Chapel Hill wants better development plan for Estes-MLK Boulevard corner

Timber harvest on Estes Drive in Chapel Hill

Logging begins to take down the trees Monday, June 11, 2018, on a 15-acre tract at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill. Landowner Kathryn Butler has submitted plans unsuccessfully to develop the property.
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Logging begins to take down the trees Monday, June 11, 2018, on a 15-acre tract at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill. Landowner Kathryn Butler has submitted plans unsuccessfully to develop the property.

A developer found very little support this week for a plan to build housing, offices and retail on the northeastern corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The town needs the townhouses and condos to serve its middle-income earners, Mayor Pam Hemminger said, but it also needs a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly plan with spaces that attract people and don’t add to the traffic.

“This long row of townhomes and the side of the apartment building, there’s no reason you would want to go in there,” she said during Wednesday’s Town Council review of the concept plan. “It’s a prestigious corner. It’s an important corner, but it’s also a difficult corner.”

A concept plan allows the developer to get feedback from the council and town advisory boards before submitting an application.

Developer CA Ventures LLC is proposing 230 apartments, 54 townhouses, 78,500 square feet of office and ground-floor retail space and “community gathering spaces.” The apartments are expected to attract residents of all ages, including students.

Estes-MLK site plan.jpg
A proposed site plan for the 1000 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. project at the northeastern corner of Estes Drive in Chapel Hill (bottom) shows commercial space wrapped around two parking decks along the MLK corridor, with apartment and townhouse buildings behind. Green space is scattered around the land’s perimeter. Coulter Jewell Thames Contributed

At least 15 percent affordable housing is included for residents earning up to 80 percent of the area median income — an individual earning up to $45,150 a year and a family of four earning at least $64,500.

The site would be served by three entrances: a tree-lined main entrance off MLK Boulevard and two smaller driveways off Estes Drive. Parking lots would be supplemented by four-story and six-story parking decks, and a prominent anchor space would be located on the corner, development representative Dan Jewell said. Buildings would be at least 150 feet from adjacent homes and apartments, he said.

The plan requires the council to rezone the land from residential to office and institutional uses.

CA Ventures is seeking a conditional zoning process, Jewell said. That process gives the council more flexibility to negotiate with the developer.

Logging at the site last year by landowner Kathryn Butler, sparked community concern when nearly 15 acres of trees were felled. CA Ventures was not involved in the logging, however state law gives the town an option of prohibiting development for three years on a tree farm that has been harvested.

The town’s Community Design Commission asked the council to consider that option. Council member Hongbin Gu also supported that move Wednesday.

“I have heard the uproar from the community,” she said about the logging. “I think that is not a practice we should encourage. I think we should make it clear we will enforce this three-year period as a deterrence for any other [landowner] that is trying to bypass the standard permitting procedures of the town.”

A representative for Butler said last year the logging was necessary to recoup some income from the designated tree farm. Three development plans submitted in the last eight years have failed. Two of those plans were submitted after a community-led Central West process outlined a vision for the 97 acres on the eastern side of the intersection.

Central West map.jpg
This map was created as part of the community-driven Central West small-area planning process. Contributed Town of Chapel Hill

The Central West plan was drafted with UNC’s future Carolina North campus in mind. The 250-acre research and academic campus — slated to replace Horace Williams Airport — was approved in 2009 but has been on hold. The airport is still used for UNC helicopters, town staff said, leaving an airport hazard zone in place on Butler’s property.

Traffic, stormwater concerns

Traffic is a major concern for developing that corner, council members and residents said. Cars already back up a quarter-mile or more on both roads at peak travel times. The N.C. Department of Transportation does not support a roundabout or a stoplight on Estes Drive, town staff said, but it is working to find other options.

Concerns also focused on stormwater runoff, the project’s layout, and the density and height of buildings.

Julie McClintock, a leader of the citizens group Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, cited those concerns in submitting a letter with 147 signatures opposing the plan to the council.

Council member Michael Parker, who co-chaired the Central West committee, acknowledged some merit in the latest plan, but said it still doesn’t meet the community’s goals.

There need to be a good gathering and retail spaces where people can congregate and get something to eat, he said. Better plans are needed for traffic, access and parking, he said.

Noting the six-story parking deck, he said the Central West plan capped building height at five stories.

“It feels like collection of buildings surrounded by an awful lot of parking,” Parker said. “I think we need to pay more attention to placemaking and, to the extent possible, we really need to create ... some kind of a center where people will want to come, congregate, hangout, and there are lots of examples of that in the larger community.”

Council members agreed with Parker’s assessment and with council member Jessica Anderson’s concerns about the size and height of buildings. Anderson also asked that the plan meet town rules for at least 40 percent tree cover.

There also needs to be more commercial spaces and affordable housing priced for lower incomes, council member Karen Stegman said. This also is the town’s first chance to create a transit-oriented development on the planned MLK Jr. Boulevard bus-rapid transit line, she said. The BRT would run from Eubanks Road to Southern Village.

“Assuming the bus-rapid transit comes, this is the model, the centerpiece, and it has to be just a better design,” she said. “It has to be really inviting and enticing and connected to that BRT station.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.