To a Healthy New Year

My husband and I gave each other matching colds for Christmas this year, not the gifts Nancy Oateswe had intended, but a result of getting out and into the community more than I have in years past. When it comes to germs, especially in the holiday season, I’ve tried not to give back. And that means striking a balance between staying home from community events and risk people thinking I don’t care, or shaking hands and hoping I’m not still contagious.

Showing up and not shaking hands, however well-intentioned, is not an option for an elected official.

During my quarantine, I’ve had time to reflect on other times council members have had to find balance. The Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment offers a case study in unintended consequences and the need to find the sweet spot of a well-functioning community.

A prior council voted to allow by-right high-density development in an existing commercial area. The hope was to encourage greater commercial development, something the town desperately needs to offset its 85% residential tax base. But that council didn’t think through the need to add restrictions that would shape the commercial development the town envisioned. As a result, many independent retail businesses were run out of town and replaced by more residential units.

What was once a thriving small-business enclave that served nearby middle-class and working-class residents has been eliminated, replaced by apartments with rents higher than can be afforded by most jobs in Chapel Hill. Now Ram Development, having sold the commercial areas of 140 West, has plans to raze more commercial buildings and replace them with luxury apartments, in a flood plain, no less.

Residents and advisory boards tried to make the best of it, opening staff to the idea of turning strips of land flanking Booker Creek into usable greenspace and working with town staff to come up with guidelines to create a walkable retail and office center. But developers of chain stores and luxury apartments leaned hard on town staff to ignore the advice of the design consultant taxpayers hired and instead push for guidelines that would make it easier to turn Ephesus-Fordham into the strip-mall mess built in the New Hope Commons area along U.S. 15-501 in Durham.

The Community Prosperity Committee, now renamed Economic Sustainability – a subtle shift that supplants the good of the community with revenue generation at any cost – has been looking at ways to attract high-paying jobs to Chapel Hill to bring in residents who can afford the tsunami of pricey apartments and perhaps stave off our town becoming irrevocably a bedroom community.

Trying to find that balance involves tradeoffs. Will we be able to attract those high-paying jobs without having to buy them through incentives? Will we be able to persuade developers to build the office space that those high-paying businesses need? Or is asking a developer to shave off a bit of profit for the good of the community like asking an elected official to come to an event and not shake hands?

In 2017, let’s make choices that improve the health of Chapel Hill.
— Nancy Oates

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16 Comments

  1. Terri

     /  January 2, 2017

    “What was once a thriving small-business enclave that served nearby middle-class and working-class residents has been eliminated, replaced by apartments with rents higher than can be afforded by most jobs in Chapel Hill.”

    Are you referring to The Alexan? I really despise that project but I don’t see that it’s eliminated “a thriving small-business enclave.” Can you please clarify? Which businesses have closed?

  2. Nancy

     /  January 2, 2017

    Some of the businesses that closed because they were not offered the opportunity to renew their leases: Eastgate BP, Village Dry Cleaners, a beauty shop, a barber shop, a toy store and a knitting store. A tailor whose lease ended in the arcade section of Village Plaza has relocated temporarily; no word on how long she’ll be able to stay in Ephesus-Fordham.

  3. Terri

     /  January 2, 2017

    Does East-West Partners own the Whole Foods shopping center? The businesses you list are located in that mall. They were not displaced from the Lexan development. Eastgate BP was displaced for a totally different redevelopment project.

  4. Nancy

     /  January 3, 2017

    Those businesses were displaced because the shopping center management wants more upscale businesses that will pay higher rent now that Alexan tenants who can afford high rents will be nearby as customers. That tips the market toward national chains, which can pay higher rents than independent businesses. The shopping center is changing from one that served middle-class and working-class shoppers to one that will appeal to shoppers with lots of disposable income. Middle- and working-class shoppers will have to shop out of town, spending time and gas that they didn’t have to before form-based code was enacted.

  5. Terri,

    I think Nancy is saying that the EF rezoning in general, not the Alexan project in particular, resulted in the displacement of several long-standing local small businesses from Village Plaza, Eastgate, and elsewhere in the district.

    East West Partners does not own the Whole Foods shopping center. EWP simply acted as the frontman for Trammel-Crow in the development of the Alexan.

    Someone please correct me if I’m mistaken, but my recollection is that the Whole Foods shopping center had been owned for decades by an individual in Ohio who kept rents down. The EF rezoning prompted interest from the large corporate real estate firms, one of whom, Regency, bought the Whole Foods shopping center in 2014 and shortly thereafter announced that they would not be renewing leases for several of the long-standing tenants, or would be putting them on month-to-month leases. That’s when the dry cleaners and the knitting store closed down or relocated.

    It seems clear that developers are more interested in building large Alexan-type residential projects in EF than in building the walkable office and retail projects we had hoped for, presumably because the former are more profitable. If a dozen Alexans is not what the elected officials who adopted the EF form-based code had in mind for the district—it’s definitely not what the majority of town residents and citizen advisory board members had in mind—then they need to change the code to better align it with their vision. For example, they could require that all new construction be at least 60% non-residential.

