What’s worth preserving

Would a time traveler from the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, walking through one of Chapel Hill’s historic districts, recognize the neighborhood?

Amber Kidd, a preservationist with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office who advises local governments on how to set up and run a Historic District Commission, put that question to Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commissioners at a work session last Saturday at Town Hall.

The answer: Probably not.

A lack of support from state lawmakers who codified that an HDC can’t deny permission to demolish a historic home, combined with increasing development pressure and the town having no planner with specialized knowledge of historic preservation for more than a decade, add up to gaping holes in our ability to preserve the homes that make up our gracious historic districts.

Chapel Hill has three historic districts: Franklin-Rosemary, established in 1976, and Cameron-McCauley and Gimghoul, both designated in 1990. Every property owner who wants to renovate the exterior or build a new home in a historic district must first obtain the approval of the HDC so that the historic districts retain their special character and not turn into any other neighborhood of gracious homes on large lots. The Oaks, for instance, is a lovely neighborhood, but no one would come in from out of town to tour it.

The HDC is not the “pretty police.” Historic districts are resources worth preserving. They comprise slices of history of a town intertwined with the nation’s oldest public university. Many homes in our historic districts were built for renowned professors who helped make UNC the well-regarded school it is today.

A well-preserved historic district draws tourists, whose stays in hotels and dinners out contribute to a town’s tax revenue. Eroding the special character of historic districts reduces their importance as revenue generators.

But the HDC is under-resourced in this battle. The Historic District Guidelines are decades out of date and often conflict with town zoning guidelines, leading property owners to pick and choose which to follow.

HDC commissioners have been lobbying for years for a staff member well-versed in historic preservation who can work with property owners to make sure their application is complete and abides by the guidelines. The lack of an expert on staff contributes to delays in the approval process, frustration and wasted time of applicants and HDC commissioners alike.

There is no shortage of qualified preservationists for hire. Raleigh had so many excellent candidates that HDC commissioners asked, only half-jokingly, whether Kidd would steer the unchosen finalists to Chapel Hill.

Kidd applauded the HDC’s efforts to educate buyers, builders, architects and real estate brokers about what can and can’t be done to a historic home. She congratulated their applying for a grant to pay for help in updating the guidelines and keeping the pressure on to hire a preservationist.

These steps can’t reverse the damage already done. But they can slow future deterioration. And we will still have remnants of our history for generations to come.
— Nancy Oates

Honor MLK Jr. — Speak Out

Never have I felt so alone and afraid as when the border patrol in El Salvador pulled me off the bus as I headed to American-friendly Guatemala because I had not stayed the three consecutive nights the Salvadoran regime required of tourists to that country torn by civil war in the early 1980s.

I watched the bus pull away without me, toward a country I felt safe in. Then I turned around and trudged back across the bridge to El Salvador, under the watchful eye of teenage boys with machine guns, wondering what the next 24 hours would hold.

That’s the closest I can come to imagining what the 5,900 Salvadorans living in North Carolina under Temporary Protective Status for the past 17 years must feel like now that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has revoked TPS for refugees from El Salvador, effective Sept. 9, 2019.

On the blustery Saturday afternoon of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, El Centro Hispano held a press conference outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Durham to protest the Trump administration’s cruel and capricious decision.

Just to be clear: Salvadorans granted TPS are documented and living in the U.S. legally and paying taxes to Uncle Sam. In 2000, the federal government considered conditions in El Salvador so perilous that it authorized Salvadoran refugees to live and work in the U.S., provided that they check in with the feds every 18 months to make sure they had not been convicted of any crimes.

Then last week, the Trump administration declared El Salvador safe again — but only for Salvadorans. The U.S. Department of State still maintains a Level 3 Travel Advisory for U.S. citizens to “Reconsider Travel” to El Salvador because, according to the State Department website: “Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”

In November, Chapel Hill, along with Carrboro and Durham, passed a resolution of support for Salvadorans granted TPS to be able to remain in the U.S. We are reportedly the only three municipalities in the state to have done so.

But what does that mean? We can’t override Trump’s decision. We can, however, speak out against injustice and for compassion. We can call out elected leaders who don’t govern with the best interests of humanity at heart. We can keep the issue alive while Congress works out a way for the Salvadorans who have enriched our society to remain contributing members of our community.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s passionate pursuit of a just society, his courage in standing up to powerful forces, his tenacious speaking out inspire us all.

What can we do about the TPS revocation and any myriad of wrongs that need to be righted? We can, as King told us and showed us, speak out.

