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Carrboro Needs a Comprehensive Plan, and The Aldermen Should Put Money in the Next Budget To Create One
Carrboro needs a new Comprehensive Plan, and an entirely new Unified Development Ordinance. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen should take the first step towards these goals by putting money in the town’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget to create such a plan.
Last year, my most widely read posts on CityBeautiful21 were about one subject- the proposed Lloyd Farm development, a crappy 20th century strip mall concept that greatly underused the site and missed the mark in many ways. I’m not going to rehash the problems with the proposal, but anyone who wants a rundown can read my final piece before the vote here.
Instead, I’m going to discuss the two things that Carrboro lacks that likely would have prevented the Town from taking FIVE YEARS to reject a bad idea.
Those two things are:
- A lack of a Current Comprehensive Plan or Vision document with appropriate geographic specificity
- An outdated and piecemeal-amended Unified Development Ordinance that draws its core values from the ideas of the late 1970s, that does not reflect the challenges and opportunities present in Carrboro today.
Quick Review: What’s A Comprehensive Plan? What’s a Unified Development Ordinance?
Simply put, a Comprehensive Plan is an overall policy document for a city or town that describes the type of community the city or town seeks to become in the future. A Comprehensive Plan usually has many subsections with goals for each including items such as Land Use, Transportation, Economic Development, Parks and Recreation, Social Equity, Environmental Quality, and so forth. Truly excellent plans try to address the places where goals for each of these topics may conflict and accurately frame the tradeoffs inherent in those conflicts.
A Unified Development Ordinance is the nitty-gritty, detailed set of rules and regulations that govern how buildings, streets, sidewalks, telephone poles, plantings, trash bins and just about any other physical element of the community you can think of gets laid out on the ground when it is built.
Lack of a Current Comprehensive Plan or Vision Document
It is worth nothing that while the town does not have a Comprehensive Plan, Carrboro does have a Vision document, called “Carrboro Vision 2020.” It was adopted quite a while back, in 2000, and it is a vision for the whole town. Some of the policies are quite good. Here are a few:
2.22 Where development is deemed acceptable, there should be well defined dense
development with areas of well preserved open space.
2.41 The town should support the evolution of a downtown district that embodies
Carrboro’s character. The downtown district should have medium-rise buildings
appropriately sited with adequate public access, and it should provide shopping
opportunities that meet our citizens’ everyday needs. The downtown should
remain a center for the community where people work, gather, shop, socialize and
recreate. The Century Center should serve as a focal point for the downtown.
4.41 As a general policy, established roads should be widened to accommodate bike
lanes and sidewalks, but not to provide additional lanes for automobiles.
It is terrific that Carrboro has a policy document like this, and the 300 East Main development in downtown is evidence that this policy is being applied in at least part of downtown. But while it is great that we have such straightforward, intentional statements for downtown, it is clear that “well defined dense development” is nearly the opposite of what we got at Lloyd Farm.
An Outdated Unified Development Ordinance (UDO)
Generally speaking, if you want to build something that positively adds to the town’s urbanity, amplifying the “life-on-foot” feel that makes downtown Carrboro such a great place, you need to jump through all sorts of hoops, extra public hearings and special use permits to get it built. When you want to build something that turns inward, away from the street, and doesn’t contribute much to the public realm in Carrboro, you can usually get a building permit pretty quickly under our 1970s suburban ordinances. Under these conditions, you’re counting on the quality of the vision of the developer to give you something other than a terrible outcome.
While once in a blue moon we get a solid outcome like Shelton Station, we usually get an urban failure like the Park Slope development. What’s wrong with Park Slope? Several things, but the worst thing about it is that the Town did code not require Park Slope to build a piece of sidewalk on South Greensboro St along the front of the Park Slope property.
What’s particularly sad about this outcome is that residents have been advocating for several years to get a sidewalk on South Greensboro Street. If the Town had required a sidewalk here, and the new South Green development had been required to build more sidewalk to connect to it, the Town would be much closer to having a sidewalk from downtown to the base of the South Greensboro, and the private sector would have been a partner in helping to make that connection.
Instead, the town is having to compete with Durham, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough for limited Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds at the DCHC-MPO to build a sidewalk for $400,000. Carrboro should be getting developers to participate in building our sidewalks on major arterials, so that we can request CMAQ funds for things that are greatly needed but unlikely to be funded by developers, like future phases of the Morgan Creek and Bolin Creek Greenways.
So why exactly didn’t the code require sidewalks here? It’s not entirely clear to me, but the reason may be in Article XIV (the Streets and Sidewalks section) of Carrboro’s current UDO.
In subdivision developments that abut a public street, sidewalks shall be con-
structed adjacent to such street if a sidewalk in that location is required by the officially adopted town sidewalk master plan. Whenever possible, such sidewalk shall be constructed within the public right-of-way.
I put a few words in bold above. Carrboro does have an adopted Bike Plan on their website, but I did some Googling and Carrboro does not seem to have an officially adopted sidewalk master plan. That seems to be a big hole weakening the connection between what we want to happen and our requirements to deliver our desired future.
There’s also some text in other parts of Article XIV that states:
The permit-issuing authority may reduce the sidewalk requirement for subcollector streets
meeting the alternative street standard from both sides to one side of the road if:
a. The development contains a parallel system that is integrally designed and provides pedestrian access to the interior of the site;
This is great for the people who live in Park Slope, but not good for anyone who doesn’t live there but needs to walk by Park Slope. It’s also very consistent with the idea that paths are for walking within developments, and presumes you will never need to walk out of the development because you will drive to anywhere else- a very 1970s view of the world.
Our Regulations Aren’t Working For Us (Or For The Developers)
With five years to get to “No” on Lloyd Farm, and missing the chance to have developers build sidewalks on a street where we ARE approving development and are applying for public funds to build sidewalks, it’s clear that our directions to the development community aren’t clear enough about our desires and our ordinances aren’t organized to require the pieces of town infrastructure we need.
If Carrboro doesn’t change its approach to development proposals, what happened with Lloyd Farm will happen again, and what happened with Park Slope will happen again.
Our ordinance is full of band-aids with amendments in 1998 or 2003 still trying to address thoughts from the 1970s and the 1980s in 2017. The world has changed, our towns opportunities and challenges have changed, and so should our development regulations to be more specific about the future our town needs and desires. It’s time to throw the old stuff out and start fresh. Want to see what a modern UDO looks like? Check out Raleigh’s – complete with pictures to make it easy to understand for residents.
From the point of view of the development community, I’m sure they would like to propose projects that generate less fractious debate and have a better chance of being well-received by residents. A clearer code could be a win-win where Carrboro residents see more changes in town that complement their vision for the future, and developers can approach projects with more certainty about outcomes.
What The Aldermen Should Do
On January 24th at 7:30 pm, there is a public hearing on budget priorities for the upcoming year. I’m requesting that the Aldermen put in funding to hire a consultant to support the Town Planning staff in developing a new Comprehensive Plan for Carrboro and a completely brand-new UDO. Please join me in making this request. You can attend in person, or tell the Aldermen “We Need a Comprehensive Plan!” by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.