By Pam Cooper
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Local Reporter.
It’s midsummer and Chapel Hill is at its loveliest. Our green spaces and parks – threatened as they are – welcome people to recreation and shade: to family time, connection, exercise, and contemplation. Such natural largesse prompts a question: As the Town Council strives for so-called “complete communities,” how can it justify destroying the very spaces that are crucial to such completeness?
In fact, what sense of community is informing the Town’s plans to destroy the pristine woods on Jay Street, develop the American Legion Property, and continue to pillage Chapel Hill’s precious natural resources at the bidding of private developers and their far-flung investors?
The term “complete communities” was everywhere in a Town Council work session on housing held on June 21. This featured a presentation by a high-price Toronto consultant who flourished several slides and defined (vaguely) a “complete community” in terms of density, different housing types, less driving, and lower-cost infrastructure.
According to Jennifer Keesmaat, the town is seeking “a new approach to housing that clarifies where and how to build to be inclusive, sustainable, and an economically competitive community.” (A recording of the session is available on the Town website). Some of these goals are sound but the platitudes and vagaries evacuate the richness of community as an idea and elide the realities of lived experience in a specific place. It’s hard to imagine, for example, a wealth of pedestrian activity around Jay Street when amenities are well outside walking distance and the bus runs once an hour.
I won’t venture an (non-expert) definition of a “complete community” here. My perspective is that of a long-time resident of a college town, not an urban planner. But it seems to me that completeness must depend on contact with nature — the accessibility of plentiful trees and foliage. Ironically, Keesmaat admired our beautiful tree canopy before moving on to explore ways of destroying it. We ignore the natural world to our cost. The important work of carbon-absorption done by trees should be taken for granted by now as the climate crisis intensifies. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/11/humans-value-nature-survive-un-report-age-of-extinction). Why is it still necessary to identify trees as important environmental workers? Could it be that those in power don’t hear and/or don’t care?
Try writing to the mayor and her short-sighted colleagues about this issue: I wish you luck in obtaining an acknowledgement, let alone the considered reply you’re entitled to.
It shouldn’t be necessary to state the obvious: Open spaces and parks conduce to individual renewal as well as essential contact among people — contact apart from the endless cycle of getting and spending and the pursuit of efficiency as an end in itself that characterize our lives in the twenty-first century.
Completeness requires a nurturing of wholeness in its many enriching forms. Human connection is complex and often messy, and it cannot be corralled in the concrete environment of a superficially “complete” landscape. There are more ways to promote connectivity than through consumption, profit, and crowding. There are other modes of revitalization beyond the economic.
Whatever the benefits of open space — and I’ve noted a few of them above – it seems that where money stakes its claim trees must automatically be sacrificed. The profit-hungry developers and their political allies — the Town Councilors and Staff who revere, in the words of Councilor Jess Anderson, “world-class consultants” and their “city building” approach — these are clearly central to the concept of “complete communities” driving the Town’s choices.
A concept oddly nostalgic for an old notion of village life while claiming an assertive modernity. Also excluded from this concept of completeness is the well-being not only of proposed residents but of existing communities. Our town is not a tabula rasa, despite its indefatigable quest for newness.
In the case of Jay Street, integration of the proposed development into surrounding neighborhoods has been disregarded, increased traffic brushed off as insignificant, light and noise pollution ignored. Other questions naturally arise: whose interests are really being served by these efforts to remake Chapel Hill? Do the questionable ideal of density and the patina of novelty justify the destruction and sacrifice that accompany them? Having lived for years in both places, I can’t help observing that Chapel Hill is not Toronto.
I’m not suggesting that housing isn’t important, especially affordable housing. But the way it’s being done in Chapel Hill is dubious and perplexing. In a recent letter to The Local Reporter, Anderson presents her colleagues as, “thoughtful and intentional about how and where we grow.” She rejects what she sees as the false dichotomy of “people versus trees.” If only we could trust such claims. Meanwhile woodland is destroyed to build our many luxury “cruise ship” developments which cater to the wealthy, while affordable housing is relegated to unsuitable sites — like the dreadful 828 MLK [site] that contains coal ash, and the topographically unsound Jay Street which abuts an active, coal-transporting railway line.
In the case of Jay Street the muddled thinking teams with unethical action. As several people, including [Chapel Hill Town Council Member] Adam Searing have observed, the Jay Street parcel was purchased with bonds earmarked for open space. The proposed development is a brazen betrayal of voters’ wishes — a breach of trust informing and contaminating this piece of Chapel Hill’s transformation into concrete central.
“Complete communities” must obviously consist of various things; but to me the many building projects in Chapel Hill suggest not so much housing as warehousing — shoving people into ugly warrens where a few saplings must compensate for the loss of green space, and where their main options for recreation or pleasure involve spending money in expensive stores and restaurants or driving elsewhere to find the green spaces that have disappeared from their neighborhoods.
As David Adams observed recently in a piece for The Local Reporter, the pilot process for civic engagement envisioned by the Town to initiate its “complete communities” process is limited to 40 “stakeholders” hand-picked by the Council itself. Hardly inclusive, diverse, or reflecting the cooperation among people that this very process ostensibly promotes. Despite Anderson’s claims that conversations will broaden and the false opposition between humans and nature melt away, the Council’s previous record of ignoring the views of those in opposition works against such sunny predictions.
Is the remaking of a lovely town into a deadeningly conformist city really a “thoughtful and intentional” move by those seeking such transformation? As Andrew Marvell observed in his 1681 poem, “The Garden:” “all flowers and all trees do close/To weave the garlands of repose” and its crucial companions: meaningful connection, healthy activity, and joy.
Pam Cooper has lived in Chapel Hill for 32 years.