Plan for Chapel Hill growth spawns tension

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2014 

An artist’s rendering shows how a redeveloped Rams Plaza shopping center might look.


  • If you go

    You can learn more about the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard focus area at a public information meeting from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Meeting Room B of the Chapel Hill Public Library. A brief presentation starts at 12:15 p.m.

    Find more information about the Ephesus-Fordham project at

— More than 100 people turned out last week to hear how the town plans to grow.

Some angrily cursed town staff members they said were dodging their questions. Some accused local leaders of selling out to developers or trying to turn Chapel Hill into Anywhere, USA.

The town comes back for round two at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

The area in question, the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard district, is the town’s biggest commercial center outside downtown Franklin Street. It covers 190 acres and has seven shopping centers.

A proposed “form-based code” could simplify and standardize future projects there, officials said. It would tell developers how big and tall buildings could be, and how buildings should relate to parking, streets and other buildings in the district. Raleigh, Durham and roughly 15 other North Carolina communities have established code-based districts in the last two decades.

Chapel Hill’s draft plan shows commercial buildings up to 60 feet, or five stories, near the street and up to 90 feet tall, or seven stories, in the district’s core.

The district now has few buildings rising to three or more stories; the shopping centers are all one-story strip malls.

Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development director, said most developers won’t build to the maximum height, but they need to know what’s possible up front. He’s expecting only minimal changes in the next 10 years, he said.

Village Plaza property manager Paul Munana said the first priority is working with neighbors and the town to build new roads and byways.

If Chapel Hill’s Town Council approves the change, developers could use the code to plan their projects and town staff could approve or reject them without public or board input. Staff, responding to critics, recently agreed to suggest another layer of project review.

Resident Whit Rummel believes the changes will be good for the town. Rams Plaza hasn’t improved over time, and Eastgate shopping center isn’t much better, he said.

“I’m really looking forward to this, because I think it’s a step forward in almost every way,” Rummel said.

But some residents say they’re being ignored, the plans are incomplete, and the rush to taller buildings and more people will add to traffic and flooding in the congested district.

Small, longtime merchants worry development could bring rent hikes and push them or their neighbors out.

“We need to look at affordable businesses,” said Johnny Mariakakis, owner of Mariakakis Fine Food and Wine. “I’m talking about people who repair shoes, the triple A place at the BP that we’re going to lose. ... barber shops, a place to get a trophy made for your kids’ soccer team. Please don’t change Chapel Hill.”

Economic need

The plan is driven by economic need, Bassett said.

The council uses its current zoning to negotiate with developers, usually trading density or height for community wants such as affordable housing or green building features. Those negotiations can drag out a year or more and, business leaders say, drive up the cost of construction.

Chapel Hill’s tax base, meanwhile, is roughly 17 percent commercial, about half that of other cities, Bassett said. That puts a lot of pressure on homeowners and the town, which soon could be paying more than $100 million to replace aging buildings and provide services to a growing population, officials said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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