Chapel Hill’s Arab Spring?

More than five years ago, a few weeks after the Tunisian Revolution that launched the Nancy OatesArab Spring, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal: “When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”

I hope we won’t someday look back on last Monday’s Town Council meeting and peg it as the beginning of Chapel Hill’s Arab Spring, whereby angry mobs, instead of taking to the streets, file a flurry of petitions with lots and lots of signatures.

At the Sept. 19 council meeting, Woodfield Investments presented its concept plan to build on 36 acres owned by the American Legion. In order for the project to be built, council would have to rezone the acreage and hammer out a Special Use Permit.

The project poses a perfect storm of conflict:

The town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a park in that area, and many residents want the town to hold true to its word. Many community members devoted untold hours to giving input into shaping this document; they don’t want to see the plan dismissed at the first whiff of extra tax revenue. As the town becomes increasingly urban, a park takes on even more importance.

The American Legion wants the $10 million Woodfield has contracted to buy it for, providing the property is rezoned and an SUP can be worked out to allow up to 600 apartments plus commercial space and a road that runs through a small existing park. That price seems above market value, given that the 55-acre Carraway Village property (previously known as The Edge) with a similar number of apartments and commercial space sold for $11 million last spring.
Woodfield wants the high profit from all those apartments, which is a greater return than for office or retail.

And the town has long wanted to rebalance its ratio of residential space to commercial because homeowners are carrying about 85% of all property tax revenue. The 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district is on track to be about 90% residential, and as that is form-based code, the town can’t intercede. The two concepts Woodfield put forth are each about 90% residential.

The Legion has offered to sell the land to the town for $9 million, but the land at present has a tax value of about $2.5 million, though it is expected to be revalued to about $4.8 million. Even so, the asking price is unreasonable.

The land is zoned R-2, which means the Legion could sell to a developer who would build single-family homes, four per acre, on the site. The Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance would be in effect, because the project would not come before council, and council would not have the opportunity to waive it, as the majority of council did with the last eligible project that came before us.

As available land becomes ever more scarce, council’s decisions on land use are even more important. Let’s hope we make wiser decisions about the good of the people than Assad has done.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. bart

     /  September 27, 2016

    So…. American Legion can get much more than tax value for its property.

    Good on them. I’d be lucky to get tax value for my house.

    So, no one is really willing to build retail since it doesn’t make as much money (and all that would be approved are boutique business and non-profit centers) and there are apparently gobs of people with fistfuls of cash who want to live here despite our traffic?

    Anyway, if so, that leaves either lots of smaller places with taxes spread out amongst lots of people or fewer, bigger places with higher tax payments per head and fewer people?

    That’s it? That’s the choice? I’m guessing Costco AND a park are not an option?

    Sheeesh. Honestly, I’d rather see a big box that could bring in very much needed revenue along with a park rather than another school-road-infrastructure choking multi-family housing compound.

    My second choice would probably be large houses on big lots to minimize the aggregate impact on all of the above.

    Seriously, hundreds of apartments or condos with parking, a token park with token parking, a bus line just to facilitate students moving in and what else would be needed?

    Oh yeah, another elementary school.

  2. Plurimus

     /  September 28, 2016

    bart, you cynic.

    Don’t worry, be happy! All the hipsters say that building dense high rent apartments and expensive condos with inadequate parking will lead to more “walkability” and more bike lanes and public transit.

    If you listen to the developers, these places don’t add to school population because the people living there are students and seniors, never mind the other services. The argument therefore is these places should have a commercial tax treatment.

    Meanwhile back at the ranch, the surviving politicians that brought you this mess from behind closed doors are being fined a paltry $500 by the state for inaccurate and misleading campaign finance reports that conveniently hid developers contributions from voters until after the election. The rest have passed through the revolving door and now work for the developers.

    I don’t envy the TC in their deliberations. Single family homes would potentially have greater impact, but the Legion would not get 10 million for a 4.8 million dollar property. More apartments and density is a gamble based on dubious economics. Parks are expensive unless they are theme parks. Schools are currently inadequate, and need repairs, however school age populations are declining and senior populations are increasing. CHT is in financial difficulties and most of the transit dollars are going to a ridiculously expensive light rail system that is fraught with inadequacies and does not serve the density the previous leadership approved.

    The good news is Chapel Hill has lots of options has bright and enthusiastic population to draw on and is relatively well off. The bad news is if the leadership continues to make the kind of decisions that were made before, those advantages will be squandered quickly.

  3. “Turkish Spring” may be more apropos: The current discord over the future of the American Legion property is reminiscent of the 2013 protests over Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, though, thankfully, without the tear gas and water cannons.