. People get upset after the ground breaks."

She is urging new ways of reaching people who don't read press releases and town bulletins.

Jim Norton, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, says the groups his organization has talked to, including neighborhood watch, downtown advocacy, local developers, town boards, arts groups, police, fire and UNC student government, have been receptive to the plan.

"We've gotten, quite frankly, a lot of positive comments, one or two suggestions to be careful with the Cameron McCauley neighborhood and to try to avoid at all costs moving a house or a building or an existing business, and we take those comments to heart," he says.

For example, three historic residences on Mallette Street obstruct Douglas' proposed new connector street.

Douglas told a resident who claimed the plan was "taking a meat axe" to Mallette: "You say 'take out,' I say 'relocate.'"

A downtown team made up of public officials and business owners is taking public comment until mid-October. Then the the plan enters the final, and most crucial step: moving it from conceptual PowerPoint to real-life bulldozing.

Norton says the town will consider bonds or tax increment financing, which allows the town to borrow money and pay for it with projected future property tax revenue.

Decisions need to happen quickly, though. Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill's economic development officer, cautions that the contract with KlingStubbins is almost up.

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit funded by the town and UNC, hired Douglas last October for a one-time $70,000 fee. Douglas has more than a decade of experience planning in downtown Raleigh and served as that city's Urban Design Center director until he took his consultant job. (He was the subject of an Indy cover story in October 2009, "Dan Douglas' European vision for our capital city.")

"We can't carry them much beyond beginning of December without extending the contract," Bassett says.

The project is three months behind schedule. KlingStubbins wanted to have a final report done in October, but Bassett says "the culture of Chapel Hill" slowed them, because major initiatives aren't typically rolled out in summer months.

Bassett hopes the Town Council will consider the plan at a November meeting, but he says it's more likely to occur in January.

"The assumption was by the end of the year it would have been presented to council and be able to be a complete master plan, and I'm not sure we're there or if we'll get there."

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Great article, Billy! Much appreciated!

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