By David Straughan
Issues around housing and development in Chapel Hill were the focal points of the March 9 Town Council meeting. While the body did not vote on any of the major issues at hand, it heard impassioned comments from several members of the public.
The first portion of the meeting centered around a presentation and question-and-answer session by Rachel Waltz, manager of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. Waltz presented a series of slides detailing updates on the status of Chapel Hill’s unhoused population. Waltz’s 12-page slide deck provided facts and figures about homelessness to illustrate trends, questions and potential solutions.
According to the presentation, the organization has made progress on the issue of homelessness in some areas. It housed 145 families in 2021, for example. The number of local families experiencing homelessness continues to decline.
However, some trends are less encouraging. There has been a slight increase in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness, and there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness.
The presentation outlined 15 “homeless system gaps” that could be filled to alleviate homelessness. Waltz suggested that one of the best solutions to these issues would be permanent supportive housing, but undertaking that would pose a challenge.
“Permanent supportive housing is an incredibly effective tool,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not cheap.”
The council thanked Waltz for her presentation and expressed a desire to make progress toward solutions. Councilmember Michael Parker acknowledged that the Town already has the necessary data and various proposed solutions and asked, “so why aren’t we doing this, and what do we, as governments, need to do to get to that place?”
After a brief pause, Councilmember Jess Anderson replied, “isn’t that a question for us?
There followed a brief proposal to consider closing a portion of the public right of way on Maxwell Road and Hamilton Road in Glenn Lennox. Presented by Chris Roberts, Manager of Engineering and Infrastructure, Public Works, the proposal outlined the reason for and scope of the proposal, as well as the pathway to approving it.
“Warehousing for humans”
The council members had no comments or questions regarding the proposal and so proceeded to a concept plan presentation by developer Aspen Heights Partners. The plan proposes to develop plan a 20-acre site on Weaver Dairy Road that includes land that sits between the rear of the Carol Woods retirement community and Coventry neighborhoods and I-40. David Helfrich, President of Aspen Heights East Division, gave the presentation, which outlined the plan for 337 housing units, including apartments and townhomes. The plan, at the time of presentation, included 154 one-bedroom units, 145 two-bedroom units and 55 three-bedroom units.
The development team emphasized the variety of income levels and increased density that would exist in the proposed community and noted that, consistent with the Town’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, 15% of the units would qualify as affordable housing. Half of these units would be reserved for households making up to 80% of the average median income (AMI), while the other half would be reserved for households making up to 65% of the AMI. Importantly, the AMI used in this calculation was from the Raleigh metropolitan area — a fact that would come up later in the meeting.
After the presentation, members of the public were invited to speak. All speakers were either residents or employees of Carol Woods or Coventry. All spoke against the proposed development, citing a variety of concerns that included drainage issues, traffic problems, dramatic density shifts, electromagnetic radiation, highway noise, light pollution and more.
Some speakers, however, pointed out specific issues with the proposal itself. Some mentioned that renderings didn’t accurately reflect the lots. Others noted that a previous plan for the site had proposed student housing and that this new development proposal came up almost immediately following the council’s rejection of the previous student housing proposal.
One member of the public pointed out that the AMI figure used in the presentation, $95,700, was from Raleigh, whereas the AMI for Durham-Chapel Hill is $84,400. That disclaimer had been included in the presentation in fine print, but wasn’t mentioned by any of the presenters.
After all nine members of the public commented, the council members each offered their opinion of the proposal. The sentiment was uniformly negative. Councilmembers reiterated many of the concerns voiced by the public.
“This development is not what I am looking for,” said councilmember Amy Ryan. “There are no neighborhood assets. I find that really troubling. What we’re trying to do is build community. This proposal is not hitting the mark.”
Most council members did, however, agree that the site was a suitable one for future housing.
“I feel this site is appropriate for residential,” said councilmember Anderson. “But this doesn’t feel like a neighborhood. It feels like warehousing for humans without a community component.”
Council member Paris Miller Foushee supported Anderson’s sentiment, saying, “It really does look like an industrial park to me. The apartments and townhomes do seem like separate communities. We need you to really center families and really think about the amenities that need to be there for families.”
In short, the council let the Aspen Heights team know that there was no way that this proposed development would be allowed to go forward as planned. Mayor Hemminger categorized the proposal as “missed opportunities” and encouraged the development team to consider the comments they had now received before returning with another proposal.
However, the mayor did acknowledge that as buildable space dwindles in Chapel Hill, developers are going to run into more issues.
“I will say,” said Hemminger, “the parcels left in Chapel Hill to develop are getting harder and have more challenges than what was here before. So, while we understand that, we think this could be done better.”
For the time being, there appears little chance that Aspen Heights’ proposed project will go forward as planned. But given the comments of council members and the mayor, it is clear that it won’t be too long before Carol Woods and Coventry residents have new neighbors.