How long lived in Chapel Hill: almost 27 years
Political experience: Mayor of Chapel Hill, 2009-present; Council Member 2001-2009
If elected, what are your top 3 priorities in office?
Chapel Hill continues to face a trio of issues that for many years have been at the front of conversations regarding our community’s future: Affordability, Mobility, and Resiliency.
Affordability. I write at length below about housing affordability, but housing affordability is only one aspect of the general affordability issue. Having policies in place to create more affordable housing is only a starting point. To be truly affordable, new housing most be located near jobs and amenities, and residents must have convenient access to transit. To illustrate: an inexpensive residence located in a place that requires you to take a long commute to work or to buy essential food and essential home goods, quickly becomes less affordable. That is why our approach to affordable housing has evolved to take into consideration vehicle miles generated by housing development proposals. While we remain committed to including/demanding the inclusion of affordable units in new developments, today’s Town Council responds more favorably to the creation of affordable units, rather than demands for payment in lieu, when a proposal is located along one of our major transit corridors with access to nearby grocery stores for example. I look forward to further refining our polices in a way that insures that anyone who wants to live in Chapel Hill can find a safe, affordable place to do so. Living in Chapel Hill means more than just being able to pay your rent or your mortgage; it also means that you don’t have to disproportionately commit more of your income to meeting the rest of your basic needs.
Mobility. One of the most significant changes in Chapel Hill since my arrival decades ago is the greater role our community plays in the region. There was a time when the strongest connections between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill were the music listings in the Independent Weekly or the Spectator. Back then, a review of options for what to do on a Friday night required taking a look at the Indy Week, identifying an attractive entertainment option and then fully committing oneself to a long commute to the destination. Many triangle residents made the commute to the center of the Triangle to work in the Park, but returned to their home community after hours. Today, I am one of many who might find themselves in Raleigh in the morning, in Durham at midday, in the Park for a meeting late in the afternoon and then back in Chapel Hill for a meeting later that evening. I am proud of the work I have done as Mayor and as a member of the Council to advocate for and implement policies that help bring our regional communities together. And that has meant focusing not only on the highways that connect us, but also planning for and investing in other transportation modes that will soon link our densest residential areas and employment nodes. It is no surprise that I am a strong advocate for the regional light rail program – a project I fought strongly for when the question of imposing a .5 cent sales tax was put before the voters a few years ago. The questions regarding routing of the line and addressing the environmental impacts of the program have been at the front of mind ever since. I am confident that together we will find solutions to these issues and that our region and its economy will continue to grow to the benefit of our current residents and those who will call the Triangle their home in the future.
In addition to regional issues, financing the state’s best-run transit system and the largest fare-free transit system in the country continues to be a challenge for Chapel Hill and its partners. I am proud that since conducting a financial sustainability analysis last year, we are beginning to implement new models for financing the cost of buses and operations. Success is critical since transit is one of the most influential drivers of our land-use planning efforts and placemaking. We know that creating truly transit oriented development can address concerns about vehicle emissions and congestion. The best example of this is the main UNC campus. Beginning at the start of the last decade, UNC began building out the campus, covering almost every parking lot with a new research, medical, or academic building. After implementing fare-free transit and exponentially increasing ridership, every intersection around the campus has seen improvement for every transportation mode. Traffic congestion has decreased and intersections have become safer for bicyclist and pedestrians. Of course, exclusive residential and commercial spaces differ from university uses, but we have learned lessons from these experiences that we are now implementing as we plan for changes in other areas of town.