What will you do today to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.?
— Nancy Oates

Requiem to a Newspaper

“I have some good news to share,” began a letter to Chapel Hill News readers from publisher Sara Glines. But it wasn’t good news. What followed was a 6-inch column of malarkey.

The Chapel Hill News ceased publication at the end of December. It had stopped publishing news a year before that, when McClatchy, owner of The News & Observer, bought the Durham Herald-Sun in December 2016. The CHN newsroom staff, already working out of office space in Durham, were shifted to the Herald. The CHN became a single 22×22-inch sheet, folded in half, wiped free of news and replaced with recipes and reviews of Raleigh restaurants.

Glines went on: “… we have heard from our audience that the content we were presenting no longer connected with them the way it once did.”

You got that right.

The CHN would have turned 96 in March. Louis Graves started The Chapel Hill Weekly in 1923. In the early days, Graves and his wife, Mim, would drag folding chairs out onto Franklin Street and talk with passersby, gathering news to report. The paper came out twice a week after Graves sold it to a group of investors, led by Orville Campbell, in 1954. It became a “daily,” publishing six days a week and adding wire copy, in 1973 and changed its name to The Chapel Hill Newspaper. The paper sold again in 1987 to a subsidiary of Dow Jones and scaled back to three days a week. In 1992, it began free distribution to 22,000 households so as to attract big-name advertisers and a new buyer, the Raleigh News & Observer, the following year.

Over the years, the CHN covered such breaking news as the Mah Jongg craze coming to town, cab drivers winning safe-driving awards, zoning moves by the town’s board of aldermen during desegregation, each national title won by the UNC men’s basketball team and every UNC football game.

So when Glines continued her letter with “We heard over and over that food, dining and entertainment would be a better fit with [readers’] lifestyle,” I knew she hadn’t asked Chapel Hillians, who would have told her that we want stories that impact our lives.

On Jan. 3, Triangle Today debuted as a half-sheet (11×22 inches) of newsprint folded in half. It lists a few restaurants and a few bands, mimicking paid content.

Ironically, when The N&O struggled to turn a profit, it relied on its community newspapers to keep it afloat. Locals bought enough ads in the community newspapers to make them reasonably profitable. Local staff were paid much less than reporters and editors in Raleigh and were closely connected to the community. The CHN published news that was relevant to readers, and readers could trust what they read.

Chapel Hill residents now must subscribe to a Durham newspaper to read any stories about what’s happening in our town.

We at Chapel Hill Watch are setting up the equivalent of folding chairs on Franklin Street. Tell us what you’ve heard. We’ll track down rumors and post the news.

Louis Graves would approve.
— Nancy Oates

Happier New Year

We started a new tradition this New Year’s Eve – we wrote all the bad things that happened in 2017 on little slips of paper, then tossed them into the fireplace. It was not as big of a bonfire as I expected, given the national politics and ripples into global and state affairs. And it felt good to watch the edges of a year’s worth of disappointments and worry singe and curl and waft up the chimney.

The looking-back research necessary for coming up with my burnable list meant reviewing what had happened on council in 2017. (Only two issues made it to my stack of notes to burn.) Most of what we did on council this past year was praiseworthy. To wit:

— We approved an ambitious set of guidelines for development along West Rosemary St. Yes, they will require financial sacrifices on the part of taxpayers and developers, but if followed, they will result in a downtown we can be proud of.

— We approved the construction of a Wegmans grocery store. The traffic issues did not get resolved in the best way possible — SECU, which owns the property next door, would not continue the easement it extended to Performance Automall so that the site could be accessed at the traffic light on U.S. 15-501 — and the residential neighborhoods on two sides of the property will take the quality-of-life hit for the rest of us. The expected sales tax revenue will enable us to afford amenities and services without a property tax hike.

— Speaking of amenities, the American Legion Task Force reported on its work, encouraging us to think generationally and preserve the entire parcel as community gathering space. A thousand people responded to the survey on how to use the land, the vast majority of them supporting some form of community-wide access.

— We approved a light-industrial zone along Millhouse Road and affirmed our support for mixed-income housing along Homestead Road. Elkin Hills became the newest neighborhood conservation district, preserving affordability in the neighborhood of small houses. We annexed Carraway Village and the Merin Road Community, which will generate additional property tax revenue for town coffers.

I tossed two issues into the fire, but unfortunately, town residents will have to deal with the impact for years to come:

— We were unable to make any meaningful corrections to the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code, and the town manager approved another massive apartment building some call Son of Berkshire, this one built in the Resource Conservation District.

— A council majority approved a Conditional Zoning process, essentially sight unseen. The process would allow spot rezoning anywhere in town and gives final approval of a project to the town manager, who can relax quality-of-life safeguards. Developers can negotiate with individual council members in private, which the Morrisville mayor and planning board chair warned against based on their experience with Conditional Zoning.

