Hometown brand

Driving home from Raleigh one spring night with my car windows rolled down, I Nancy Oatesstopped at a traffic light. A car pulled up beside me, and the driver hollered out, “You must be going to Chapel Hill. I can tell by your bumper stickers.”

Chapel Hill used to be known as an enclave for liberals: people who put time and energy into making society better for everyone. But the town’s reputation seems to be shifting a bit. Whereas public displays of wealth used to be tolerated, now they seem to be aspired to.

The last discount department store in town will leave Chapel Hill in June. Roses, serving the community for more than 40 years, has been priced out of University Mall. Mall landlord Madison Marquette raised the rent on Roses’ space last year, and Roses anteed up to stay put. But this year, the lease offered by Madison Marquette raised the rent even more and cut the space in half. That deal was not fiscally viable for the merchant that sold clothing and sundries at rock-bottom prices.

From an economic development view, the store’s closing makes sense for the town. An art gallery, jewelry store, trendy restaurant or boutique will take over the space at the higher rent, and the town will collect extra sales tax revenue from the pricier goods sold. Residents on a budget will soon move out of town, if they haven’t already, because the town is redeveloping all of its affordable housing out of existence. It makes no sense for budget-minded expats to commute into town to shop at a discount store when there are so many low-cost shopping options over the county lines east, west and south of us.

But as the town moves resolutely toward a moneyed, exclusive community, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. Not because of whether I, personally, can afford to live here, but because I’ve never aspired to live somewhere that prides itself on being a place that only the wealthy can afford. Just as I’m somewhat repulsed by wearing someone else’s name or logo on my clothing and personal property, I feel a similar yuck factor at living in a place that brands itself as a sort of Governors Club without the gatehouse.

The more money I acquire, the more choices I have of where to live. Can my money buy a place where I feel at home with my bumper stickers?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  April 7, 2014

    I’ve never heard any town leaders making statements that indicate the town “prides itself on being a place that only the wealthy can afford.” Quite the contrary, they spend a lot of time talking about affordability; I believe that is what they want. It’s just that gap in what they want and the plans they approve that are at odds.

  2. Matt Czajkowski

     /  April 7, 2014


  3. Del Snow

     /  April 7, 2014

    “I believe that is what they want. It’s just that gap in what they want and the plans they approve that are at odds.”

    What would you call that kind of behavior?

  4. DOM

     /  April 7, 2014

    Low density AND affordability – it’s called having your cake and eating it too. Never gonna happen, so you might as well stop wishing it will.

  5. Terri Buckner

     /  April 7, 2014

    It’s called the difference between theory and practice in organizational behavior literature. We all do it (did your parents ever say “do as I say, not as I do?); it’s a step toward maturity. But it’s takes reflective learning to bridge that gap. You have to be willing to acknowledge that something isn’t working and then look at alternative strategies to get you where you want to be (after verifying that the goal is still the same). In the absence of that acknowledgement, the tendency is to keep doing the same old thing over and over again, attributing the failure to external actions rather than failed strategies. That’s why we have multiple mixed use developments around town and the affordability gap is growing, not shrinking as their theory says it should. The goal was to add density to achieve affordability, the outcome has been the increased exclusivity Nancy points out. Is the problem with the goal or the tactics?

  6. Nancy

     /  April 7, 2014

    And we have some council members pointing out that density bonuses haven’t worked elsewhere in the country. Does anyone know whether state law will allow tax credits in exchange for below-market rents?

  7. Del Snow

     /  April 7, 2014

    Terri, I think that I would call if hypocrisy. The challenges of achieving affordable housing, energy efficiency, environmental stewardship and reduced traffic congestions have been discussed endlessly. This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise to any of the Council. Yet, I have not seen evidence of their being “willing to acknowledge that something isn’t working and then look at alternative strategies to get you where you want to be.”

    Promoting a stripped down version of a form based code instead of encouraging form-based codes that fulfill the Town’s goals through the use of incentives, makes this wayward turn toward elistism seem purposeful. We also could have first tried a streamlined version of the SUP process that would have garned quicker approvals for developers while representing Town and citizen interests as well.

    I am trying hard to believe that some of the council will acknowledge that the current proposal for E/F, for example, achieves none of the goals of the small area plan. Flooding will continue, development will be mostly residential (64% at build out), affordable housing is not on a positive trajectory, and whatever progress will be made made adding roads to relieve EXISTING congestion, will be undone by the over 1000 new residential units.

    It is hard to say that you have gotten off-track, but to continue along that same path out of a aversion to admitting an error, is not leadership.