  6. rucker

     /  January 3, 2017

    It is downright comical to suggest that the Alexan apartments have anything to do with what other commercial property owners are doing as far as updating and re-tenanting their strip retail shopping centers. It is common practice everywhere for owners of older commercial properties to spend a lot of money updating and re-tenanting their centers when they are decades old and become obsolete and dilapidated. The shopping center RAM just purchased may be the ugliest and biggest eyesore of any strip center in the entire Triangle. It is pretty much an embarrassment the way it currently looks sitting in Chapel Hill’s prime retail node. RAM is about to spend millions of dollars updating it and bringing it into the 21st century. As a result of this, yes, rents will need to substantially increase to pay for the investment. Some existing tenants will not be able to afford this.

    Is the suggestion that folks would prefer to see the center remain in disrepair/in terrible condition so that low end rents can be maintained. A retail slum of sorts is the goal? Current rents at Eastgate are double what they are at the 2 Village Plaza Centers. This is because a lot of investment was put into Eastgate. The idea of “affordable commercial districts” is not something you will hear floated around many places outside of Chapel Hill. Affordable Housing, yes, affordable commercial, likely never.

    Regency buying the Village Plaza Shopping Center had nothing to do with the Form Based Code that was simply a proposal at the time. They saw a value add opportunity that was under performing the market. One can absolutely say the Alexan doesn’t fit in with its existing surroundings or even is ugly, but to suggest it or Form Based Code has anything to do with who is an who is not renewing at existing shopping centers is to prove oneself extremely misinformed as to how things work in the commercial real estate world.

  7. Nancy

     /  January 3, 2017

    Rucker, compare the updates done at Timberlyne shopping center that preserved many independently owned businesses while still giving the place a nice facelift. Ephesus-Fordham, despite the council’s & community’s idea that it would be a revenue-generating office/commercial area, is becoming nothing more than the ugly strip malls that we see along 15-501 just over the Durham County line: a field of chain restaurants and big-box chain retailers that I would categorize as among the ugliest in the Triangle. We will need to make some changes to form-based code to meet my admittedly high expectations for generating revenue and contributing to the community, that “a place for everyone” community we on council love to talk about.

  8. “The idea of “affordable commercial districts” is not something you will hear floated around many places outside of Chapel Hill. Affordable Housing, yes, affordable commercial, likely never.”

    Rucker, my friend, you need to broaden your reading. Make it a New Year’s resolution!

    Here’s something to start you off: https://ilsr.org/tackling-problem-commercial-gentrification/

  9. Terri

     /  January 3, 2017

    David,

    I understood what Nancy meant to say, but that isn’t what she said. It’s one thing for her to exaggerate and/or generalize as a journalist but she’s an elected official now and she needs to be more careful with her language IMHO.

  10. George C

     /  January 3, 2017

    Nancy,

    You said “Ephesus-Fordham, despite the council’s & community’s idea that it would be a revenue-generating office/commercial area, is becoming nothing more than the ugly strip malls that we see along 15-501 just over the Durham County line: a field of chain restaurants and big-box chain retailers that I would categorize as among the ugliest in the Triangle”

    So who are all the chain restaurants and big box retailers that you claim have come into Ephesus-Form as a result of the form-based code?

  11. Nancy

     /  January 3, 2017

    George —
    The details of the code cater to the sort of strip malls that populate the section of 15-501 just across the Durham line. Long block lengths, for instance, and narrow sidewalks and single-story buildings. Remember how hard we had to battle to get even 50% of a second story? Nothing has come into E-F yet, except an apartment building and a chain drugstore. The building where Eastgate BP used to be is being readied for a chain restaurant. What happened to those visions of 3-, 5- and 7-story office buildings?

  12. Nancy

     /  January 3, 2017

    Terri, what I said is what I meant. Let me know what you consider exaggeration or generalization and perhaps I can clarify.

  13. George C

     /  January 4, 2017

    Nancy,

    By changing the zoning to require a break in the blocks every 250 feet we helped to shorten the blocks significantly. And there are several large projects proposed for E-F that are working their way through the process right now, including at least a face-lift for the southern portion of Village Plaza. To expect that everything would be changed overnight with the re-zoning is pretty short-sighted. All those fast-food chains you mentioned (such as Hardees, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King) were there before the E-F rezoning and unless you’re advocating for the Town to take property by eminent domain to get something more significant on those sites they will probably remain there as long as they continue to be profitable. We are getting a fine new bakery in Eastgate soon.

  14. Nancy

     /  January 4, 2017

    George, I didn’t mention any fast-food chains. Is that what the restaurant coming in to the former BP station will be? The whole idea for the rezoning was to reformat a strip mall into a commercial center, but so far the area is attracting only strip mall businesses and apartments. If our expectation is that we will transform E-F into an office/commercial center, we need to craft guidelines that will send that message out to potential investors.

  15. George C

     /  January 4, 2017

    Nancy,

    I assumed you were referring to the fast food chains when you stated above “… a field of chain restaurants and big-box chain retailers”. I’m not aware of many chain restaurants in that area other than the fast food ones.

  16. The restaurant occupying the site of the former BP station is called “Chopt.” It specializes in salads for people on the go. A second chain restaurant is opening in the new building adjacent to it. When they open there will definitely be no shortage of food in Eastgate, with seven restaurants—at least six of them chains—plus Starbucks, TCBY, Trader Joe’s, and Guglhopf. You can also purchase food there for the birds in your backyard (Wild Birds Unlimited), but if you need underwear for your kids . . .

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