By James Kiefer
Housing—and how to build it—dominated the Chapel Hill Town Council session on Wednesday, September 28. Elected officials received a high-level analysis on how better to anticipate housing needs over the next two decades from two planning consultants.
Jennifer Keesmaat, a former Toronto chief planner and the founder of the planning advisory organization The Keesmaat Group, was hired by the local government to lead what is known as the Complete Community Initiative, a strategy aimed at helping the town plan for “sustainable and inclusive” housing growth as Chapel Hill’s population blooms over the next 20 years.
“The objective is to … understand growth in Chapel Hill and how growth in Chapel Hill can be consistent with a vision that is being developed throughout this process in a Complete Communities framework,” Keesmaat said in kicking off the update to the Town Council.
Besides applying “savvy planning” to growth, Keesmaat identified other goals for the initiative. She advanced ideas like having child to senior age-friendly design attributes and improving upon existing aspects in Chapel Hill, such as offering greater connections between greenways.
She also implored the council to seek out modes of active transportation, which the American Public Health Association defines as “non-motorized transportation options such as walking and biking, and is ideally linked with transit (e.g., bus, rail, ferry) networks.”
Keesmaat added that 21% of the average household income in Chapel Hill is spent on transportation. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Energy found in 2020 the average American household spent roughly $10,000 on transportation. That equates to 16% of all annual household expenditures.
“That is a very high number,” she said in reference to the transportation cost. “That is because the primary way of getting around is driving. It’s a sustainability problem, but it’s also a household cost problem, and designing a walkable, active transportation-oriented [environment] is a critical part of creating an inclusive community.”
Rod Stevens talks capacity
Rod Stevens, a senior director with Revitalization Partners, had issued a report last year that said a lack of affordable housing in Chapel Hill had priced out many potential buyers, laying the blame on previous Town Councils for not being foresighted-enough planners.
His previous report advised that if the town did not course correct, it could see a housing market with aggressively high prices, similar to that of California cities like Palo Alto and San Francisco.
To avoid such a situation, Stevens said Chapel Hill needs to have 10,000 units built over the next 20 years—roughly 500 units each year. Stevens further prescribed that these homes should target what he called the “missing middle”: first-time home buyers, young families, seniors and empty nesters. He added that the town should prioritize housing in “walkable places where people will want to own [a home].”
Stevens pointed out one thing he believes has contributed to such gaps: leaving space on the table. Sharing a list of major housing projects both under development and recently completed, he estimated approximately 9,500 units sitting on over 670 acres, resulting in a gross density of 14 units per acre.
If it were up to him, Stevens said, the town should strive for around 25 units per acre, or 35 units per acre when designing developments with structured parking.
“Because of the complexity of your process … and partly the inefficiency of developing project by project, you’re coming in with low densities,” Stevens said, mentioning large properties like Glen Lennox and Weavers Grove apartments as also falling short.
“These are big pieces of land, but they are coming in at quarter-acre densities at what would happen otherwise,” he said.
Other hazards of building project by project, as specified by Stevens, included: each development has its own specific stormwater issues; they generally aren’t connected [in a walkable manner]; and land leftover is typically not usable open space.
Stevens’ report found that Chapel Hill is primarily seeing three types of housing being built: townhomes, garden apartments and what he called “Texas donuts.”
“It’s a large wrap-around [building] with a deck in the middle,” he explained.
Going forward and council questions
Going forward, Stevens advised that Chapel Hill has two choices:
“If you don’t do anything, you run a danger of becoming increasingly peripheral as just a wealthy place with a university attached,” he said. “The second choice is you become a model of how to live and work locally.”
Council Member Michael Parker asked if the town would have to acquire more property outside of city limits to account for projected population growth. Stevens said that while it may make sense to do so in some circumstances, there is enough land within town limits currently to accommodate estimated growth for at least the next 50 years.
Council Member Jessica Anderson asked about the timing of the strategic planning.
“How do we talk about having the right housing supply at the right time?” she asked.
Stevens explained it as three basic criteria: What is the Town’s internal capacity to make things happen; what is the town’s ability to partner on projects; and what is the town-wide benefit? He said those should guide the town’s decisions as it tries to accommodate growth.
Keesmaat added that finding incentives for developers to work within the Complete Communities framework now instead of later will help make sure opportunities, like better housing density, aren’t being left behind.
Council Member Amy Ryan asked how the council can better ensure people aren’t being displaced as Chapel Hill builds new homes and living costs increase. Keesmaat responded that it should be baked into the town’s affordable housing strategy. She used an example of tenants being able to move from one housing development to another, but being promised the same monthly rent of their old property.
Other business handled during the meeting included:
- A presentation of UNC’s semi-annual campus development report;
- Fiscal year 2022 reports on affordable housing and public housing;
- The opening of a legislative hearing for development at 710 N. Estes Dr.; and
- Council member comments on a concept plan review for Lullwater Park at 860 Weaver Dairy Rd.
James Kiefer is an award-winning photographer and writer who’s covered everything from homicides, to sports and the occasional miracle.