Resiliency. Community resiliency means more than just growing in a sustainable manner. Social, economic and environmental sustainability remain important considerations. But, lessons learned from the great recession have taught us that operational policies, efforts to address climate change, and other efforts that help our community weather the challenges of yet unforeseen changes in our economy, climate, or even health and safety crises must be part of how we plan for our future. I am proud, and will remain committed to ensuring our policies meet this challenge. Much of this work has remained out of the headlines, because by its nature it is work that does not await the challenges of extant crisis before it is adopted and implemented. As Mayor, I have worked closely with our town’s staff to encourage cross-training and talent identification among our staff. Today we have a cadre of town employees working at all levels of our organization who can be tapped into service as crisis managers. They have obtained the knowledge and necessary skills to direct the work of others without concern as to which department a particular town operation may be part of. An inventory of all of our assets – personal, financial, and capital, is now available and able to be deployed to meet the needs of severe weather threats, housing crises, and the needs of spontaneous events for which our town is well known. This focus has changed the way we handled the flood event of 2013, the loss of housing vouchers for many low-income residents last year, and even how we plan our response to events like Halloween. Resiliency is at the forefront of growth issues and is influencing our response to the changing demands of student housing and economic development. For example, for all the controversy around the Ephesus Fordham district, much of the work we did bringing together expertise from public works, transit, housing, planning, police and fire, and stormwater is often missing from any critique. For decades, the district has been an almost entirely paved swath of land dedicated to commercial activity. We sacrificed to support its existence including tolerating its automobile focus, hazards for bikers or walkers, and the negative environmental impacts. Notwithstanding these sacrifices, the commercial activity, jobs and tax revenue have never – at least in recent decades – produced in a way that justifies these compromises. In fact, it has been such an unattractive focus of investment, there was only one approved project in more than 14 years that actually came to fruition – the Starbucks at Eastgate. The property languished, and eyesores developed, like the enormous chain-link fence surrounded vacant lot on Elliot Rd., and the weed-infested sea of concrete that had once been home to a Volvo dealership. Hotels, including the former Holiday Inn on Fordham Blvd and the former Hampton Inn near Europa Drive lost their “flags,” i.e. their parent companies dropped them from their inventory of properties and today are almost forgotten components of our tourism industry. When we focused on how to improve the area and encourage it to meet the expectations the community must have had when they first allowed it to be paved decades ago, we didn’t just create a tax abatement incentive plan like so many other communities have done. We analyzed the horrendous traffic network, stormwater challenges, inventoried town-owned property and the community need for affordable housing, and developed a cross-disciplinary approach to revitalizing the area.
Intertwined with all three of these issues is of course the impact of growth and our community character. I believe our community’s character requires more than just being concerned about how tall a building is. A community’s character is much more than just an aesthetic consideration. Of course, what the built environment looks like is important – very important. That is why our new approaches at regulating development, like our newly adopted form-based code for the Ephesus Fordham area, is heavily focused on how spaces look and feel. But it is through people’s work, how they live their lives, how they meet their basic needs, and how they play and engage with each other that creates the character of our town. If there is one thing more important to defining a place’s character than the aesthetics of a space or the view of a building from behind the wheel of a car, it is the people who occupy that space. It is the people, not the brick and mortar that is most significant in defining our character. In the same way, it is what is in a person’s heart and how they behave that is worthy of our judgment, not the quality of a haircut or a designer label. As Mayor, I have and will continue to focus on how we grow and the development of our community’s character; and that focus will remain on how welcoming a community we are, how accessible life is here for people of all income levels, and how prepared we are for the challenges of the future.
What ideas do you propose on providing more affordable housing in Chapel Hill?
For many decades Chapel Hill has grappled with affordable housing issues. It is clear to me that because of our community’s desirability, its outstanding school system and its location in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the country, this will be an issue our town will have on its plate for the foreseeable future. And while candidates for local office talk often of this issue, I am proud to have been a part of a team that has actually delivered on the rhetoric and remain committed to continuing to develop creative approaches to addressing affordability in the future.
In terms of affordability, I tend to see it through this lens: If you want to live and work in Chapel Hill, there should be quality, safe, affordable options for you to do so. The market does a fine job providing for folks with higher incomes, but fails to do so for those in the middle class and those with lower incomes. I am proud that the strategies we have put in place have created an environment in which affordable housing is always at the top of the conversation.
