So the door closes on 2016, the year Chapel Hill began to close its door to newcomers.
There’s been a remarkable change in perspective and attitudes about growth in Chapel Hill over the past 10 years or so. For decades, Chapel Hill welcomed new neighborhoods but shunned commercial development. People were good; business was bad. The result was retail centers ringing our borders and a tax base out of balance.
By the mid-2000s a shift occurred. The town realized it needed to make room for businesses. Mixed-use developments – with a balance of homes, offices and shopping – became a trend that lasted until the 2015 Town Council election.
During that election, the previous Town Council’s approval of new housing became an issue. Not surprisingly, the resulting upset results changed the conversation on development. While broad support remains for office and retail, there’s now growing pressure to put the brakes on housing.
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That became de facto town policy at the end of the year when the council agreed to purchase the American Legion property rather than allow a developer to build offices and apartments on the land. The apartments drew the most criticism. So much so that the council agreed if they sell off some land for private development, market-rate apartments would be excluded.
Now it seems people are bad; business is good. What a remarkable 180-degree shift from a decade ago. What a dramatic U-turn in the growth of our town.
Folks who oppose new housing cite a number of reasons.
Some worry about traffic. But traffic issues aren’t stopping the council from considering offices on some of the American Legion land. Workers in those buildings would have to commute in and out without the option of walking to work from an apartment next door.
Some contend new development should “pay for itself” and believe housing doesn’t, mainly due to the expense of schools. But recently, our high development cost has resulted in small-size, luxury-priced apartments. These aren’t popular among families with school-age children. Consequently, our school population has actually declined slightly over the past five years.
There are likely unstated deeper reasons for the turn against housing. There’s long been a nostalgia for the old small town, village-like feel of Chapel Hill. Since we’ve run out of land to build the kind of neighborhoods that comprise most of the town, denser development is now our only option. That means taller buildings, which creates an urban feeling.
Then there’s the nostalgia for an affordable Chapel Hill. Some people believe adding high-priced apartments will worsen our wealth inequality. “Luxury” has become an opposition lightning rod. That’s ironic, since our restrictive development rules made us one of North Carolina’s most expensive communities.
Finally, some of the wealthy who have adopted Chapel Hill as home prefer to protect their investment and their way of life. They have no desire to change and can afford the premium cost of living in less-dense places.
Is curtailing housing bad policy? Well, it will have consequences. Further restricting supply will exacerbate housing price inflation, making us even less affordable. Town goals for new offices and stores may be stymied. Businesses may avoid taking office space where their employees cannot find homes. Retailers generally “follow the rooftops.” They may leapfrog us in favor of opening in our faster-growing neighboring counties.
But perhaps most important is what the shift says about our values. After all, when you get right down to it, this is about people. Will we be welcoming and inclusive or restrictive and exclusive?
2017 is shaping up as a year in which we will debate immigration on the national – and international – stages. It looks to be a topic locally, as well. Will the Town Council be content with a pipeline of previously approved projects? Will it try limiting more residential by modifying the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code?
Eventually, we need to decide if we want to provide new places for people to live or stall our population where it is. If the latter, we don’t need to build a physical wall, a regulatory one will work just as well.
Mark Zimmerman owns a Chapel Hill home and small real estate business, which isn’t involved with rental apartments. He can be reached at email@example.com