Town Council Weighs in on Two Development Projects; Tweaks Employee Housing Program

POLITICS

By James Kiefer

Building height and doing construction projects right were two main topics of discussion for the Chapel Hill Town Council at its Wednesday Oct. 27 meeting. The body also approved several updates for a program that incentivizes Town employees to seek housing in or near Chapel Hill. 

Size matters

Midway through the meeting, Council opened a legislative hearing for a conditional zoning application for development at 150 East Rosemary St. The proposed 238,000 square foot project is slated to replace the Wallace parking deck with office space and wet labs aimed at attracting new businesses to the downtown corridor. 

Also included in the $33 million project are green spaces that would connect Rosemary Street to Franklin Street. 

Mayor pro tem Michael Parker raised the issue that the Town had previously agreed to a 200,000-square-foot structure. That sizing is outlined under section 7-(C) in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town of Chapel Hill and developer Grubb Properties dated March 9 2021. 

Grubb executive Joe Dye explained that the current development agreement allows for a structure of up to 250,000 square feet, and that the project team’s designers are working within those limitations. 

The project developer is also seeking an exemption from regulations that limit the height of the building frontage — the part closest to Rosemary Street — to four stories.

During the public comment period, several members of Chapel Hill’s Cultural Arts Commission said the project presents a chance for public art.

CAC vice-chair Josh Rosenstein noted the Community Arts and Culture office is across the street from the site of the proposed office building.  

“Our Community Arts and Culture Office has done a great job commissioning large-scale arts projects that promote inclusion,” he said, calling it an opportunity to create public-facing art that reflects the Town’s values. 

Council members Hongbin Gu and Michael Parker commented on the mechanical housing structure that tops the current design, with Parker asking whether it could be made more architecturally interesting because it is one of the more visible parts of the building. 

Several other council members mentioned the proposed green spaces also need intentional design to keep people engaged in the area, rather than just being a placeholder between two streets. Mayor Pam Hemminger asked about the structure’s anticipated environmental efficiency.

“The minimum we’re shooting for is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified,” designer Michael Stevenson said. “We’re trying to get to Gold [certification], but it’s too early in the design process to say with certainty.”

Council voted unanimously to continue the hearing to its Nov. 17 meeting. 

Expanding housing assistance for Town employees

Following discussion of the proposed Rosemary Street office building, Council took action to update a housing assistance program for Town employees. Affordable housing manager Nate Broman-Fulk led an evaluation of the pilot program the Town rolled out in spring 2019.

He explained the current program assists Town employees in two ways: homeownership and rental assistance. Workers approved in the program can receive a one-time down payment or closing cost assistance of up to $7,500 to be used toward purchasing a home, as long as the home is within Town limits, Broman-Fulk said. He added that none of the 11 municipal employees who have applied to the program have received funds for homeownership. 

On the rental side, Broman-Fulk said the program offers a one-time payment that can be used to defray the costs of security deposits, utility connections and other fees. The assistance package ranges from $1,480 to $2,050 depending on house size. So far, only seven Town workers have been approved to receive this payment. 

An evaluation of the program found that 70% of Town employee respondents are interested in living in Chapel Hill, or closer to their place of work, Broman-Fulk said. He further stated that affordability is the greatest barrier keeping Town workers from securing residences within city limits. The study noted that average sales prices in Chapel Hill increased from around $450,000 in 2019 to over $550,000 in 2021, and that the available housing within the price range Town employees can afford is often in poor condition or too small for their needs.

Community Development Programs Manager Megan Culp offered three recommendations for the program: 

  1. Expand the eligible geographic area to all properties within 5 miles of Chapel Hill Town limits;
  2. Increase incentive amounts and broaden eligible uses of assistance funds;
  3. Enhance employee outreach and engagement    

Culp added Council originally provided $50,000 to fund the pilot program and that roughly $43,000 of that amount remains unspent. Councilperson Jessica Anderson asked how the program will be sustained once that funding is gone. 

Town manager Maurice Jones said it can be folded into the general fund as a recurring budget item. 

Councilperson Parker asked what number of employees receiving the program would qualify it as successful. Culp responded that she anticipates that if eligibility were broadened it could provide housing assistance for seven to nine employees every year. 

Council unanimously approved the resolution to update the program. 

Other business heard during the meeting included:

  • Council forwarded comments regarding a concept plan for a housing development at 710 N. Estes Drive. 
  • Council heard several petitions that encouraged continuation of expanded downtown sidewalks to support local businesses, prohibiting through traffic by trucks and busses along Henderson Street and North Street and exploring the possibility of the Town assuming ownership from the NC Department of Transportation of the downtown section of Franklin Street extending west of Henderson Street.   
  • Council allotted an additional $100,000 for performance agreements with human service agencies as recommended by the Human Services Advisory Board. 
  • Council extended town attorney Ann Anderson’s employment contract by one year to March 1 2025. 
  • Council adopted a resolution that increased the Town’s micro-purchase threshold related to the expenditure of federal funds. 
  • Council passed text amendments that clarify extension periods granted by the Town Manager and implemented short-term rental standards in the Blue Hill District that match town-wide specifications.  
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