By James Kiefer
In a session addressing some leftover business from 2021, the Chapel Hill Town Council Wednesday evening talked about money and the type of housing downtown does not need.
Filling in financial gaps
After hearing petitions and approving the consent agenda, council members unanimously passed a pair of resolutions that funneled $4 million toward several initiatives.
The Local Reporter previously reported the Town ended the 2021 fiscal year with an excess of $7.9 million. The ample surplus is attributable to a mix of savvy budgeting efforts in 2020, along with an increase in revenue from sales tax and other savings created by a pause in hiring Town staff.
Business management director Amy Oland advised the council to allocate a portion of the monies toward budget items that were subject to spending cuts during the pandemic and leave the rest of the funds unassigned.
The approved appropriations include $900,000 for fleet vehicle replacements, $500,000 for affordable housing and human services and $250,000 dedicated to bike and pedestrian safety efforts following a recent public outcry.
Oland explained a previous option missing from the presentation was $500,000 for a public splash pad. She said that item was dropped based on guidance from the council, but that $15,000 out of the $250,000 slotted for one-time department needs will go toward a splash pad feasibility study.
Mayor Pam Hemminger remarked the Town is fortunate to be in a position where it needs to figure out how to spend surplus money, and that not every city in the state is so fortunate.
Councilmember Jessica Anderson asked Oland for a more detailed overview of one-time departmental expenditures. Oland said she did not have such a slide prepared, but will be in discussion with the Town manager’s office, and noted one area of focus is addressing computer software needs.
‘We don’t need any more student housing’
Later in the meeting, the council drove home the message it is not interested in certain development projects. Bruce Ballentine of Ballentine Associates, an engineering and land-planning firm based in Chapel Hill, presented a concept plan for a housing project named The Flats on behalf of developer Progressive Capital Group. The project is proposed for a site about 0.2 miles north of Town Hall between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Stinson Street.
A high-density apartment proposal for this site previously came before council members for a concept plan review in 2021. The earlier iteration catered to student tenants, which the council considered undesirable for that location. Council member comments during the 2021 review also critiqued the proposed building as being too large and too incongruous with the surrounding context.
Ballentine explained that designers made several changes to address these concerns, including moving the parking deck underground, pulling back building facades and adding a courtyard. The council made it clear a project of this type is unlikely to receive approval at this time.
“We have recently had a study done that shone a light on what we needed in this community in order to support and become a sustainable community,” Mayor Hemminger said in reference to consultant Rod Stevens’s analysis of the housing challenges facing the Town. “We need workforce housing, we need young professional housing, we need affordable housing. We don’t need any more student housing.”
Hemminger further stated Chapel Hill has a relatively small downtown whose growth is limited to the MLK Boulevard corridor and is trying to bring commercial components and year-round tenants into that area.
“The particulars of the project are not as interesting to me at this point until we have a different option for something other than student housing,” she said.
Council members Anderson and Paris Miller-Foushee echoed the mayor’s attitude toward the proposal, and councilperson Amy Ryan said she’d rather hold out for more commercially-focused projects at this time.
Councilperson Michael Parker added that it might be worth the council’s time to hammer out a position on proposals for student housing development so that developers can avoid wasting time on designs that aren’t going to be welcomed by elected officials.
Ballentine stated council seems not to be doing enough to secure a tax base from students within the area, and that not investing in student housing will lead to commuters coming from outside counties.
“I’m hearing a very loud and clear no tonight, but I’m not hearing a solution,” he said.
Mayor Hemminger responded that after reviewing the findings of Stevens’s report, she’s confident the council is performing its due diligence.
Other business handled during the council’s session included:
- The council heard petitions to increase spending on public recreation amenities and on bicyclist-friendly improvements along Country Club Road;
- The council advised staff to better inform the community about how the budgeting process works for the upcoming 2022-2023 operating budget;
- The council received an update on the Climate Action and Response Plan Implementation.