Chapel Hill Town Council Modifies Affordable Housing Fund, Approves Hotel and Adopts Greene Tract Recombination Plan

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer 

In one of its last meetings of 2021, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved several measures Wednesday evening. It decided issues ranging from funding streams for affordable housing proposals to a recombination plat for land shared between three local governments. 

‘A scarce and finite good’

Early in the meeting, the council took up a proposal to modify the funding stream for affordable housing development. Director of Affordable Housing and Community Connections Sara Viñas explained the Town has a stash of money called the Affordable Housing Development Reserve and that it receives an annual allocation of around $688,000 from the general fund. 

Those funds are earmarked for affordable housing development and preservation, Viñas said, and the Town usually issues up to three requests for housing proposals per year until the funds are exhausted. She added that $5 million in funding has been doled out since the creation of the fund in 2015 and that the Town has seen an increase in affordable housing funding requests over the past two years. 

Viñas further stated that this is the second year that funding requests have exceeded available monies from the fund, noting that the Town would have to shell out approximately $758,000 to fund all existing proposals. 

Viñas explained that passing a modified funding plan would allocate around $150,000 to a Habitat for Humanity project, which is one of several housing initiatives headed by nonprofits. 

Jennifer Player, Habitat for Humanity CEO for Orange County described land in Chapel Hill as “a scarce and finite good,” and called inclusive land development a practical and moral issue. 

“There’s an urgent deficit of affordable homes in Chapel Hill,” she said. “A deficit that will only grow over time without intentional leadership today and we encourage council to continue to prioritize solutions that put [housing] units on the street quickly and prioritize the long view and future livability of our community.”

Councilperson Allen Buansi asked what the timetable was for organizations to access the funds. Viñas said that if approved, the Town would move forward with performance agreements immediately and organizations could access funds as soon as needed.

The council passed the modified funding plan unanimously. 

A second hotel approved for West Rosemary Street

The council also moved to approve a conditional zoning application for a redevelopment project at the northwest corner of Rosemary Street and North Columbia Street. The applicant is Durham-based firm Coulter Jewell Thames. The decision paves the way for a five-story extended-stay hotel equipped with a rooftop bar and public park adjacent to Chapel Hill’s historic Town Hall building.

Recent revisions to the project design include relocating the hotel’s driveway to the west side of the building, reducing on-site parking and adding a potential location for a bike-share facility. Project planner Dan Jewell also noted that the amount of green space within the proposed park had been increased. 

An illustration of the recently-approved hotel to be built on the 100 block of West Rosemary Street. Courtesy of MHAWorks.

In approving the project, the council granted several exemptions from the Town’s land-use regulations for the site. For example, the council allowed modified landscape and foundation buffers, as well as allowing the height of the building to exceed the four-story maximum that Town ordinance specifies for that area. 

Councilperson Michael Parker asked Jewell if he could now commit to including a bike-share facility, instead of just considering one. Mayor Pam Hemminger also asked the project team to install a water line to irrigate the green space. Jewell agreed to both stipulations.

Executive Director for the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership Matt Gladek characterized the hotel as an important project for downtown that would attract visitors. Councilperson Karen Stegman echoed that sentiment. 

“I think the park is a really inviting place that people [will] want to go to,” Stegman remarked. “It will bring people to the nice rooftop bar, employing local community members, the trees, the shared parking. It’s really exciting to see some of the things we talk about in action and really come together.”

Seeking clarity on the Greene Tract

One of the more heated items on the agenda was the future of an area of land called the Greene Tract. The 104-acre swath of land at the northern edge of town is under the planning jurisdictions of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County and was originally purchased in 1984 as an expansion site for the local landfill.

A source of contention is that new plans for the tract proposed in 2019 seem to nullify a 2016 report articulating the nearby Rogers Road community’s wishes for the land. In the Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community’s Future report, area residents asked that 20% of the tract be devoted to affordable housing and that the remaining 80% be preserved as a natural area. 

The 2019 plan, which flips the ratio between developed and preserved acreage, was ultimately embraced by the three government entities that have jurisdiction over the tract. Earlier this month, over 100 people met at an open house forum to discuss the parcel’s future. On Wednesday, several residents spoke to both sides of the issue. While some saw the adoption of a resolution to move forward with the 2019 concept plan a cause for celebration, others, including current and former elected officials, criticized the process that led to a revision of the 2016 land-use plan.

Former councilperson and affordable housing advocate Nancy Oates called the process the ugliest event she’d ever seen in Chapel Hill politics due to a lack of transparency from council along with political divisiveness between elected officials and residents. 

“Voting on this tonight is troublesome on many levels in part because you haven’t disclosed why you’re doing this,” she said. 

Oates said that issues such as the traffic impacts associated with developing the Greene Tract have not been communicated to Rogers Road residents and that the Town should clarify why it plans to zone the area for mixed-use development and why it plans to pave roads and add utilities on land ostensibly classified as a protected area. [Editor’s note: Oates was previously editor of The Local Reporter].

Larry Reid Sr., who lives adjacent to the Greene Tract, took a different tone, thanking the council for its work. 

“It solidified what we’ve done the past 20 years in formulating [a plan] for our community,” he said. “It says [we’re] on the right track…where we’re heading and the environmental study [said] we are able to do the kinds of buildings and development [we desire].” 

He added he was hoping to find some justice for the community, seeing that the local landfill was foisted on the historically Black Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood for several decades until it ceased operations in 2013. 

“167 acres should be enough to do two things with, but somehow we’ve turned it into a this or that debate,” Friends of the Greene Tract Forest co-founder Abel Hastings said, adding that the town can pursue both affordable housing and land preservation on the Greene Tract.

“I wanted to remind council and the public,“ Mayor Hemminger said,  “that we are only considering realigning the parcel, we are not opening up to discussion or changing any of the other things that have been agreed to at this point.”  

She further said that she and council pushed hard for an environmental assessment to protect the most sensitive areas of the tract, which could be upward of 82 acres of land. 

“In this community, we often talk about a commitment to racial equity and using a racial equity lens in how we do our work,” Councilperson Stegman said. “We also often don’t always agree on what the best way forward is, even when we’re committed to these shared values. And sometimes we don’t get enough feedback or buy-in from those impacted the most. In this case, we don’t have that problem.” 

She explained the council’s work was based on concerns expressed by leaders of the Rogers Road community. 

“We all decided to get additional environmental information to learn what areas were suitable for development and preservation,” she said. “This was never intended to subvert our process, but [to] keep our firm commitment to mapping our future.”

The council unanimously approved a resolution to combine the Greene Tract with the adjacent 60-acre Headwaters Preserve. 

Other business during the council meeting included:

  • Allocating a $100k donation to the NC Botanical Garden Foundation’s purchase of property for Stillhouse Bottom Nature Preserve;
  • Extending a legislative hearing for a conditional zoning application for a wetlab office building at 150 East Rosemary to Dec. 1;
  • Receiving an update on Town affordable housing development projects at Trinity Court and Jay Street.

Editor’s note: Nancy Oates was editor of The Local Reporter from March-June 2021.

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