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Light rail stalled, mixed-use development moves forward

At this time, 1.5 million square feet of office space is set for construction, along with 875,000 square feet of retail and 3,346 units of residential spaces. The Ephesus-Fordham, Glen-Lennox, Obey Creek, Carolina Square and Carraway Village mixed-use developments have all been approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Planned developments would provide affordable housing, allowing UNC graduates and young professionals to stay in Chapel Hill.

“We’ve lost many companies and many opportunities in the last decade because we’ve not been able to offer the space that met the interest and needs of companies that started here as well as companies that wanted to locate here,” said Dwight Bassett, economic development officer for Chapel Hill.

The push for increased density is as much about Chapel Hill’s growth as it is about connecting the town to the rest of the rapidly developing Triangle.

In 2014, GoTriangle received approval from the Federal Transit Administration to develop a light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill. The light rail would link the two biggest employers in Orange and Durham counties — UNC and Duke University. The light rail would be projected to operate by 2025 or 2026.

Despite Chapel Hill’s plans to urbanize, the light rail project might not see completion due to funding problems.

The N.C. General Assembly put a $500,000 cap on state funding for the light rail in September. An amendment to lift the state cap passed in the House and is still in committee in the Senate.

GoTriangle officials have nonetheless expressed optimism about the project.

“We still think we’re in a position where we still could look into a number of different options,” said Natalie Murdock, interim director of communications and public affairs at GoTriangle. “We have enough work done where we still could probably move forward in some capacity.”

GoTriangle has until 2019 to secure 50 percent of their budget from the state before a federal evaluation, Murdock said. If the FTA is in favor of the project, federal funding would supply the other 50 percent.

“It’s important to show (the Federal Transit Administration) that there is additional density being developed that can support the light rail when it occurs,” Bassett said.

Town officials expect the six light rail stations planned for Chapel Hill will impact mixed-use development. A future market study, funded by the federal grant, will investigate the amount of development possible at the station sites.

“That market study will attempt to identify where the greatest potential exists for the different types of development,” said David Bonk, long range and transportation planning manager for Chapel Hill.

Council member George Cianciolo said increasing urban density is also a matter of adhering to established restrictions as the population grows.

“There’s very little land left in Chapel Hill for development,” Cianciolo said. “Thirty years ago, the town council and the county and Carrboro all agreed on establishing a rural buffer, which limited Chapel Hill to a certain amount of fixed area.”

Cianciolo said the town plans to grow up, not out, with mixed-use development.

Residents of mixed-use buildings have access to commercial spaces and a better commute. Start-ups and early technology companies coming out of UNC, or from other areas of the country, can concentrate in downtown Chapel Hill and build a community.

But new town council members have expressed concern with the specifics of recently approved projects.

Town council electee Michael Parker said form-based code for the Ephesus-Fordham district prevented the town from reviewing the project at a necessary level.

“As projects are starting to come through, we’re seeing some unintended consequences,” Parker said.

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“Since one of the goals of Ephesus-Fordham was to encourage development to improve the tax base, putting in what is a relatively small building, of probably little more tax value than what is there now, really isn’t meeting our goals. My feelings on Ephesus-Fordham don’t have to do so much with the pace of development or anything, but really making sure that we do the place-making right.”

Newly elected council member Nancy Oates said the planned developments won’t offer affordable housing to Chapel Hill residents, which was a major part of her platform during the election. This includes potential development along the light rail line.

“(The light rail) strikes me not so much as a project that’s going to reduce traffic, but one that will shift development just in the amount of businesses cropping up along the light rail line, and I don’t anticipate that any of it will be affordable housing,” Oates said.

Oates, along with council member electee Jessica Anderson and mayor-elect Pam Hemminger, was endorsed by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town during the election.

The political organization believes Chapel Hill has a limited capacity for growth and recommends more rigorous standards for planned developments. The character of future mayor and council decisions for development might change drastically given these commitments.

“Employers want to be in areas that provide services to their employees,” Bonk said. “(Employees) want to be in areas that provide alternative modes of transportation. Therein lies the ability of the light rail stations to attract regional, statewide and even national employers looking for access to university environments.”