Wallace Stegner, novelist and lobbyist for the Wilderness Act of 1964 wrote “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.”
However, by the time of his death in 1993, it was reported “he had come to feel that much of the West was changed beyond recognition and maybe beyond repair, on a human time scale.”
Balancing preservation and development underlies many of Chapel Hill’s recent development battles. Residents strive to modify, or sometimes prevent, development plans that threaten their sense of home. Meanwhile the business community persists in its claims that density will resolve the shortage of affordable housing and, at the same time, increase the town’s revenues.
In the middle of the debate are the elected officials.
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For years, we’ve watched, sometimes cheering, sometimes groaning, as the Town Council delved into the minutiae of each new development plan. On the whole, their decisions have led to the slow evolution of a small town surrounded by broad, rolling pastures and open space to a small city with an increasing number of densely packed multi-use developments. Whether they approved or denied a proposal, they always spent enough time (some might think too much) to thoroughly review each new proposal, not just for compliance with the town’s strict environmental standards but also to ensure an acceptable blending of old and new.
Then came 2013. With the number and breadth of this year’s development plans, more than any previously experienced by this town, the council ceded more and more of their oversight to staff, ignoring citizen pleas to slow down, disregarding the recommendations of their advisory boards. Gone was the claim that a rigorous review process yielded a much improved product. And citizen concerns were treated as an effort to stop all progress and wrap the community in plastic for total and permanent preservation.
In the face of so much change, it’s not unreasonable to question the impact these new projects will have on the overall character of the town. We are decades removed from being a sleepy little village, but are we ready to give up all vestiges of our past and move immediately forward into becoming a city of concrete, tall buildings, and ever-faster moving traffic?
The historical districts surrounding campus and much of Franklin Street retain their 19th century history while serving today’s uses. But everywhere else, it feels as if we are wiping out the old, leaving no footprints of the past.
Visitors arriving in town from the east no longer experience the pastoral settings of the DuBose estate or the broad lawn of the University Inn. Weaver Dairy and MLK have been paved over and more is coming. The last vestige of a rural entranceway will disappear if plans for 1.6 million square feet of development succeed along 15-501. And while the road from Durham has never been pastoral, it too is looking at significant modernization.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Angle of Repose,” written less than 10 years after passage of the Wilderness Act, Stegner wrote “Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.” How much new development can we pursue at one time before we risk becoming interchangeable with that “new” town down the road in Wake County?
I’m not advocating for stagnation; change is not just inevitable, it’s necessary. But change doesn’t need to come all at once. My hope is that 20 years from now, we don’t look back, as Wallace Stegner did, and find a Chapel Hill changed beyond recognition and maybe beyond repair.