Three Hard Truths


By David Adams


The Local Reporter

The Chapel Hill Town Council held a work session on June 21 to hear and discuss a presentation by consultant Jennifer Keesmaat entitled, “A Strategy for Where and How to Build Complete Communities,” as part of the Building Complete Communities process from the Keesmaat Group.

The council should be commended for acting on consultant Rod Stevens previous recommendations to build neighborhoods and communities rather than allow piecemeal development without an overarching plan with civic engagement. The presentation concluded with “Three Hard Truths” to consider, which invites the following commentary:

1. Chapel Hill is already an exclusive place: The Rod Stevens report documented this fact and its origin in detail. There are daily tides of commuters both coming to and leaving Chapel Hill for their work because appropriate housing is not available. The unsaid hard truth is that this and previous town councils have created said exclusivity by enabling development that overwhelmingly favors and welcomes people of means. Chapel Hill Town Council needs to take ownership and stop deflecting blame for this on others. Indeed, the council has made little effort to fix the flawed form-based code of “Blue Hill” or to use its zoning powers to get better outcomes.

2. No one is happy with the housing planning process and outcomes: There is over-representation of voices that resist or reject change. The developers we want have been driven away. Not everyone involved is unhappy. The developers that have been enabled by staff and approved by the council are quite happy.

Developers of the Hartley Apartments even got taxpayers to fund the road that provides access to their project while displacing 200 families who once lived in affordable housing. These funds could have been used to create and maintain a true community park on the American Legion property without having to sell portions of it. There is indeed over-representation of voices that resist change — but these voices are not from the community as implied but those of developers who refuse to build anything other than “Texas donut” luxury apartment complexes without any of the community benefits that have been specifically requested by citizens time and time again. There are in fact local developers (e.g., Clay Grubb) who have stayed and set an example for what can be accomplished. Likewise, other cities (e.g., Baltimore, Kansas City) have demonstrated successful approaches to equitable development.

3. Chapel Hill has a hard urban form to remediate: The unsaid hard truth is that UNC owns much of the remaining developable land and has shifted responsibility for housing both its workforce and its students onto the town, which is unacceptable. In addition, transit is the most difficult element to remediate. Some failing transit corridors — U.S. 15-501 in particular — are not controlled by the town and bottlenecks such as those at Eastgate Commons cannot be removed without great cost and effort. Yet 3000 apartment units have been or soon will be built in this exact location. The hard truth: Infill development is encouraged but must recognize and accommodate existing infrastructure among other constraints (e.g., stormwater control).

Most who care about Chapel Hill support getting more “missing middle” and affordable housing along with more commercial development to broaden our tax base.

The Building Complete Communities process should bring all stakeholders — developers, UNC, community members and town government — together to create a livable, viable and equitable future for everyone.

In contrast, the proposed civic engagement process will be highly selective, hearing only forty voices chosen by the town staff and council members themselves. In the past, the town council has reached out to the local community with surveys and has looked to its own commissions to help guide policy, unfortunately with little impact on decision-making. It remains to be seen if Building Complete Communities will be any different.

Dr. David Adams is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and a 38-year resident of Chapel Hill.

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2 Comments on "Three Hard Truths"

  1. Stephen Embree | July 12, 2022 at 12:24 pm | Reply

    I don’t understand why we aren’t building more density in the center of Chapel Hill — Franklin St. All of these new apartment buildings should be right in the middle of the action and within walking distance to the hospital and university. The businesses on Franklin need more foot traffic. Higher density downtown would lead to less traffic and less carbon emissions. Why aren’t more old building on Franklin being torn down and high rises put in their place? It makes sense to me. Mayor Kleinschmidt talked a lot of about this, but then CHALT was formed and voted him out of office. Big mistake.

  2. For the record, it was Mayor Kleinschmidt and his Council majority that created the form-based code (FBC) that gave us all the luxury apartments in “Blue Hill” at Eastgate Commons. Among many deficiencies, the FBC lacked design guidelines. This created an experiment of sorts: what would happen if developers were given free reign over building in Blue Hill? The results are plain to see. No trees or green space, no affordable units, no walkability, massive nondescript apartments, no expansion of the commercial tax base, no remediation of traffic congestion etc. This is what led to Kleinschmidt’s defeat, not CHALT. In addition, much multi-story apartment redevelopment has in fact been occurring in downtown, especially along Rosemary street, just one block off Franklin. A major new project is now underway that will replace the Wallace parking deck with a seven story wet lab and office building.

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