Our little town grows up

As UNC alumni from 40 or 50 years ago can and will tell you, much has changed on campus and in town over the decades. Chapel Hill is no longer the quaint little village whose merchants accepted IOU’s for tickets to the picture show when the banks closed in the 1930s; or where students wore coats and ties or dresses and high-heels to football games as they did through the mid-1960s; or where campus officials heeded town residents’ complaints about loud rock concerts. Many of the changes to the town have come about because of changes in the university, and at tonight’s council meeting, we’re once again faced with an issue of how to grow together.

Council will hear comments from citizens tonight about two proposed large developments: The Cottages, on Homestead Road, and Obey Creek, across from Southern Village. Together they are meant to accommodate housing, office and hotel needs anticipated as the university grows.

The Cottages developer is upfront about its 330 units (1,120 bedrooms total) providing student housing, although it may want to tweak its design somewhat. The plan calls for some five bedroom units. Chapel Hill ordinance does not allow more than four unrelated people to live together in a single unit.

Obey Creek, a Scott Kovens project (though Roger Perry of East West Partners signed the concept plan application), plans 1,200 residences, along with 870,000 square feet of office/commercial space, which includes a hotel.

The Community Design Commission generally gave a thumbs-down to Obey Creek, mainly because, with 10-story buildings along its frontage, it seemed too large-scale to fit in with its neighbors. Not to mention that the additional vehicle traffic streaming into campus from the south would soon overwhelm even the planned widening of South Columbia Street.

Some Town Council members were critical of Bridgepoint, a much smaller mixed-use development across the street from The Cottages due to the increased traffic it would generate. Residents who live near the proposed site are expected to voice objections at tonight’s meeting. Residents who live near the proposed Obey Creek expressed discontent at the Community Design Commission meeting.

So, where do we grow? And make no mistake, if UNC grows, so will the town. Where do we house these new residents? Where will they shop? How will they get where they need to go?

We need to find answers we can live with. Our quaint little village is no more. But we can still build a town we love to call home.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  May 17, 2010

    Within the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the county commissioners shut down plans to open the next elementary school due to finances. We’ve also heard OWASA announce yet another 9+% rate increase. Let’s heed the feedback and push the university to rethink it’s growth plans to figure out how they serve those who want and education without overwhelming the town’s expensive and limited resources. Through the use of online education, it is possible to do both.

  2. Geoff Green

     /  May 17, 2010

    Five bedrooms? I didn’t know they made (private) apartments like that anymore, outside of New York City, and if you have to ask the price…

    As for Obey Creek, 10 story buildings fronting the road seems a bit much. It seems obviously excessive. It’s so out-of-proportion even to Southern Village that I expect it might be a gambit by the developer to make a “revised” version with four or five story buildings with some setback from the road look more reasonable. As for the traffic concerns, I wonder if the worry is about people there streaming north to the UNC campus, or to other spots. If to UNC or other spots in Chapel Hill, the traffic could be ameliorated by increasing the already abundant bus service to Southern Village. If to elsewhere, well, I plead ignorance on road capacity and utilization in that section of town during rush hours.

    One of my pet peeves is the assumption that every parcel of housing must be built with sufficient parking for each projected adult resident. Both at Obey Creek and the Cottages (especially at the Cottages), it might be practical to reduce the parking requirements and substitute a shared car service like ZipCar. If the Cottages are intended for UNC students, it would be more practical to limit parking spots, because presumably a large proportion of the residents would commute along the route to campus which has ample bus service.

  3. Frank

     /  May 17, 2010

    I say to let ’em build up as high as they want to. We desperately need more housing, and the University is not going to shrink any time soon. The commercial part, though, needs to be scrapped. We have plenty of vacant/underused commercial space in town already, and the commercial spaces in the two existing “mixed use” communities is already a failure.

  4. Another Steve

     /  May 17, 2010

    This comment strikes me as about 30 years late. I am not certain when Chapel Hill ceased to be a little town or “village”. Was it the building of I40 at our northern door? Was it the explosion of UNC Hospitals and related building? I do not think it really has as much to do with the University as we sometimes hear. UNC is a whipping post and we can tie many up for flogging. Chapel Hill is a bedroom community, a retirement community, a health center beacon of hope for the sick, a trust fund haven, a university community… Chapel Hill is all of those.

    Despite developers claims of hardship in building here we still see a steady lineup of them coming to our town plans in hand. Density and going vertical is all the rage as an answer to our urban woes. My thought is that most of the people living in the urban towers will still drive to work elsewhere, most likely out of town. Chapel Hill and Orange County have not allowed near enough non-UNC jobs to be created over the years by encouraging businesses to come here.

  5. Mark Marcoplos

     /  May 17, 2010

    Yes, the Chamber and the real estate bloc constantly tell us that no-one wants to deal with the permitting process in “anti-business” Chapel Hill, yet the developers and projects keep on coming.

  6. I pushed to get the Sustainability Task force to look at tracts like the one Obey Creek’s on but we didn’t get a chance to move on it. Interestingly enough, one of the developers on the task force was against shining a light that direction.

