Durham County

Consultant ties light-rail stations to population growth, economic development

CHAPEL HILL -- Light-rail stations offer more than transportation, a consultant said Monday, from planning for regional population growth and economic development to building on Chapel Hill’s affordable housing foundation.

Monday’s report to the Chapel Hill Town Council covered six days of community workshops in which consultants collected ideas and drafted development suggestions for 18 stations along the 17.7-mile light-rail transit line. Chapel Hill and Durham paid for the work with a $1.69 million Federal Transit Administration grant.

While the Orange and Durham counties’ boards of commissioners have the final say about the light-rail transit project, the council would decide on projects proposed for the stations within Chapel Hill. Durham’s City Council would approve projects at a dozen rail stations within its jurisdiction.

The work is continuing today as regional officials delve more deeply into the affordable housing issue, said Patrick McDonough, GoTriangle’s planning and transit-oriented development manager. Bus and rail station connections will be another key component, he and others said.

The Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town and Orange County Voice also will hold a conversation about Orange County transit at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at Extraordinary Ventures, 200 S. Elliott Road in Chapel Hill.

Four factors – connectivity, local character, economic development and equity – were critical to the draft plans, said Gateway Planning founder Scott Polikov.

There is a “tremendous opportunity” to attract economic development to the Gateway station at Interstate 40 and U.S. 15-501, for instance, he said. Civitech founder Tony Sease noted the potential for bike and pedestrian links across I-40 and U.S. 15-501.

Smaller-scale residential buildings might be appropriate along Old Durham Road, Sease said, while the remaining area could hold a dense mix of retail, offices and parking garages, including one with 500-plus park-and-ride spaces accessible from the I-40 East on-ramp.

“There’s lots of options,” Polikov said, “but the key is how it’s designed for future expansion that both creates opportunities for additional parking but doesn’t consume it through permanent surface parking that eventually becomes a barrier to redevelopment.”

Some residential development also is possible at the UNC Hospitals and Mason Farm stations, Polikov said, along with a small amount of ground-floor retail and campus amenities. While planning for UNC land doesn’t guarantee an outcome, he warned, the Friday Center station was envisioned with existing buildings, more institutional or commercial uses, and residential housing, particularly for staff and employees.

While citizens who spoke generally supported transit, most urged the town to stop wasting resources planning stations for a light-rail system that they said has questionable finances and social benefits.

The decision has been made, council member Maria Palmer responded, and the town needs to take advantage of its opportunities.

“We have to take risks. We have to move forward. I believe in progress, and I believe that millennials are getting out of their cars and they want this, and for Chapel Hill to stay competitive, we have to provide modern transportation,” Palmer said.

The town can’t wait until the stations are built, council member Sally Greene added.

“The reason we’re doing it now is because, as it was pointed out and is very easy to imagine, if we were to wait until the moment if or when station stops are dedicated and they’re real, then overnight, the price of land is going to go (up),” Greene said, “so if we’re going to have meaningful planning, particularly for the affordable housing, we have to be doing it now.”

Council member Nancy Oates offered a different perspective, noting that light rail is nice, but may not be affordable or offer much benefit to Orange County.

“If this does get passed, then we’re going to be paying a lot for the light rail, and then we’re going to be paying a lot for affordable housing, so I want to know exactly how much, not just have it dangled out there, oh, you’ll get affordable housing,” Oates said. “We won’t get it; we’ll have to buy it, and how much is it going to cost?”

Affordable housing won’t be a free ride, Polikov said.

“Affordable housing policy is a citywide policy for Durham and a town-wide policy for Chapel Hill, and I think it’s inappropriate to suggest that somehow the light-rail project should absorb and take over and direct the affordable housing question,” Polikov said. “It’s an opportunity to expand affordable housing, but there’s no way to know what the total cost would be relative to the light rail system itself.”

The town has several tools now, including density bonuses, financing and tax credits, land acquisition and government subsidies. Housing experts will look at other options, McDonough said. He also noted more light-rail financial information will be out soon and urged everyone to also read the financial analysis expected from the county’s independent consultant.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb