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.