By Virginia Gray
The Local Reporter
The June 21 Chapel Hill Town Council work session was devoted entirely to a presentation by the Keesmaat Group about its Building Complete Communities Project. Their charge is to help the Council develop a strategy for meeting future housing needs.
While I believe there is value in discussing ways to meet our community’s diverse housing needs (needs identified in the recent Rod Stevens report, as well as in many earlier Town planning processes), I do have some questions and concerns about the way the consultants will facilitate such conversations.
They propose selecting 40 “community leaders” whose opinions about housing will be solicited via interviews and then later in focus group discussions. They seem to be looking for people “who want change,” and they expected to identify those individuals within a week, i.e., by June 28. While we don’t yet know who the consultants selected, the underlying message was that they would handpick people who agree with them.
This raises the possibility that citizens who prefer a slower or less dense form of new development or a different mix of housing options might be left out of this discussion. Consultant Jennifer Hurley stated that “they want to get beyond the usual suspects,” and she listed employers, developers, and UNC personnel as examples of the community leaders her team will seek to recruit. Since when were the members of these three groups anything other than “usual suspects” who typically enjoy prominent seats at the table when local land-use decisions are made?
The only way to discern what type of new housing citizens of Chapel Hill want is to survey a random sample of the Town population about a range of housing options — affordable rental housing, affordable for-sale houses, condos, townhouses, “tiny” homes, accessory dwelling units, etc. Importantly, the survey must ask about tradeoffs with other town priorities. Do citizens value new housing more than they value a large park or more than the climate resilience goals in the town’s Climate Change Action Plan? When the consultants were asked about including environmentalists in their selected group of 40 community leaders, they responded that “sometimes environmentalists oppose affordable housing so that is not good.”
Are the views of their handpicked 40 interviewees the only views they will listen to? What about the desires of the public? What about the great variety of experts in this town who might have knowledge to contribute? How will they engage in this discussion?
The final section of the consultants’ report listed three “Hard Truths” which David Adams has so cogently critiqued. Hard Truth #2 states that, at present, “there is an over-representation of voices that resist and reject change.” How can a consultant who has just arrived in town make such a statement without providing evidence?
The housing survey I mentioned above could determine what proportion of citizens want more dense development like Blue Hill and what proportion desire a different pattern of land use. Based on such data, one could then say whether those who raise concerns about proposed new development are representative of the citizenry or whether those who support such development are in the majority.
Absent a scientific survey, what could be other indicators that those who “resist change” are over-represented in the town’s decision-making? We might examine whether development has been thwarted by resisters of change. For example, did the resisters prevent the adoption of a form-based code for Blue Hill or subsequent development in that area? The answer is “no.”
Nearly 3,000 rental units have either already been built in Blue Hill, are currently under construction along Ephesus Church Rd., or are already approved for Fordham Blvd., with more units expected by 2029. These units have been built in just one area since 2014. Clearly, the resisters failed to stop development in Blue Hill.
But what about projects outside the borders of Blue Hill? The most recently approved large project was Aura on Estes Drive. Whose vision prevailed in this instance? Not the one favored by the “resisters,” though they tried mightily. Instead, the Council approved this project. More generally, the evidence shows that pro-development forces have triumphed far more often in recent years than have resisters. This raises the question: Why do the consultants say that resisters’ views are overrepresented in development decisions? I don’t know, but I can’t think of what evidence they might be relying upon. I hope that the consulting group will answer the questions posed here and that their engagement with Chapel Hill citizens will be broader and more inclusive than what they have outlined thus far.
Virginia Gray is Distinguished Professor Emerita in UNC’s Department of Political Science. She has lived in Chapel Hill for more than 20 years.
“While we don’t yet know who the consultants selected, the underlying message was that they would handpick people who agree with them.”
Curious why you presume this… Is there anything specific that leads you to that conclusion? If so, it should certainly be mentioned.
The “resistors” are a real force in Chapel Hill. CHALT was formed and succeeded in drumming up enough voters to remove Mark Kleinschmidt from office. Kleinschmidt had visions of developing downtown Chapel Hill and the areas nearby, including Franklin St. and real estate along MLK. When CHALT-selected Pam Hemminger came in, she and town council shifted development away from Franklin and MLK (where many members of CHALT are located), and shifted it to 15-501. The “resistors” in CHALT made this happen.