We have much work to do in 2018, but much to look forward to as well. Stay tuned, and Happy New Year!
— Nancy Oates

Hot Spots

Things change. I count on that every year when we go out looking for holiday lights. This year we stumbled on a treasure trove of lights to complement our old favorites. We hope you and those you celebrate with will enjoy them:

Because Southern Village goes all out for Halloween, we ventured in to see what the village people do around Christmastime. They did not disappoint.

We cut through market square, everything dusted in white lights, and past the stores outlined in strands of clean white lights. We didn’t see color until Parkside, which employed many of the classics — hedges draped in multicolored lights, porch railings and deciduous trees wound in lights, and a couple of yard ornament deer kissing. (Aww!) A house on Tharrington offered light-ball ornaments dangling beneath colored icicle lights; another had a snowflake projector skimming over the house that had a different wreath in every window.

On Brookgreen, we pinpointed the house of a researcher, perhaps, that had half of the structure draped in warm incandescent white lights and the other half done in cool LED whites. We’ll watch for results in the Journal of Holiday Lights.

We crossed the divide to Highgrove, where giant inflatables and snowflake projectors rule. Immediately, we were greeted by a super-sized dino-Santa, accompanied by a 12-foot-tall Frosty the Snowman, a smaller Olaf the Snowman and Yoda, while Santa escaped the red-and-green scattered laser lights in a helicopter, complete with a spinning propeller. Traditionalists will appreciate the house across the street, tastefully done in a classic red-and-white theme with a candle in each window.

A shimmery glow led us to Westside Drive to a house apparently vying for Holiday Lights That Can Be Spotted From Outer Space. Two full stories of blazing color behind a fence of glowing candy canes encircling an evergreen festooned in bright blue. A polar bear waved from the second-floor balcony while Santa and his reindeer landed on the lawn, and another large polar bear kept an eye on a hologram Santa peering out from a window on the first floor.

Continuing around the loop, we came across a section of the street that was frosted entirely in white. Word must have gone out on the neighborhood listserv to go all out in any sort of décor, so long as anything electric was white. White icicle lights dripped from eaves; trees trunks and railings were wrapped in white; bushes were swathed in white; and trees were tethered together in ropes of white. We didn’t hit a patch of color until we turned back onto Highgrove.

But wait! Don’t leave until you find Unwin, a cul-de-sac with an electric gingerbread house, complete with an oversized candy cane trellis. Both blue and white icicle lights dangled from the roof. The collection of inflatables included minions, the Grinch, Star Wars characters and a camo-Santa.

From there, we went to check on our regulars: the three-story evergreen wrapped in white lights on Old Lystra Road; and the birthday-cake house at the intersection of Old Forest Creek and Old Forest Creek. Traverse the whole Old Forest Creek loop to see more contemporary designs — austere ropes of colored lights hanging from tall trees; a house whose windows change color while another hologram Santa keeps an eye on you.

Our senses overstimulated by this time, I expected that if the red tree were lit in Chandlers Green this year — the owner says it takes two full days to wrap every twig in red lights — that it would pale in comparison to the new technology we’d already seen. But as soon as we turned the corner onto Sweeten Creek, I remembered why it was — and still is — my favorite. It’s an outburst of pure joy, just when you think you’ve become too jaded to care. What better gift can you give?

Happy holidays, to you and yours, from me and mine.
— Nancy Oates

Lessons of War

Sometimes you can find words to live by where you least expect it.

In a war movie I saw recently, a SEAL unit came under fire.

“I’ve been shot!” one SEAL cried, whereupon his ranking officer replied: “That’s in the past. Don’t live in the past. Let’s move.”

Stay with me here for what that has to do with Town Council.

The reason the SEALs were in such dire straights was because of poor communication. The mountains of Afghanistan interfered with their radio connection to the entire military base ready to back them up. Had the rest of the troops been able to connect with the isolated SEAL unit, to learn where their fellow soldiers were and what was going on, the movie might have had a happier ending.

So back to Town Council. My spirits have been buoyed this month by the way council members are talking with one another. We’re turning out for events to celebrate all sorts of achievements in this community, from dedicating a Habitat home, to cutting the ribbon on an outdoor interactive space outside the library, to honoring exceptional first responders.

And while we’re mingling before and after these events, we’re getting to know one another and share ideas. We’re making arrangements to meet and talk further about goals we have and what we’d like to see for the town in the near future and long term.

