Town Council members joined the community dialogue Wednesday about how the town could benefit from 36 acres of largely undeveloped American Legion land.
Landscape architect Dan Jewell led the work session – a “90,000-foot view” of the town’s needs before developing the last big, wooded tract in eastern Chapel Hill, Mayor Pam Hemminger said.
The conversation attracted about 200 residents concerned about a Woodfield Investments plan to pay $10 million for the land and build up to 600 luxury apartments and an office building at 1714 Legion Road. The previous council passed on an option to buy the land in November.
That decision – made in closed session without public input and just days after the Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and two council members lost the election – angered many residents.
Briarcliff resident Linda Mews called the decision premature Wednesday.
“Please be creative in finding a solution for financing the purchase of the property – a bond, some cooperative venture – but I have to ask you to reject that 600 high-rise, luxury apartment complex,” Mews said. “Instead save those 36 acres for us and future generations.”
While Woodfield officials have not submitted a formal application, they have tentatively agreed to build community trails and a road between Legion and Ephesus Church roads across town-owned land as part of a future project. The road would run alongside Ephesus Elementary School.
The Legion land backs up to 10 acres of town land on Ephesus Church Road, and its development is limited by a stream and floodplain. A manmade pond on the Legion site could be filled in, leaving up to 20 developable acres, Jewell said.
Many residents have emailed the town to support using the land for a park or recreation facility. Some also spoke about the idea Wednesday.
There are amazing facilities in other places, said Jennifer Newell, co-director of the Chapel Hill Volleyball Club. An indoor center in Chapel Hill could serves a wide range of people, from homeschoolers to seniors, she said, and give the economy a boost.
“It’s a shame that we have to drive so far – to Apex, to Greensboro, to Cary, to Raleigh – when we could have something really special here,” she said.
Council member Jessica Anderson said she loves the idea of a recreation center and preserving the land. It could be a great, permanent home for the Kidzu children’s museum or some other homegrown group, she said.
Council member Nancy Oates agreed, citing a concern about quality-of-life issues.
“One of the reasons I support having indoor recreation space is we have right now a very long waiting list for kids who want to be in summer programs,” she said. “To me, I think we ought to be able to accommodate that. I know green space is also very important to quality of life, even if we allow some Class B office space there, workers want a place to go out at lunch and just breathe.”
The conversation also highlighted some concerns.
Council members Donna Bell and Maria Palmer questioned the town’s financial ability to build and maintain a recreation center, particularly in light of other needs. The council passed on the land before because it lacked the money, Palmer said.
“Help me understand how, just because there was an election, all of a sudden we can come up with $10 million? We have been working for years, trying to upgrade facilities we have that are falling apart – our schools, our parks and rec, our ceramics studio,” she said.
“If I have learned one thing in two years on the council, it’s you have to have your feet solidly planted on the ground, because you can propose awesome things, and then the numbers come back,” Palmer said.
The town has $8 million in voter-approved bond money that could be shifted from existing priorities to a new project, Hemminger said. Another possibility is working with private or public partners, she said, such as the YMCA, which has outgrown its Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard campus.
“The increased populations increase the need for more recreational spaces for all kinds – not just children, seniors, adults, all kinds of people – so that’s why maybe this opportunity could think about those kinds of partnerships,” she said. “The county has expressed an interest in having a conversation. There may be other opportunities.”
Another big concern is how much traffic Legion and Ephesus Church roads can bear, council member George Cianciolo said. The town should study what could fit in the area, he said, rather than waiting for a project to be proposed.
Stormwater, too, is a big issue, council member Michael Parker said. The area already faces big changes over the next 10 years, from the Chapel Hill-Durham light-rail line to the redevelopment of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield campus and the Ephesus-Fordham district, he said.
“Lots of things would be really nice there, but I think for me it would be really helpful to have a broader context and really think about what’s this area today, what is this whole area likely to be in the next five, 10, 15 years,” he said. “Then, in that kind of a context, what kind of things would be useful, be appropriate, not just from the perspective of what this area is today, but what this area is going to be going forward.”
Hemminger noted the town has about 20,000 existing homes and apartments, and another 6,500 that have been approved but not built. The town’s population – estimated at 59,376 in 2014 – is expected to grow by roughly 1 percent a year, she said.
A development application for the land would face town advisory boards, public meetings and Town Council hearings. A rezoning also would be necessary, since the land is zoned for residential use. The council could block Woodfield’s deal if it opposes rezoning the land.
Bill Munsee, American Legion Post 6 commander, declined to speculate about what could happen in that case. Post members plan to use proceeds from the sale to buy another piece of land and build a new post that also could serve the needs of younger veterans and their families.
“The only thing I can say is right now we’re under contract with Woodfield Investments,” Munsee said.