    The former Council threw the doors wide open to tall/dense unsustainable development over the last few years. It was inevitable that 10 story tall out-of-character was on the way.

    The 10 story “story” fits well with East/West’s Roger Perry’s vision of 20 story buildings lining MLK, Jr. at Carolina North – no surprise there….

    Even if you like that type of development, as Terri notes, the costs layered on-top of the current economic downturn and rising operational basis of the Town makes this a really bad time to approve NEW zones or EXTRAORDINARY variations within a SUP (as far as costs of these type developments, which we never seem to publicize, we only need to cast a glance towards Meadowmont which was supposed to be cash positive as far as tax outlays 6-7 years ago. No lessons learned there…).

  7. Terri Buckner

     /  May 17, 2010

    It’s not just Meadowmont that has not turned out to be the predicted cash cow. In Carrboro the Board of Aldermen pushed to annex the neighborhoods along Homestead Road. Six years later the town still hasn’t been able to afford to build the promised fire station, the three new firefights needed to operate the still unbuilt facility aren’t funded, and overall town revenues are still in the basement.

    Ignoring so much overwhelming and consistent feedback is hard to fathom.

  8. Geoff Green

     /  May 18, 2010

    Did anyone attend Town Council Monday evening? Any report?

    As for Meadowmont and other developments, I haven’t been around here that long and don’t know the promises made or discussions that were had over their development/annexation. But if one is trying to learn from the “lessons” of these “failed”* projects, one needs to take a close look at the projects. Simply looking at Meadowmont and saying “dense development doesn’t work” is a too-facile conclusion. Dense mixed-use development, of which Meadowmont is generally an example, has worked and is working well in other parts of the country. Therefore it’d be wise to look at the similarities and differences between Meadowmont and other projects to see why Meadowmont has or has not worked as well as promised, hoped or expected.

    One thing important to this discussion is whether the elements of the project that have led to this failure were parts of Meadowmont originally proposed by the developers, or were they concessions forced onto the developers by the town and its residents? One example: The retail has not performed well. Part of that, I would argue, is due to the fact that the typical driver passing by on East 54 has no idea that there’s any retail located at Meadowmont. That lack of visibility, in conjunction with the Town’s refusal to allow Meadowmont retailers to put any sort of sign on East 54, helps reduce its viability By the same token, as part of Meadowmont (I think) there’s an office building right across the street. However, it is also set back behind the street, and the trek from the office building to the retail area is a 10-minute walk on a not-very-interesting path. Therefore, stores and eating establishments can’t rely on the office building area as a source of daytime traffic. Were these setbacks proposed by the developer, or were they mandated by the community so as not to distract from the scenic views of commuters traveling from I-40 to downtown Chapel Hill? A short time back Nancy or Don commented on how East 54’s retail was having more success luring retailers than Meadowmont, and I propose that some of that might have to do with the fact that the East 54 shopping area comes right up to and is visible from the street.

    It’s an important investigation to undertake. If we just say that Meadowmont and Southern VIllage have failed, then what’s left to meet our housing needs are sprawly, Lake Hogan-farm like communities with the substantial environmental impact such developments entail. The alternative is not to allow any more housing to be built at all, which will do nothing to make housing more affordable.

    I have rambled off-topic, though, so I’ll stop now.

    * I put “failed” in quotes because I don’t think it’s fair to call a development a failure less than 10 years in where housing prices have held up and the retail area, while not flourishing, shows some signs of life even in the midst of a substantial recession. More generally I think you need to take a much longer term approach when judging the success or failure of any new development, but that’s a different discussion.

  9. steve lonegan

     /  May 18, 2010

    I was there for The Cottages presentation. The bottom line is that the majority of the Council had the same reaction we did. That this development makes no sense here. Sally, Gene, Penny, Matt, and Donna all but said no (Laurin was not there). Ed and Mark seemed willing to leave the door open. I don’t count the developer out but it’s hard to see how they could turn this one around.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  May 18, 2010

    I agree that it would be inaccurate to say these developments have “failed.” They have been very successful in meeting the goals of reducing spraw, and of meeting the housing desires of those who want their children to go to school here. But let’s put all the goals out on the table and evaluate their success overall. They have cost the local governments more in services than they contribute in revenue generation. In terms of the services required, the high cost items I can think of are schools, storm water management, recreation, and transit/transportation. Nor do they help meet the goal of serving the housing needs of local workforce. The high cost of the single family housing contributes to the overall high cost of real estate in the community.

    In the absence of an unbiased evaluation, I guess the success of these projects really comes down to our individual values. Sprawl control matters to me, but by itself it is simply not enough to justify the problems this type of mega-development creates/contributes to.

  11. Geoff Green

     /  May 18, 2010

    Terri: “But let’s put all the goals out on the table and evaluate their success overall. They have cost the local governments more in services than they contribute in revenue generation.”