By no means are we all of the same mind. But we are learning why we view a project or vision differently. That strong communication is building a base of understanding that I hope will support our discussions at council meetings as we make decisions in the best interest of the town.

That sniping you heard from the dais for years?

“That’s in the past. Don’t live in the past. Let’s move.”
— Nancy Oates

The View From Here

After I was elected in 2015, I asked to occupy the seat on the dais once held by former Council Member Matt Czajkowski. I had long admired his intellect and insight. He was able to perceive unintended consequences in council decisions that eluded his colleagues on the dais.

But his trenchant observations often brought out defensiveness in other council members. Some reacted by trying to discount his viewpoint and treated him dismissively. Sometimes it seemed council members would vote for or against a project in direct opposition to Czajkoswki’s stance. That was to the detriment of town residents.

As I was packing up my computer after the Nov. 29 meeting, in which I was the 1 in a series of 7-1 votes (Jess Anderson was out sick, which is why the vote total doesn’t add up to 9), I thought: “This is what it feels like to be the Matt Czajkowski in the room.”

On Dec. 6, making room for new council members required a reshuffling of the seating order at the mayor’s discretion. I got switched to the opposite side of the dais, which town manager Roger Stancil said might give me not only a new view of council chambers but a new view of issues as well.

My new seat puts me between two women who think deeply about issues that impact the quality of life of those who live and work in town. They look at a problem from multiple angles. They are alert to unintended consequences of council decisions.

This new council looks more like the real world. Although I don’t expect that we will agree on everything — I would wonder if we were doing our best work if we did — I feel confident that my new neighbors on the dais will be among those on council who will raise the caliber of our decision-making process.

Jane Fonda, in talking about her friendships with other women, said that those women made her “stronger, smarter, braver … and they tap me on the shoulder when I need a course correction.”

My hope is that the new minds and personalities on council will have that effect on all of us on the dais. I hope that the days of eye-rolling, deep sighs, interruptions, sneers and disdainful tones of voice are behind us.

The view from my seat looks better already.
— Nancy Oates

Park, Housing: Not an Either-Or

In 2003, as a taxpayer I voted against spending more than $16 million to expand and renovate the Chapel Hill Public Library. The town had a small but functional library, surrounded by the woods and trails of Pritchard Park, and while the demand would only grow as the town grew, it seemed to me we had more pressing needs for that money.

But a majority of voters thought otherwise, and the nearly $30 million bond passed. (Money for Parks & Rec and sidewalks accounted for the additional $14 million.)

Now, every time I walk through the doors of the state-of-the-art library that came out of that bond — a full decade after voters approved taking on the debt — I am grateful for the voters who had a broader vision than I did. The library is beautiful and serene and accessible to the public, without additional charge.

That experience provides the impetus behind my support of retaining all 36 acres of the American Legion property as a public amenity.

Elected officials at the municipal level must find the sweet spot of spending enough money on amenities to attract high-income residents and ensuring that those amenities are available to everyone in town, regardless of their income level.

To make a livable town, we rely on the property tax and sales tax generated by people who have considerable discretionary spending capacity who can buy expensive houses, dine out locally and spend their money in Chapel Hill. And we have to attract people who hold the service jobs that keep the town functioning. To draw people who work in modestly paying jobs means we have to ensure a supply of housing affordable to them, and that we don’t divide the town into separate sections for the haves and the have-nots.

Spending money on a community gathering space doesn’t mean we can’t spend money on subsidized housing. When the library bond was proposed in 2003, I don’t recall people advocating that the $16 million be redirected to build subsidized housing in Pritchard Park. Voters recognized that the library was for the benefit of people in all income levels.

Even as you read this, town staff are cobbling together a bond proposal for affordable housing. Three of the 27 town-owned parcels studied by the town assets task force earlier this year are earmarked for affordable housing. Perhaps even more would work for homes for low- and middle-income earners.

A developer has applied for permission to replace a mobile home park with luxury apartments. Will anyone on council or in the community advocate that the developer contribute to affordable housing?

Residents from any income level who need a mini-vacation, measured in hours not days, can go to the library and enjoy, without charge, a quality-of-life enhancing experience. I hope that 10 years down the line, everyone will be able to enjoy a similar quality of life on the American Legion property.
— Nancy Oates

Will we always have Paris?

Maybe Town Council’s next intercity visit should be to Paris, a city that Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane cited as her favorite because of its low buildings.

At council’s Nov. 15 meeting, we reviewed a concept plan for a 5-story building of apartments, offices and retail, with 68 parking spaces on less than 4 acres at 1150 S. Columbia St., across the street from Merritt’s Grill.

