By John Goddin
The Chapel Hill Town Council is preparing to rubber-stamp another major change in the three-year long approval process for Wegmans without any consideration as to the impact on the surrounding area or the best interests of the town as a whole.
Mayor Pam Hemminger has continued her Wegmans-at-any-cost campaign by attempting to shut down legitimate discussion of Wegmans’ massive parking lots by incorrectly declaring at the Oct. 2, 2019 council meeting that the council had already voted on the matter being discussed.
This dovetails nicely with the start of the highly irregular process for Wegmans in 2016, when Mayor Hemminger and the town manager provided incorrect and misleading information regarding the wages and taxes that Wegmans would pay when advocating for $4 million in public subsidies for Wegmans.
Wegmans as currently configured is a bad development. It includes nearly 13 acres of surface parking on a 15-acre site in one of the few areas left in Chapel Hill with land that can be developed. It lines a road that NC DOT plans to spend millions of dollars improving with pedestrian and bike paths with parking lots on both sides. It includes 250 more parking spaces than the upper limit needed by this type of business, including a large lot located within an existing neighborhood that is totally separated from the main Wegmans site by a busy road that will create dangerous pedestrian crossings.
Chapel Hill and Orange County are subsidizing Wegmans (something never done before
in Wegmans history) with up to $4 million to build a bad development that will compete with and reduce sales tax revenue from existing businesses and also will pay 30 percent of their employees’ minimum wage.
Wegmans is obviously very popular among the current leaders of Chapel Hill. Its Chapel Hill location is also contrary to the rhetoric most of those leaders claim to believe — neighborhood and environmental protection, economic fairness, diversity, affordability and transparency, ideals that apparently do not extend out Old Durham Road. It is exactly the type of development that is fueling the fundamental change that recent statistics clearly show happening in Chapel Hill, as we become a less diverse, less affordable commuter town.
Wegmans low-paying jobs will be filled by people who can’t afford to live in Chapel Hill, while the currently diverse and affordable neighborhoods nearby are paved over for parking or gentrified by a much less diverse population that commutes out of town for work.
Perhaps that type of development is what most Chapel Hillians really want, despite the supposedly progressive nature of this town. If that is the case, it would be helpful to have an honest and open conversation about the facts instead of the misinformation and half-truths that have marked this process so far.
Pretending to be one thing while your actions prove you to be something completely different is the height of hypocrisy and most of the town council and the self-styled “livable town” advocates in Chapel Hill unfortunately fall directly in that category. That is not lost on anyone who looks at Chapel Hill from the outside, but does seem foreign to many who live here.
Other towns in our area were able to secure much better planned Wegmans locations without having to pay them to locate there, including major reductions in parking spaces when Wegmans decided to reduce their store sizes by 31,000 square feet. Chapel Hill will pay dearly for Wegmans-at-any-cost for many years to come in numerous ways: existing businesses will suffer and some will fail from direct, subsidized competition; affordable and diverse neighborhoods will become much less so as the need for that type of neighborhood increases; traffic and associated environmental problems will be exacerbated; and Chapel Hill will further its reputation as home to a lot of hypocritical people.
But at least we won’t have to leave town to shop at Wegmans.
John Goddin lives in the University Heights neighborhood, part of which will become Wegmans parking lot.