By Charles Berlin
A recent article in the News and Observer alerted surprised residents near this corner of our town of not one, but four proposed large-scale residential rental developments. In aggregate, the proposed new housing projects would occupy 41 now-mostly-wooded acres, with 41 buildings, 1,094 rental units, and 1,896 parking spaces. These are arrayed close to each other along Old Chapel Hill Road from White Oak to Pope Road, and then up Pope Road a bit, near the intersection of 15/501 and I40. These proposals, which are requesting zoning changes from our town council to proceed, appear to be on a very quick time table, coming before council in the very near future.
I can only hope that council members pause to think this through with wisdom and forethought before forging ahead and rubber-stamping this enormous amount of development, which dwarfs in size Wegmans at the other end of Old Durham/Old Chapel Hill Road.
Last year, UNC and the Town commissioned a highly experienced urban planning consultant, Rod Stevens, to study the overall history and direction of residential development in Chapel Hill. His report concluded that Chapel Hill’s development trends of the last decade have badly failed to meet the most important needs of this region, and are heading toward further failure unless we correct course. More specifically, he noted that the proliferation of expensive market-rate rental apartment buildings, and not much else, have shut out first-time buyers, young families, empty-nesters, seniors, etc, from planting roots here. As a result, the vast majority of people who work in Chapel Hill have to live elsewhere and, paradoxically, a large number of Chapel Hill residents commute to elsewhere in the region for their employment. He noted that we’ve badly failed to meet the need for “missing middle” housing. Stevens strongly recommended that, rather than continuing to build large-scale rental buildings with little connection to their surroundings, approved on a project-by-project basis (“the worst option”), there should first be planning for neighborhoods as a whole, including community involvement.
The proposed developments along Old Chapel Hill Road raise the following concerns:
1) We would be getting the one thing that Stevens indicated we don’t need more of, which is primarily expensive market-rate rentals (with a smattering of nominally affordable rentals), rather than the “missing middle” and affordable ownable housing that is so important to the town’s future vitality.
2) We would be getting – especially from the proposed White Oak project – another of what Rod Stevens referred to pejoratively as “ocean liners” plunked down willy-nilly and jarringly in low-rise surroundings.
3) We would be adding substantial traffic of 1,900 cars to the traffic on Old Durham/Old Chapel Hill Road. Despite current improvements of added sidewalks and bike lanes, this remains a two-lane road, which already struggles with frequent problems of back-up next to Wegmans at the Old Durham/15-501 intersection. And these additional cars will add to the slowly failing and congested 15-501transit corridor, while the “Reimagining 15-501” project has yet to produce any clear solutions to this problem.
4) Development in this small area was strongly predicated on the placement of a light rail station contiguous to these proposed developments. Since the light rail project failed to come to fruition, and as local bus service remains meager here, the notion that the residents of these developments will be able to get around without cars seems highly unrealistic.
5) Loss of a significant amount of tree canopy and green-space: 41 acres of mostly-wooded property – the kind of large, beautiful, and ecologically necessary landscape for which Chapel Hill was once famous but which is now rapidly disappearing from our city — will be largely cleared of trees.
6) There has been, to my knowledge, zero community engagement by either the developers or the Town about these proposals beyond the tiny notices of required upcoming board and council hearings buried deep in the Town’s website.
Based on the details of these proposals submitted to the Town, at least three of the projects (Gateway, 5500 Old Chapel Hill Road, and Huse Street) appear to have made some effort to preserve some green space and to limit density and building heights to a level compatible with the nearby neighborhoods (although still only offering rentals). Interestingly, all three of these projects are being proposed by regionally-based developers. The North White Oak Drive proposal however, is from an Atlanta-based corporation which had an Atlanta-based architectural firm present its proposal and announces on its website that it has developed/managed over 75,000 units nationally. This developer has requested permission to build two massive high-rise buildings with parking decks. Construction will entail building on much of the site’s existing green space except for a protected stream in the middle, and would create 50% more housing density than the nearby Huse Street proposal, which has similar acreage.
And while The White Oak project notes its adherence to existing city LUMO requirements, it appears to be significantly at odds with the spirit and recommendations of the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) which the city has labored so long to refine, and which all three of the other nearby proposals note and appear to make efforts to take somewhat into account in their designs. Specifically, the North White Oak Drive proposal appears to be at odds with FLUM, which envisions town homes and a four-story height maximum in this specially designated area to provide a “harmonious transition” from taller, higher-density buildings to the adjoining established single family neighborhoods and preservation of tree canopy.
Given these considerations, I strongly suggest
1) that the town council initiate a small-area study, with a moratorium on all of these projects until a more comprehensive plan for this small area is completed. Such a study could focus more directly on this area of the town – the overall neighborhood planning that Stevens strongly recommends – and address the larger issues (including the need for owner-occupied rather than rented housing) that together make for successful local development that serves its citizens well.
2) that council specifically not allow the White Oak proposal to proceed, given that this proposal appears to be greatly at variance with the needs of the neighborhood, FLUM guidance and the needs of the Town generally.
3) that the Town require all of these developers to engage the local community in dialog, and take this input seriously, in planning their proposals.
Finally, I urge any interested citizen to get more information about the above proposals and communicate your views to our mayor and town council, who represent your interests. And act quickly before council makes further decisions (tentatively May 4 for the White Oak project).
Charles Berlin lives in Chapel Hill’s Pickard Oaks neighborhood
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