The site is an awkward one, at best. Bordered on one side by a stream that just barely qualifies as perennial, the building envelope is further constrained by the N.C. Department of Transportation, which has not yet made up its mind about what type of improvements it wants to make to the interchange where S. Columbia Street turns into U.S. 15-501 and crosses the point where Fordham Boulevard turns into N.C. 54.

Several years ago, N.C. DOT reportedly paid the property owner $575,000 to compensate for enough right of way to build a cloverleaf, but that construction has yet to materialize. More recently, during the Obey Creek development agreement approval process, N.C. DOT put forth an option that wouldn’t impinge much on the S. Columbia Street parcel. But N.C. DOT won’t give the property owner a definitive answer on what it wants to do.

The parcel also is surrounded on three sides by neighborhoods of modest single-family houses. (The fourth side being the four-lane road.) Given their proximity to campus, quite a few of the homes are student rentals. Town planning staff seem cavalier about enabling a developer to place what by comparison would be a high-rise in the midst of a residential neighborhood, even though other administrators claim that such upzoning is not allowed in residential areas. (1150 S. Columbia St. is zoned R-2, essentially one house per quarter acre.)

The developer upped his commitment to affordable housing at the meeting. I believe he offered six of the 39 apartments to be affordable, half to those making 85% of the AMI and half at 100% AMI. This falls short of the town’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that 15% of owner-occupied units be affordable, half to those at 65% of AMI and half to those at 80% AMI. The state prevents any restrictions on rent, so we can’t insist on affordability for rentals.

While I’m sympathetic to a property owner wanting to maximize his profits, I have to ask at what cost to his neighbors’ quality of life. Our council goals specify creating “A place for everyone,” and that includes people who do not aspire to ever-grander, more expensive housing. By allowing high-rises to intrude into pockets of small houses, we discount the quality-of-life of those who choose to live modestly.

A three-story office or apartment building might be appropriate for that parcel, but a five-story complex would change the character of the neighborhood. We have areas of town where five-story buildings fit in. Let’s redirect concentrated growth there.

Diners at the café tables outside Merritt’s may order BLT’s and sweet tea, not croissants and cafe au lait, but they still can enjoy the ambience of Paris.
— Nancy Oates

Growth on what conditions

For 10 years before becoming Chapel Hill’s planning director, Ben Hitchings held the comparable role in Morrisville. There, he used a process called “conditional zoning” to develop and redevelop parcels to spur growth.

At council’s Nov. 15 meeting, we heard a staff proposal to add conditional zoning to our Land Use Management Ordinance. CZ makes development faster and cheaper for developers. The proposal presented for our consideration is a no-holds-barred density and use expansion that could be used almost anywhere in town except areas zoned R-1, R-2 and R-3 (basically neighborhoods of single-family houses).

CZ would let council set the parameters of what could be built on a parcel, and the town manager would have final approval over the project, including expanding it as much as 20% without council’s knowledge or say-so. Also, council members could negotiate privately with applicants, unlike in the Special Use Permit process where all conversation between council and applicant must be in a public hearing.

Council members talked about CZ at length, many of us wanting to tweak it to make it less onerous and disruptive. Some of us asked that the process start with a concept review to give council a peek at the plan before an applicant invests significant time and money in it. Some wanted to limit the extent the town manager could independently expand the project to 10%. Some wanted to ensure that the conditions in CZ not be less restrictive than specified in the town’s current LUMO.

I asked that CZ not be allowed in zones R-4 and R-5 — apartment complexes abutting single-family home neighborhoods — until after we saw how CZ operated in other areas and the kinks are worked out.

The lack of transparency concerns me, too. If council members have individual conversations with applicants, not only do we risk coming to a decision-making meeting with different understandings of what a project entails, but we also may have left the applicant with different expectations. We have a rezoning tool already that allows council members to talk privately with an applicant — a development agreement — and I still haven’t heard a convincing explanation of what CZ can accomplish that a development agreement can’t.

But before we’d had any of this discussion, an owner of several undeveloped acres zoned for single-family residences petitioned council to upzone his land, using conditional zoning without specifying what could be built there. The land would fetch a much higher price for him if it were zoned to higher density and commercial use.

And we ended the council meeting with a concept plan review for a high-density project on less than 4 acres zoned R-2. Staff claimed that CZ would be an option for developing this property, even though council has not yet approved CZ, and R-2 is not among the allowable zones anyhow.

Already staff and council seem to have different ideas of where and how this proposed zoning could be used and what type of growth it would encourage. Because approving CZ amounts to a policy change — essentially enabling town-wide spot-zoning — we need to take the time to get this right.
— Nancy Oates