If it’s Tuesday, it’s time for another planning process to begin in Chapel Hill. This week, Jennifer Keesmaat, former mayoral candidate and chief Planner of the City of Toronto, Canada (population 2.8 million), kicked off her Complete Communities planning initiative for the Town of Chapel Hill (population .061 million) with a special Tuesday afternoon meeting.

In case you’re not up to speed, this is the third distinct planning process that the town is using this year. While the other two processes—the first, for Transit Oriented Development, is focused on land along the planned Bus Rapid Transit line (currently the NS), while the second is focused on the town’s rewriting of its land use ordinances—are at least using the same team of consultants, this one is bringing on an entirely new team.

(They’ve committed to working together, but it is humorous to have one consultant sit in on another’s presentation, as happened on Tuesday. On the other hand, for the budgetary minded, the Town is paying $200K for Keesmaat’s work, on top of $450K for the LUMO rewrite and $750K for the Town’s TOD work. The TOD work is being funded by a federal grant. The others are paid for by the town. Keesmaat’s hire is connected to the “housing report,” which was really just a presentation, produced by Rod Stevens last fall).

Keesmaat’s catchphrase is “complete communities,” which, essentially, means communities that provide all things to all people. They’re walkable, dense, allow for housing at all income levels, and look a bit like Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Here’s an illustration that Keesmaat shared:

anatomy of complete connected community

Keesmaat visited Chapel Hill in person last week, and opened her presentation by marveling at all the town’s trees. She then went into a discussion of her particular design for engagement, which set off some confusion. Here’s what we think is happening:

1. First, she plans to work with the Town and Council to identify 40 people who represent the diverse interests within and outside of the Town Of Chapel Hill. Here’s the kinds of perspectives she’s hoping to reach, which include people who might be residents or builders in Chapel Hill, but are not currently. (We humbly note that those that welcome more housing are not included on this short list).

important perspectives to understand

2. Keesmaat and her team plan to have 45-minute interviews with each individual in this select group, the membership of which remains a secret for now. Apparently 15 individuals have already been selected, and the rest will be in the next week or so. At times Keesmaat expressed interest in identifying “Champions for Change,” while at other times she wanted to hear from all kinds of people, including those who don’t support change.

3. After these interviews, Keesmaat will hold focus groups with those same chosen few, trying to build consensus around all the things people fight about in Chapel Hill.

4. Then, with more consensus built, Keesmaat will come back to the Council with a “stake in the ground exercise” in which the Council shows that they can address key challenges. The idea is that this would be a real project, giving the council the opportunity to make planning decisions about a small section of town. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Pam Hemminger mentioned the Gateway area (near Wegmans) and the Timberlyne area as two places that town might discuss.

phases of meeting the need

A Robust Discussion

Keesmaat stopped her presentation several times, leaving the opportunity for the Council to provide input. While Council members had a lot to say, highlights included:

  • Council member Karen Stegman asked Keesmaat about engaging people who are housing insecure, who can be a difficult population to reach. Keesmaat responded by talking about her efforts to reach the Black community. (Black folks make up 12% of Orange County, but make up 55% of community members facing housing insecurities, according to the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.)
  • Council member Jessica Anderson suggested that Keesmaat refrain from stacking the deck with people who already agreed with members of the council (including her).
  • Council member Paris Miller-Foushee told Keesmaat that she should consider the history of Chapel Hill in her analysis, including those communities who have been historically excluded from decision-making about land use.
  • After Keesmaat suggested that many environmental groups use the environment as a pretext to block housing, council member Adam Searing criticized her, noting that the process won’t go well if she retains that view. (There are many examples of groups who use environmental concerns to block housing, most recently in Berkeley, California.)

In what was the most contentious piece of the discussion, Council members Miller-Foushee and Camille Berry called into question the town’s survey data, which they claimed did not capture the town’s demographics.

(To see the 2022 survey, visit this link. Strikingly, in this survey, which was mailed to random households in town, 44 percent of respondents reported having lived in Chapel Hill for more than 20 years, and another 22 percent reported having lived here from 11 to 20 years.

According to the U.S. Census, half of the town’s residents moved to their home in Chapel Hill after 2015, or just seven years ago. Either we have a lot of longtime residents who like to move from home to home in the community, or the survey is disproportionately capturing longtime residents).

Friction between Berry and Mayor Pam Hemminger erupted midway through the meeting, when Berry sought to support Miller-Foushee on her questioning of the town’s survey data and Hemminger called her out of order, raising her voice to stop Berry from speaking. When Berry spoke, she asked the Mayor to not raise her voice again. Later in the meeting, Council member Miller-Foushee noted that the Council needs to have “hard conversations” as well.

Three Hard Truths, Or Are They?

In the final section of the two-hour meeting, Keesmaat presented three “hard truths” to the town:

  1. Chapel Hill is already an exclusive place.
  2. No one is happy with the planning process, or the planning outcomes.
  3.  Chapel Hill has a difficult urban form to remediate.

While the council seemed to be in agreement with all three “hard truths,” the fact that everyone agreed suggests that they might not be so hard after all. And, the third “truth” seems questionable given how much land in town remains undeveloped, or underdeveloped, including land along the town’s central corridors.

Look at this zoning map of downtown Chapel Hill (the pink and purple is the only area that allows apartment buildings), and tell us that our challenge is the “urban form” not politics:

zoning map of downtown Chapel Hill (the pink and purple is the only area that allows apartment buildings)

Although this is the first of many meetings, it seems to set off what is likely to be a contentious process. As Keesmaat remarked at one point in the meeting, the Chapel Hill Town Council needs to decide what it wants the future of Chapel Hill to be.

For $200,000 – enough to build a small splash pad – let’s hope that the Council learns more than that.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...