This series considers policy questions that will be addressed by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Town Councils in the next two years. As we always do at Triangle Blog Blog, we will offer our opinions, but we’ll also point you to primary source documents so you can make your own judgment. See our series overview here.
What is a Complete Community?
A “complete community” is a community marked by “diverse types of housing, active and transit transportation with connections, pedestrian-oriented design with cycling and walking paths, and mixed-use buildings.” While this concept has been around for some time—there’s even a Wikipedia page—it was introduced in Chapel Hill last year by Jennifer Keesmaat, a consultant who works with cities and towns worldwide to help them build greener, more resilient, and more accessible communities.
Why does Chapel Hill need to become a complete community?
While there are parts of Chapel Hill that could be described as complete communities—our downtown, Southern Village, Meadowmont—there are many other neighborhoods that were designed and built in an era where planners assumed that everyone would go everywhere via automobiles. While people used to think that you could accommodate growth by building wider and wider roads, and just let people “drive until they qualify” for a home or an apartment, it’s now clear that that’s not environmentally or economically sustainable.
As anyone who lives in Chapel Hill knows, there’s a lot of construction around town. We are in one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. In 2021, the town of Chapel Hill and UNC-Chapel Hill commissioned a housing study, in part because they wanted to figure out whether we were building too much student housing.
The housing study, conducted by Rod Stevens, found that we were building the right amount of student housing, but not enough housing to accommodate our future needs. Stevens presented the town with two choices:
- We continue with the status quo, which will turn our community into a place like Palo Alto, where the average house price is $3,087,988, and only multi-millionaires will be able to afford to move here.
- We commit to building more housing for people at all income levels.
If we pursue option two, Stevens argued, we need to change what kinds of housing we build in town. Building affordable single-family homes on large lots is no longer possible due to the price of land, so the town has to find a way to build more homes on smaller lots. Stevens recommended that the town hire a leading international consultant to help the town council figure out how to add more housing while also remaining committed to the town’s other goals, including environmental sustainability. Jennifer Keesmaat, who was the chief planner for the city of Toronto and ran for mayor of the city in 2018, was hired to take on this role.
How has the town’s Complete Community framework changed its approach to development?
Starting in the spring of 2022, Keesmaat and her team met with town council members, conducted interviews with a representative sample of Chapel Hill leaders, and studied the town’s planning and development processes in order to help the town find a better way to build new housing. (For our coverage of the process, see here, here, and here.)
One of the key takeaways from Keesmaat’s findings is that the town did too much “project by project” planning, where council members obsessed about the details of individual projects, and not enough about thinking about how to make places that are inviting to everyone. (See our take on the town’s over-use of conditional zoning).
In the Complete Community framework, which the town adopted last December, Chapel Hill will direct future growth in a few places:
- Greenways—One of Keesmaat’s big proposals was for the town to build an “Everywhere to Everywhere” Greenways network, which will allow people to use bikes, including ebikes, to get to the grocery store, to work, to school, and everywhere else. In June, the town was awarded a $1M federal grant to begin planning this network, a direct outcome of Keesmaat’s work with the town.
- Transit Corridors—While the town has been planning a North South Bus Rapid Transit line for some time, running along Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd., from Eubanks Road Park and Ride all the way to Southern Village, the town recently committed to transit-oriented development along the line, which will allow us to build the housing we need without adding a lot of car traffic. (In other exciting news, the town submitted its federal grant application last month, which, if approved, means that the route will be operating by the end of the decade).
- Large infill sites with existing infrastructure—If you drive around Chapel Hill, you’ll see a lot of gas stations, parking lots, and old shopping centers, all designed for an era in which everyone was expected to drive everywhere. By adding housing on these sites, we can increase housing in our community without cutting down trees. In fact, we can even add parks and green space to these areas, which will make our community even more attractive and sustainable.
- Smaller infill sites—By making it easier to build ADUs and duplexes in our neighborhoods, we can create housing opportunities for people in different life situations. For example, there’s a high demand for small, single-story homes. ADUs and first-floor duplexes are perfect for older people, single people, and those with disabilities, but they have been historically banned from many neighborhoods. (In June, the town council approved duplexes townwide. See our extensive coverage for more details.)