    Given the number of folks in Meadowmont who have multiple children, I’m not surprised. 🙂 However, I don’t think the fact that a particular neighborhood is revenue positive or negative is or should be a primary measure by which the success of a community’s growth is measured. If that were the case, we should only allow multi-family housing with small apartments, adult-only communities, or commercial/retail-only development. Housing prices are high because people want to live in Chapel Hill and there’s limited supply; the question is where best to put additional housing which comports with the town’s values.

    “Nor do they help meet the goal of serving the housing needs of local workforce. The high cost of the single family housing contributes to the overall high cost of real estate in the community.”

    On the one hand, yes. I think Meadowmont has too much high end — although you need to ask how low you can price new housing given the high cost of land around here. On the other hand, there’s a mid- to high-end housing need in Chapel Hill, and to the extent that it can be met by homes in Meadowmont, it can reduce pricing pressure in other parts of the community.

    “Sprawl control matters to me, but by itself it is simply not enough to justify the problems this type of mega-development creates/contributes to.”

    I agree that the mega-development model isn’t perfect. I’d love to see more density in and around downtown. There’s public transportation, a good deal of retail and commercial within walking distance, and other nearby amenities. But if someone proposed in Northside a row of three-story townhouses, or four-story retail + apartments, how well would that be received? It’s difficult. There’s no question that Obey Creek isn’t the best place to put a project like this, but it may be one of the few places possible.

  12. Nancy Oates

     /  May 18, 2010

    Steve: I was caught off guard by the council’s response to The Cottages, perhaps because I live next door to a large apartment complex that houses many students, and it’s not unpleasant. Developers who make their considerable livelihoods on providing what the market wants think there is a need for off-campus housing. So, where should something like The Cottages go? Maybe Obey Creek?

  13. Anon

     /  May 18, 2010

    Homestead near the weaver dairy and seawell school road intersections is not designed to
    handle much traffic. No sidewalks; a traffic light already in need at weaver dairy/homestead.

    there also isn’t much bus service along homestead for these new units. Also, that area is strictly owner occupied townhomes or houses. (it would likely upset a bunch of residents to put student housing there.) Putting in a bunch of student housing too far from MLK or 15-501 etc.. is not a great idea IMHO due to the heavy reliance on buses.

    I’m glad the council didn’t like “the cottages”

  14. steve lonegan

     /  May 18, 2010

    Nancy, I don’t know where The Cottages should go. It is not at all clear the university or this town even needs such a development. And, further, how much sense does it make to build something like this so far from campus and services? Bad for the environment, bad for traffic, and bad for homeowners who invested in the surrounding area knowing that that land was zoned for low density residential. Wouldn’t it be nice to see efforts made to makeover all the decrepit complexes around town that are near the university instead of simply plopping something new down on what precious little property there is left? I think most can agree what this town does need is reasonably affordable housing like Homestead Village next door. How about sticking with the original zoning plan and using the land to address that need?

  15. js

     /  May 18, 2010

    Regarding ‘decrepit complexes around town near the university’ – not sure what area or subdivision you are talking about. The town spent over $200k per unit on average, renovating the public housing complex on N. Columbia st. a couple years ago. That struck me as odd considering I bought my place around the corner for $68k and it’s in a condo complex. What little affordable housing there is concentrated in this neighborhood (Longview, N. Columbia, Pritchard Ext. – basically the chapel hill region just east of Northside) is very quickly being torn down and rebuilt with huge McMansions that take up nearly the entire lot, only have the good building materials on the front facade, and are populated entirely by groups of 6-8 high-rent students in each one. 7 of these structures were built in the past year, with 3 nearing completion, 2 just starting construction this week, and my friend’s duplex + her neighbor’s duplex being demolished today to make room for more. When I say quickly I mean come back next month and they’ll probably be completed. All of these mcmansions were built taking the place of small houses or duplexes that typically rented for between 400 and 600 a month per unit.

  16. steve lonegan

     /  May 19, 2010

    js – wow, i didn’t know that sorta business was going on over there. as for where these rundown complexes are… i don’t know — various places off 54, off Hillsborough Road not far from Rosemary, etc, etc. i don’t have them catalogued but they are around. i guess i am thinking of smaller complexes that look old and shabby. i don’t know what the answer is but plopping a gargantuan complex in a quiet neighborhood that is already overburdened with traffic is no good. the land is zoned R2. that’s what everyone in the area invested in — not R5 jam-packed with 1100 undergrads.

  17. js

     /  May 19, 2010

    Ah, that one on Hillsborough is pretty big and populated mostly but not entirely by students. As to whether they are ‘shabby’ I would not consider them so, but they’re certainly utilitarian. There is a lot of open space between the buildings in that complex which I enjoyed when I had friends living there – but in the sense that such residential lawns are fairly rare downtown, and space is at a premium- it is slated to all be demolished and rebuilt in the new pack-em-in style. The last article I read said that the developers are holding off on buying the property right now for financial reasons but I do believe that the plans for that complex have been somewhat pre-approved. Someone with better memory and internet skills could find and post a link to info on that development. I can’t even remember the proposed name right now, but it may have had Ram somewhere in it.