  8. Terri

     /  April 7, 2014

    Del–I haven’t been able to find any stated goals for redevelopment in the original small area plan. The closest thing I see to goals are on p. 3.48 and there’s no mention of affordable housing in that list. Can you point me to what you are thinking of as goals?

  9. Del Snow

     /  April 8, 2014

    Well, Terri, you got me. Affordable housing is not a goal of the SAP, but is an objective that the Town is allegedly striving toward. The E/F public information session at the library told attendees that the GOAL was to provide 300 affordable units in the E/F area. Sadly, with the loss of 198 at Park Apts coupled with the possible replacement of 144 by DHIC leaves us 156 units short.
    Is the loss of affordable housing units (instead of a gain) an unintended consequence?

  10. many

     /  April 8, 2014

    Rather than hypocrisy, could it be better be termed “lip service”?

    Nancy, in an attempt to address your question, “Rent Control” is explicitly prohibited by General Statutes § 42-14.1. The caveat is that 42-14-1 does not apply to government owned property, agreements with private persons on rent charged for subsidized rental properties, or Community Development Block Grant Funds.

    I think “Tax Credits” would fail the test above.

    Just curious, what do your bumper stickers say? If you eschew labels, why the bumper stickers? Could it just have been a frustrated NC State Fan?

  11. Del Snow

     /  April 8, 2014

    Incentives would work. At E/F, for example, start out with zoning that allows for say, 2 stories. Grant more height in exchange for affordable units, for energy efficiency, etc. This could be laid out in a table, so that developers could make their choices ahead of time.

  12. DOM

     /  April 9, 2014

    “Incentives would work. At E/F, for example, start out with zoning that allows for say, 2 stories.”

    Why not just zone the whole area R-1 and if developers wanted to do more, they could apply for something called a “special use permit”. We could call it an SUP for short.

  13. many

     /  April 9, 2014

    I think if the zoning is “R1” it is presumed to be residential density. At least according to the ToCH zoning cheat sheet: http://www.townofchapelhill.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=9625

    I really can’t tell what is being suggested in E/F, but it does not look like R1. Land use is primarily Commercial and High Density Residential.

  14. Joe

     /  April 10, 2014

    Cheap housing + Low taxes + Big Box shopping = Durham

  15. many

     /  April 10, 2014

    …..or Mebane, or increasingly Chatham/Pittsboro. Take your pick.

  16. Bruce Springsteen

     /  April 13, 2014

    Ya know, if you think about it, or even if you don’t, Cheap Housing = Affordable Housing. “Affordable” just sounds classier but it’s the same dang thing.

    Furthermore, lower taxes is more affordable then higher taxes and lower prices (which big box shopping often is) is more affordable than higher prices.

    Or maybe none of that is true and it’s just a giant coincidence Chapel Hill has higher taxes and no big box stores and also is less affordable.

    Some people have dismay that cheap housing and low taxes and big box shopping are becoming more and more common in Durham and Mebane and Pittsboro but that brings up the following questions. If those places don’t provide such living then where will the people that work at UNC but can’t afford Chapel Hill / Carrboro live? Seriously, where would they live? What if everywhere was like Chapel Hill / Carrboro?

  17. Erik

     /  April 14, 2014

    I’m surprised to see the departure of Roses bemoaned. Given its ownership and the political activities that its profits afford, I would think most Chapel Hillians would be more of the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” mindset.

    It’s almost unimaginable that there would be a situation where shopping at Walmart is a less evil option, but this may be one.

  18. Bruce Springsteen

     /  April 18, 2014

    Erik, I don’t know if that is exaggeration or if you meant that seriously but observation tells me that with regards to Rose’s and Wal-Mart too for that matter, most Chapel Hillians don’t have a “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” mindset. Rose’s survived for decades and only died when there were finally two Wal-Marts competing with it. And although Chapel Hill politics prevents Wal-Mart from being in Chapel Hill the fact that Wal-Mart keeps building their stores close to Chapel Hill and succeeding tells me that the people from Chapel Hill shop there.

  19. Nancy

     /  April 18, 2014

    Roses seemed to be able to hold its own against the two Walmarts. In the press, Roses’ representatives said it was the high rent and decreased space that pushed it out of U-Mall.

  20. Bruce Springsteen

     /  April 19, 2014

    Now that you mention it, yeah, I read that too, Rose’s said they left because the rent was too high (or as that guy in New York with the crazy facial hair would say, the rent was too damn high). But either way, whether being beat out by Wal-Mart of whether the rent was too high, or some combination of both, it seems they didn’t leave/fail because people in Chapel Hill thought they were evil.