By Fraser Sherman
CHAPEL HILL — On September 27, the Chapel Hill Town Council is scheduled to discuss a zoning change that would allow a 12-story, 157-foot tall condominium tower at 157 E. Rosemary Street.
The change would affect site requirements for parking, setbacks from the street, building height and affordable housing. The rezoning ordinance (available here) says the project “satisfies public purposes given the city wants dense development in the area.” Chapel Hill Assistant Planning Director Judy Johnson says the ordinance only affects the lot at 157.
The application documents from Raleigh’s TJ Capital II LLC say the project would include 56 residential condominiums, one quarter of them reserved for affordable housing; 3,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor; and one level of parking beneath the building. TJ Capital Manager Bill Jackson said in an email that he anticipates a fine dining restaurant in the retail space.
“Although it will be twelve stories, the building is designed with a terraced setback of the top two floors,” Jackson said. “These two floors are proposed to be clad with clear glass.” Close to the building, he said, the top floors will be invisible because of the terracing; further away, they’ll reflect the sky.
Jackson said the catalyst for the project was the town council approving Grubb Properties’ wet lab/office building at 150 E. Rosemary and the new parking deck at 125. Those were clear signs Chapel Hill was serious about redeveloping and bringing more people to that part of town. “The underutilized property at 157 E. Rosemary,” Jackson said, “was an obvious location for a significant residential building.” He added, “residents are attracted to being able to walk not only to work, but also to great restaurants and cultural amenities.”
Jackson said the building’s height makes it possible to offer 25% of the units as affordable housing, rather than the town’s 10% requirement.
According to Chapel Hill Affordable Housing Manager Emily Holt a house or apartment is “affordable” if the rent or mortgage plus utilities costs no more than 30% of the resident’s income.
Chapel Hill’s affordable housing website says the town developed its first public housing neighborhood in 1967 and currently manages 336 units for low-income residents. The website includes an interactive dashboard with affordable housing data and an inventory of subsidized housing in town.
Despite its long history, affordable housing remains controversial.
When a Chapel Hill resident mentioned the rezoning ordinance on the Nextdoor social media site, it generated 316 comments in eight days of discussion. Some commenters said the affordable housing made the project a winner; other commenters said 16 affordable units were a drop in the bucket; still others said Chapel Hill needs all the drops it can get.
Commenters also debated whether the new residents would put more traffic on the road or reduce the number of people driving into the city for work. Jackson says the latter: “Will they have to drive to their jobs or to a night on the town, or will they live where they can walk or bike to their destination? Higher density residential projects downtown such as this one are actually part of the solution.”
The rezoning ordinance would change how the town’s land-use management ordinance (LUMO) applies to the lot: waiving the six-story height limit; cutting required parking from 59 to 22 spaces; and not requiring buffers or minimum setbacks from the road. According to the ordinance, space for 59 vehicles might reduce affordability of the units and additional parking is available in the area. The application says TJ Capital plans to lease space for residents in the 125 E. Rosemary parking deck.
Jackson said in a phone interview that going up to 12 stories is what makes it possible to add extra affordable units. He added that the height is only seven feet greater than the Grubb Properties building across the street and considerably slimmer.
The ordinance also changes the LUMO’s affordable housing requirement. The LUMO says half the affordable units must be affordable to someone making, at most, 65 percent of the area median income (AMI); if the ordinance passes, the project will have to make all the units affordable to people making, at most, 80 percent of AMI. Qualifying for Chapel Hill affordable housing depends on family size as well as income.
Chapel Hill’s AMI as of 2023 is $116,200. Someone making 65 percent of that would earn $75,530; 30 percent of that translates into $22,659 a year or $1,888 a month. Eighty percent AMI equals $92,960 so “affordable” equals $27,888 a year or $2,324 a month. Jackson anticipates the market-price units going for $950 per square foot or more.
Jackson said in addition to placing residential housing near stores and jobs, the project will offer other benefits such as outdoor dining and public art. He predicted it will increase the tax base by approximately $80 million a year while not adding much expense to town services.
Jackson said that if the ordinance passes, the next step is detailed construction drawings which will go to the city for review. A consultant will work with the company over the next few months to decide on the building’s name.
Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.