Our work with the Home Trust has generated 230 permanently affordable for-purchase units over the last 15 years. That work has won recognition from cities and affordable housing advocates around the country. Over the last several years, as the market changed from producing for-purchase units to more apartments, we have remained innovative. Over the last two years we have developed new partnerships with developers that, for the first time, will create affordable rental units in new developments. This is an achievement that I don’t believe has been made anywhere else in the country in a market similar to ours. In addition, the town, for the first time, is leveraging its own property to create affordable housing. There haven’t been similar efforts since the town first created its public housing program. The success of the DHIC project in the Ephesus-Fordham district is just the first of similar projects I hope to lead. The Ephesus-Fordham district is also serving as a laboratory for another first for our town – the creation of a zoning district with a built-in incentive for the creation of affordable housing. The east side of Elliot Road, when brought into the district, will be the first time Chapel Hill has used an incentive plan, outside of our Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, to create affordable housing. I am looking forward to monitoring this effort over time and hope we can replicate the use of this tool in other parts of town.
We also recognize that the University must play a role in stabilizing housing prices, particularly in our near-in neighborhoods. That recognition is what inspired the effort, begun almost three years ago, that is now known as the Northside Initiative. In partnership with Self-Help and UNC, we have created an investment fund to stand between potential investors who would otherwise turn homes that had housed families into student residences. This effort is the first real opportunity to address the investment pressures in a gentrifying neighborhood that we have been able to implement. This kind of creative approach should be applauded. We have learned that addressing affordability in future markets will require a similar innovate approach.
Before I became mayor the town relied solely on a very limited number of tools – our public housing program and our partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Empowerment and the Community Home Trust. Alone they weren’t and will never be the complete solution to Chapel Hill’s affordability problem: the maintenance of our relationship with these organizations, the development culture we have created that includes the expectation that affordable housing will be addressed in some way by every development, along with the creative partnerships with the University and new regulatory tools we are creating to provide development incentives are signs that our deeds are correlating with our rhetoric. I look forward to nurturing more creativity around this issue in my next term.
Which route do you favor for the proposed 17-mile light rail project that would link Chapel Hill and Durham, and why?
At this time I favor the Locally Preferred Options that are currently part of GoTriangle’s light rail proposal that is now out for public comment. I have closely watched this process since its inception and advocated strongly for the half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters through referendum. To date, I have been impressed by GoTriangle’s responsiveness to community input. Nonetheless, because we are currently in the middle of the 45 day comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and because I currently serve as the chair of the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, I believe it is best for me to keep an open mind. The MPO Board is scheduled to consider endorsement of the plan at its November 11, 2015 meeting. I strongly value the contributions I know citizens are currently making right now and am looking forward to the how GoTriangle responds to those comments.
What plans do you have to make sure that those who bike and walk in Chapel Hill do so in a safe environment?
I am anxious to begin implementing our recently adopted Bicycle Plan and beginning the creation of a town-wide pedestrian plan. Already our Bike Plan is influencing our approach to evaluating development proposals. In fact, elements appear in our consideration of projects that predate even the adoption of the plan. We are leveraging our review process to insure that new developments incorporate complete street designs that include wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and where possible off-road bike ways. For example, the development agreement process that led to the plans for the future redevelopment of Glenn Lennox will create new safer crossing for bicyclists across Fordham Blvd. The same interest was in play in our negotiations regarding Obey Creek that now promises a new bridge over 15-501 for bicycle and pedestrian access to Southern Village. In addition, I led the effort to transfer funds from delayed projects to create a fund of over $2 million dollars to improve the bicycle and pedestrian experience along Estes Road. I am proud that Chapel Hill has earned Bronze status as Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists. I look forward to doing the work necessary to reach silver and gold status in the coming years. It is my hope that the people of Chapel Hill will join this effort by approving a bond package for streets, sidewalks, greenways and trails that will allow for additional investment of over $19 million dollars. These dollars, which can be borrowed without incurring a tax increase, can be leveraged with state and federal dollars to help us reach that goal.