Mayor Foy leaving legacy of collaboration (News and Observer)
CHAPEL HILL Meeting with elected officials from neighboring Carrboro and Orange County last week, Mayor Kevin Foy explained why Chapel Hill’s bus system declined to merge with the Triangle Transit Authority in 2003 and why the town’s public library won’t merge with Orange County’s library system now.
“Chapel Hill,” he said, “cannot afford to lower its standards.”
That’s an attitude that has often put Foy and the rest of the Chapel Hill Town Council at odds with real estate developers and the N.C. Department of Transportation. But, as Foy steps down Monday after eight years as mayor, observers say he leaves a legacy of both innovation and collaboration.
“He’s managed to keep a civil and productive process in place with a group of very strong-minded council members,” said former Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf, who stymied Foy’s first run for mayor in 1995.
“Kevin’s a nice guy,” she said. “You can always get so much more done if people sense you’re a person of good will and an open mind.”
Under Foy’s leadership, Chapel Hill has tried things some cities wouldn’t. It has built a generous subsidized housing program, a collaborative approach to town-gown relations and an award-winning public-transit system.
“Chapel Hill has an outsized role … in helping define the future of the Triangle,” Foy said. “It’s able to be experimental. It’s able to be agile in trying out new ideas, and if they don’t work, toss ’em.”
In each of the past two years, Chapel Hill Transit, with its 7 million annual riders, has garnered awards for Foy from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But other experiments failed, such as a landlord licensing program in Foy’s second year as mayor. And the jury is still out on others, such as the town’s policy of 15 percent affordable housing and its pursuit of mixed-use development along transit corridors.
Foy, 53, has championed work force housing, but the Community Home Trust, which manages dozens of homes subsidized by developers at the town’s demand, has complained that the resulting small condos don’t meet working families’ needs. The town has had to tinker with the policy.
Similarly, the Town Council has had to rethink its support for dense, transit-oriented development amid citizen complaints about East 54, a 600,000-square-foot office/retail/condo complex under construction just east of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus.
The council permitted up to six stories amid existing one- and two-story buildings along N.C. 54 in order to build a dense population across the street from a hoped-for regional transit stop near Finley Golf Course. Of course, that presumes the construction of light-rail or some other fixed-guideway system at some point.
Former Town Councilman Joe Capowski said Foy had to make decisions anticipating the future, citing the intense planning effort on the Carolina North satellite campus as an example.
“The mayor does something and then the results show up 15 years later,” said Capowski, whose second and final term overlapped with Foy’s first from 1997 to 1999.
Making transit a priority
State Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, has welcomed Foy’s support for a half-cent sales tax across the Triangle region to support light rail. But she said Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system has been just as important in creating momentum because regional transit will depend on convenient local bus routes. Foy, in fact, pushed legislators to allow money from the half-cent tax to support local bus systems, not just regional rail.
“Rail isn’t going to get everybody to their house,” Ross said. “We are going to need to have an attractive, reliable, inexpensive bus service, and Chapel Hill has been a leader on that, and it’s a model we all need to learn from.”
Durham Mayor Bill Bell agreed.
“It’s a model that shows to me that if you provide opportunities for people to ride and if it’s easy and convenient, then people will make use of it, especially if you make it fare-free,” Bell said.
Bell said Foy made transportation a priority as chairman of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayor’s Coalition, arguing for the half-cent tax and supporting an effort to keep NCDOT from shifting maintenance responsibility on major roads to municipalities.
Presiding over an extensive public-comment process, Foy also ensured that transit was a priority as UNC-CH planned its Carolina North campus.
With Foy’s leadership, the council convened a Horace Williams Citizens Committee, a Leadership Advisory Committee and direct negotiations with the UNC-CH Board of Trustees in the years leading up to a development agreement between the university and the town – a collaborative planning instrument never used in North Carolina on a public project as large as the new campus. The agreement incorporated transportation-related concerns brought by the citizens group Neighbors for Responsible Growth in the last days of the negotiations.
NRG leader and former Town Council member Julie McClintock credits Foy for convening the Horace Williams Citizens Committee to let residents have their say five years ahead of the university’s master plan, ensuring there weren’t very many last-minute challenges.
“It was perfect timing,” she said.
Since then, UNC-CH leaders have also collaborated with the town on the potential siting of a new men’s homeless shelter and plans to redevelop the University Square shopping center and Granville Towers at the downtown entrance to campus.
“UNC has bent over backwards to be good to the town, and that is mainly because of Kevin Foy’s relationships with the chancellors,” Capowski said.
Former Chancellor James Moeser, who stepped down last year, said he and Foy had met at least once a month over the previous three or four years.
“We had an understanding that we would be totally honest with each other and we would never surprise each other,” Moeser said. Foy helped the university figure out how to share plans with the public, he said.
Developer Roger Perry, whose Meadowmont project on the Durham-Orange county line raised Foy’s hackles in the late 1990s and launched the mayor’s political career, said the collaborative approach Foy learned over the years brought town-gown relations to an “all-time high.” Perry led the UNC-CH trustees as they negotiated the Carolina North agreement, a process that ended in a unanimous vote.
“That was a stunning achievement,” Moeser said. “That was beyond what I thought was possible.”
“My guess is that Carolina North will prove to be a major part of