Using the complete community framework, the Chapel Hill Town Council, the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, and town planning staff are now evaluating new developments on whether they meet the town’s objectives, which includes access to parks and greenways, preservation of the natural landscapes and our tree canopy, and proximity to transit.
Where do the Chapel Hill Town Council candidates stand on Complete Community?
For the Complete Community framework:
Jess Anderson has been one of the biggest proponents of the Complete Community framework while on council, and has made this the centerpiece of her campaign for Mayor.
Against the Complete Community framework:
While Adam Searing voted in favor of adopting the Complete Community framework, he has been a vocal critic of Jennifer Keesmaat, comparing her recommendations to that of the Chinese politburo (no, really) and later called for her to be “fired” by the town. (Keesmaat was a consultant, and her contract was ending when Searing wrote this). Searing also voted against the town’s transit oriented development plan, which is a key component of the Complete Community framework.
For the Complete Community framework:
Melissa McCullough doesn’t mention the Complete Community framework on her website, but she has been a longtime supporter of greenways, transit, and building housing where people can live, work, and play without having to drive everywhere. McCullough is also a former planning commission member, and has been active in a number of environmental groups, including leadership roles in the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which informs her advocacy for sustainable planning.
Incumbent Amy Ryan lists her vote to support the adoption of the Complete Community framework on her website.
Although Theodore Nollert does not mention the Complete Community framework on his website, he is an advocate for greenways, affordable housing, and reducing car-dependency in our community. He also serves on the planning commission.
One of Jon Mitchell’s campaign priorities is implementing the Complete Community framework, something he has already been doing as chair of the planning commission.
Erik Valera notes on his website that he is an advocate for connected communities, and is particularly committed to diversity and inclusion. He is also a member of the planning commission.
Against the Complete Community framework:
While Elizabeth Sharp suggests on her website that she is for a “walkable, bikeable town,” she also argues that no town policy should ever “privilege any one group over another,” which implies that she is for maintaining the status quo. In her interview with CHALT, she said she could written the Complete Community framework after reading a single planning book, which suggests she doesn’t take it very seriously. She was also an opponent of the town’s housing choices text amendment, which is a component of the town’s Complete Community framework. She does not mention support for the NSBRT.
Like Sharp, Renuka Soll is an opponent of the town’s housing choices text amendment. While she says she supports greenways on her website, she does not mention the Everywhere to Everywhere Greenways plan, and lists many other priorities, including building new pickleball courts and renovating tennis courts. She also doesn’t mention the NSBRT on her site.
David Adams is also an opponent of the town’s housing choices text amendment, and suggests on his website that UNC should take “primary responsibility” for housing students and staff. (This is unfeasible for many reasons, the least of which is the lack of state funding for what would be a massive undertaking). While Adams mentions support for greenways and the NSBRT on his website, he has published an op-ed in which he criticized the Complete Community framework.
Like Sharp, Soll, and Adams, Breckany Eckhardt is an opponent of the housing choices text amendment and criticizes the use of “out-of-state consultants” to advise the town on pressing issues. In her interview with CHALT, she suggested that the Complete Community framework should be discarded because an illustration included in the report, reproduced here, used a picture of a train. While she mentions greenways on her site, she does not discuss public transportation, including the NSBRT.
Jeffrey Hoagland does not have a campaign website, but told WCHL that he was against the housing choices text amendment.
Why does this matter?
For too long, the Chapel Hill Town Council has spent hours and hours debating the minutiae of individual projects while largely ignoring how they fit within a larger vision. The Complete Community framework is a way to balance our various priorities as a community while also creating the space for innovative and connected development.
(Mayoral candidate Jess Anderson has published a blog post in which she shared three specific examples of how good design and a complete community mindset makes for better projects).
Building consensus is tough work, and the current council spent almost a year shaping the Complete Community framework. If this framework is overturned, or shelved, it will set back progress in our community for some time.