I think the shift in development from downtown (where Kleinschmidt wanted it to be) to 15-501 was a big mistake. It has only contributed to urban sprawl. It has increased traffic on 15-501. It has pulled foot traffic away from Franklin and killed businesses there. I think we need to get back to Kleinschmidt’s original vision to develop Franklin St — increase density there, and increase density along MLK.
The long-time residents who want Chapel Hill to stay small need to accept the reality that it simply will not stay small. By trying to keep it small, they will only push development to other areas of Orange County. Say yes to density in downtown. Say no to sprawl.
I would like to respond to Steve Embree’s assertion that CHALT ousted the prior mayor and shifted development to the Ephesus-Fordham area. The buildings going up in that area were planned and begun during the prior mayor’s tenure, in 2012. The Form-Based Code (“build anything as long as it looks like this”)was shepherded through by then-Mayor Kleinschmidt and former Manager Stancil.
I would also like to comment on the article, namely what goes unsaid by the consultants, by town council, and by the town’s paid staff: the consultant’s fees, along with the salaries and benefits for paid staff, are paid for by town residents. Not by tax-exempt UNC and UNCH, not by out-of-town developers, and not by out-of-town employers.
I find it egregious to the point of antagonistic, for this consultant to so blatantly bite the hand feeding it. Residents pay for the town; they should have a say in what the town does.
I am very sure that CHALT ousted Kleinschmidt, and I am very sure that they pushed development away from MLK and toward 15-501. I was on the neighborhood email chains when it was all being planned out by CHALT members in 2012-2015. Here is a link to an article that will back me up on all of this: https://echhsechoonline.com/the-ugly-truth-of-chalt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-ugly-truth-of-chalt
CHALT is a NIMBY movement that is designed to serve the wealthy residents in North Chapel Hill / Eastwood Lake. The idea is to impede new development at all costs to keep traffic low, and to keep the views serene. They don’t seem to care the middle class people and lower income people need a place to live that is close to where they work.
With all due respect, Stephen, I attended the future development presentations led by Dwight Bassett in 2013 and 2014. The goal was always to increase the tax revenues from “under-performing” parts of town. The Ephesus-Fordham (aka, Blue Hill) area along 15-501 was Exhibit A in Mr. Bassett’s talks. Mr. Bassett has never been a member of CHALT so why are you “very sure that (CHALT) pushed development … toward 15-501”? What CHALT tried to do was get some actual standards included in the codes that Council passed for that area. Such standards are crucial parts of FBCs used in other cities (e.g., Asheville) so why not have them here. And for what it’s worth, I live down in the lower, more humble part of Briarcliff, far from Eastwood Lake.
Back in 2012, plans were being made by the city to rezone all the undeveloped land behind the YMCA and on the corner of ESTES/MLK. The city payed an outside planning consultant a lot of money ($500k, I think) to plan out the area in some detail. There was a plan for high density development — up to eight story mixed used developments were being planned. Wealthy residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to this land organized a group they called “CHALT” and they showed up to city planning meetings in large numbers to protest. This is how they stopped all development along MLK. This is why, if you look at Google Maps, there are at least 50 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the YMCA. CHALT chose not stand in the way of Mr. Bassett’s plan to develop 15-501, or at least they did not show up in large numbers to the city council meetings to oppose the plans along 15-501. This is how CHALT pushed development away from Estes/MLK to 15-501, contributing the urban sprawl of Chapel Hill.
It makes a lot more sense to me to have dense development within walking distance of downtown Chapel Hill and the MLK transportation corridor. We need a vibrant downtown. We need to reduce automobile traffic and increase use of public transportation. Also, we need to be able to get to work at UNC/UNC Hospital. MLK has plenty of underdeveloped land that could be used for these dense developments.
Here is the list of people who will be interviewed. https://www.townofchapelhill.org/home/showpublisheddocument/51908
I personally volunteered to be on the committee or interview list and was rejected. I was told the town was going a “different way” with community input. But they might contact me if any of my interests became pertinent(public art and open space/parks). I am not able to find that email at the moment but I thought it was very condescending. I have served on a Chapel Hill commission and been a resident fo 30 years.
As Ms. Gray points out, let’s look at what has actually happened with development in Chapel Hill. So-called “resistors” lost big at Blue Hill and at Aura on MLK (and soon Aura in Blue Hill). CHALT did in fact champion a list of major revisions to the Mayor and Council to improve the Blue Hill FBC (e.g., affordable housing and expansion of the commercial space) to no avail.