Two years ago, the part of Chapel Hill where Eastgate Crossing and Village Plaza and Ram’s Plaza collide (home to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Food Lion, and dozens of restaurants and shops) was cobbled together into a designated zoning district called Ephesus-Fordham and singled out for an experimental—to Chapel Hill—approach to development known as form-based code.
The hope was that this new approach would streamline what had long been an excruciating review process for new projects in Chapel Hill. Today, Chapel Hill is so chockablock with hulking new apartment developments (with somewhere in the neighborhood of six thousand new apartment units already on the way), it’s hard to believe that, not so long ago, it was an incredibly grueling place for developers to do business. Elected officials and townspeople routinely spiked new projects deemed not in keeping with the town’s character.
That changed in the mid-2000s, when Chapel Hill leaders began to covet the shiny urban projects being erected from scratch, or reinvigorated via adaptive reuse, in Durham and Raleigh. Soon, high-rise projects like 140 West Franklin, East 54, and Greenbridge began to shoot into the sky. With development-friendly Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, first elected in 2009, and a willing council, Chapel Hill was suddenly a hot market for developers.
But the pendulum swung too far the other way. Last year, Kleinschmidt and two council incumbents were swept out of office, partially on a wave of discontent over the perceived Manhattanization of Chapel Hill—but not before the council voted to try form-based code in Ephesus-Fordham.
With form-based code, rather than the usual process of developers submitting a plan and running the gauntlet of citizen input meetings, planning department meetings, and council votes, the town instead identifies a specific district it wants to see redeveloped. Then the community comes together to refine what it wants to see there. Then a code is produced that reflects those values.
As a 2015 town release notes, the “focus [is] on the form of buildings and streets rather than just the land use. For example, the codes focus on the physical character of buildings—the relationship of buildings to each other and to the street. … The Council-adopted codes define a specific vision for the form and character of development that guides staff review of applications for compliance with the code.”
In other words, once the code is in place, developers are basically free to do as they please in the district, provided they check all the boxes set in the code. No more marathon public meetings. No more council votes. The town’s planning staff deals with everything, and it has seventy-five days to either give a project a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
The thinking, a few years ago, was that if form-based code worked well in Ephesus-Fordham, it might work well in other districts.
You don’t hear that so much these days, though. Mostly, the talk is of how to change the code to keep the wrong kinds of developments from invading Ephesus-Fordham.
“We want a better outcome,” says Mayor Pam Hemminger.
The problem with form-based code, as it exists in Ephesus-Fordham, is that the specifics of the code weren’t faithful to community input. The code has no real teeth, and, as such, has thus far failed to deliver the streetscape and walkable environment everybody, including the town council, sought at the outset.
Since assuming office last year, Hemminger has worked with the council to refine the code in Ephesus-Fordham. She has hired an urban designer from Durham, Tony Sease, to improve the plan for the district.
“And, since last spring, we’ve passed eight changes to [the Ephesus-Fordham code],” Hemminger says. That includes emphasizing greenways and shortening maximum block lengths to allow for improved walkability. The town has also hired a stormwater consultant to examine flooding in the lower Booker Creek area.
This approach—hire consultants with an eye on improving the code, seek incremental progress on updating the code based on those recommendations, and pray like hell that nobody submits another monster market-rate apartment complex in Ephesus-Fordham in the meantime—is pragmatic, but also risky. Chapel Hill has a very real need for new commercial developments.
“Our tax base is eighty-four percent residential, with six thousand more residential units on the way,” Hemminger says. “We need to be closer to sixty-forty residential. We need a better balance.”
Short of eliminating form-based code in Ephesus-Fordham, though, there’s no way to ensure Ephesus-Fordham won’t get more projects like the ninety-foot-high, soon-to-open luxury apartments of the Alexan, the first project approved in the district. Or the apartments that have been submitted for the former Volvo dealership between Legion Road and the Fordham Boulevard service road.
Adding to concern is the news that South Village Plaza was sold over the summer, for $18 million, to Ram Realty, developer of the luxury condos at 140 West Franklin. The News & Observer reported last week that “an application is possible early next year [on South Village Plaza] that would include a new retail building, parking lot and storefront improvements.”
“I think we’re good for now on market-rate apartments,” says council member Jessica Anderson. “One thing that we talked about in our last meeting is ways to encourage or incentivize business in that district. I think we need to beef up the code to be more explicit that what we want to see there is commercial and office, and not just more apartments.”
Council member Michael Parker, who says he’s “neither convinced nor unconvinced” that there are too many apartment units coming into Chapel Hill, says he’s more concerned about new changes creating a “more urban and walkable and bike-able and generally less auto-reliant environment” in Ephesus-Fordham.
“It would have been quite remarkable if the town had gotten it one hundred percent right the first time around,” Parker says. “And I think the prior council and the current council understand this is going to be a continuous process where we are fixing as we go along. And I think that’s what you’re seeing now. And I’m hopeful that in six months we’ll have addressed some of these concerns and shortcomings and made Ephesus-Fordham into a better district.”
Hemminger says she doesn’t expect form-based code will be attempted anywhere else in Chapel Hill. But she also says the plan is to stick with it in Ephesus-Fordham.
“We’re making revisions, we’re building momentum there,” she says. “We’ve made huge changes to inspections and permitting to make the process more predictable for developers. It’s an area we want developed. We don’t want to scare off developers. We’re trying to move to being a place with a good reputation to come build—where if you have a good, creative idea, we’ll work with you.”