By Adam Powell
CHAPEL HILL — Town of Chapel Hill leaders did not seem impressed with the initial concept plan for The Reserve at Blue Hill. A local developer proposed to renovate the King’s Arms Apartments along Ephesus Church Road, and the plan was presented to the board at its September 13 meeting.
The property, owned by Greensboro-based Phillips Management Group, dates back to the mid-1960s. The owners sent an initial pre-application concept plan to Chapel Hill planning leaders to create 212 modern apartments on the site, to be rebranded as the Reserve at Blue Hill. The expansion would surpass the current infrastructure of 65 apartment units on the 7.65-acre site.
According to the Concept Plan Project Fact Sheet submitted by the developer, the project will consist of developing the current site, which currently has 65 apartments in four buildings built in the 1960s. The project includes demolishing those buildings and constructing 212 new apartments in a single five-story building with some surface parking and some under-building parking. Fifteen percent of the apartments will be made available to residents at 65% and 80% AMI.
Richard Gurlitz, representing the developer for the concept presentation, indicated that the proposed development would be a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units and 319 parking spaces.
In his discussion with the developer, Council member Adam Searing noted that current rents at King’s Arms are approximately $1,200 per month, and a new apartment complex would effectively double rents.
Later in the discussion, Searing mentioned his personal ties to King’s Arms and his desire to see more variety in housing and more open space in any future development on the property.
“I actually have a unique connection to this property. My mom lived in King’s Arms for a while, and I’ve been a resident of King’s Arms myself. I think this project should come back with one like our community design commission suggested – more focus on townhomes, more green space, more places for families to play.”
Victory Washington, a current resident of King’s Arms, expressed concern on behalf of numerous residents in the current complex. “I am a resident of King’s Arms. I moved there 10 years ago from New York, Brooklyn, where I got displaced by the same rhetoric. ‘We’re gonna give you affordable housing. We’re not going to move you out. We’re not going to displace you.’ But unfortunately, as time moved, we got displaced …. My concern is this: where do we go?”
The tenants at the neighboring Hamlin Park community are worried about increased traffic, along with potential stormwater and other environmental consequences of more apartments in the area.
“(The concept) is being proposed to develop 212 units, which is a density of 27 units per acre,” said Elizabeth Steinberger, Secretary of the Hamlin Park Homeowner’s Association.
“We understand the designer’s desire to transition from the densely urban feel to the suburban feel. That would make sense if King’s Arms was located on the south side of Ephesus Church Road. But on the north side, next to the two-story buildings in Hamlin Park, it creates an unnecessarily urban, dense feeling. We do not want to be boxed in by five-story buildings on both our southern and our eastern sides.”
When Town Council members got their opportunity to speak about the concept, it became abundantly clear that The Reserve at Blue Hill will need to undergo considerable retooling before it officially applies for rezoning.
“I would love to see applicants start coming with complete community as the barometer for how we evaluate their projects, understanding that the staff does not do that on initial review,” said Council member Jessica Anderson. “And part of complete community is also about preventing people from being gentrified out. Based on that evaluation, based on what we say about what a complete community is, this project still needs to meet that standard. And you’ve got to that figure out. It’s not the town or the county’s job is to provide those resources for you as the developer; you need to figure out how to make that work.”
“I don’t want to hear about this again without a better plan for keeping the current residents together as much as they want to be, and then homes they can afford,” added fellow council member Karen Stegman.
“So there’s that. And then, in terms of the proposal itself, I feel that another part of the complete community strategy is a mix of housing types. This area of town has had quite a lot of additional housing – that is, multifamily, pretty dense apartments. So I would love to see a different housing type here,” she said.
As the project is not yet in the application phase, the developer can now take the feedback from Town Council members and work with planners to make comprehensive adjustments that will be more palatable to the Council’s aims before submitting a formal application with a conditional rezoning request.
Adam Powell is a reporter on local news and sports and an education communications professional. A 2001 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Powell has served as managing editor of multiple local publications, including the Mebane Enterprise, News of Orange County and TarHeelIllustrated.com. The public information officer for Rockingham County Schools in Eden, N.C., Powell is the author of four books and lives in Mebane with his wife and two children.