Few potential Chapel Hill developments have inspired such public division and rancor as the most recent plans for Central West, Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek.
All three are located in areas identified in the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan as ripe for future growth.
Proponents say each one could attract and keep businesses, adding to the town’s commercial tax base. If done correctly, the town characteristics that residents value – such as trees, walkable streets and spaces that create excitement and a sense of community – could be preserved, they say.
Critics agree, but question whether the plans offered to date will really do what the planners, developers and consultants say they will do.
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The town has been here before, longtime residents said.
In previous years, NationsBank Plaza, Lake Tree and Meadowmont, among other projects, inspired the public to action. Former Mayor Howard Lee said there was “rabid” opposition to University Mall and the Pittsboro Street credit union. He cast the tie-breaking vote to allow both.
If you ask what’s at risk in times of change, you get a variety of answers. Some people said it’s the sense of living in a small town committed to common values of environmentalism, progressive thought, creativity and academic pursuit. Others said it’s the residents and local businesses, architecture or university.
Most said it depends on when you got here.
‘Never before ...’
Chapel Hill is far from the village formed in 1798 to serve the new university. By 1900, there were 1,600 residents and just over 500 students.
According to the 1899 University Record: “Never before have the accommodations in the University and the town been so severely taxed to care for so large a number of students.”
Not much changed until the 1950s post-war boom, when the town began steadily annexing land. The population nearly doubled from 1960 to 1980, to 32,420 people, including UNC students.
Until the NationsBank Plaza, the tallest buildings were N.C. Memorial Hospital and Granville Towers.
In a 1995 Chapel Hill News article, former town Alderman Roland Giduz recalled the reaction to the bank’s proposed six-story building downtown.
Residents armed with petitions took to the streets, he said. They raised a helium balloon to show the difference between the future building’s height and existing one- and two-story storefronts.
Gerry Cohen, a former council member, said one upset man told the board: “I’ve moved to three different addresses on North Street to avoid this.”
The bank eventually built three stories on East Franklin Street and six on East Rosemary Street.
Former council member Joe Herzenberg talked in the same article about a similar 1970s conflict over Lake Tree, a 312-acre, mixed-use project on the southern end of town. Southern Village now covers most of that land.
Neighbors opposed the project’s size, and it was rejected, attorney and former town Alderman Bob Epting said. Another project brought a change in how Chapel Hill residents related to their local government, he said.
Neighbors hired him to represent their interests to the aldermen against a gated condominium project proposed near the N.C. Botanical Garden. It was the first time neighbors had come out to tell the board what they wanted to happen, he said.
Residents were quick to say what they thought when Meadowmont was proposed for N.C. 54 in 1995. It was the largest development ever proposed at over 400 acres and potentially the most scrutinized, newspapers said.
Adults and children packed public hearings to question the number of students that could flood local schools, the potential traffic and how it might damage surrounding wetlands, ruining one of the last natural entrances to town.
The Sierra Club threatened to make the decision a “high-stakes issue” in the fall election, and a group of residents in The Oaks filed a lawsuit. Then-council member Jim Protzman blamed the project’s approval for his election loss.
Of those early projects, only Lake Tree failed to happpen. The NationsBank Plaza and credit union are hardly noticed, Meadowmont is a signature community on the eastern border and University Mall continues to reinvent itself.
Other buildings – 140 West, Greenbridge, Shortbread Lofts and the planned 123 West Franklin (University Square redevelopment) – are challenging the status quo.
Lee said current leaders should follow his generation in preserving the town’s historic heart between Columbia and Henderson streets. They could be more aggressive about developing other parts of town, he said.
“One thing we recognized back in my day was Chapel Hill would grow and would change,” he said.
‘Just Southern enough’
Chapel Hill residents may be more cosmopolitan or adventurous, but most people want novelty in manageable doses, said Harry Watson, a UNC professor of Southern culture and former director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South.
The town has the ability to hold a timeless quality in our imagination, he said.
“It’s just Southern enough to feel comfortable, like home, but different enough and liberal enough that people don’t feel excluded or pushed into an outsider role,” he said.
David Godschalk said the idea of the village lingers, in part, because of the small-scale buildings, trees and large green spaces at the university and Weaver Street Market.
The professor emeritus in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning was a council member from 1984-89 and recently led a 10-year project to add 6 million square feet to campus while preserving the traditional ambiance.
With good planning, and by learning from other cities, such as Portland and Austin, Chapel Hill could become the next best place, he said.
Resident Jean Yarnell said she fears Chapel Hill could be headed toward the ill-planned growth she left behind in Atlanta years ago.
“I don’t know if it’s the times or Chapel Hill itself,” she said. In the past, “there was more of a sense of creativity and freedom of spirit.”
Missy Julian Fox has had a front-row seat to the changes, from her father Maurice Julian’s College Shop on Franklin Street to her current role as director of UNC’s Visitors Center.
Chapel Hill changes people, but the town also has to change, she said.
“Your eyes become accustomed to things,” she said. “We all come into this community with fresh eyes, and that’s what we want. That’s what is going to keep us alive.”