So Obey Creek is in the books, to the relief of its proponents and the dismay of its critics.
This latest development drew fierce, well organized, sophisticated adversaries. Clearly, there continue to be two camps in Chapel Hill: those who want to manage change, and those who really don’t want change at all.
Just before departing for summer vacations, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved an agreement for Obey Creek, a large mixed use development across the highway from Southern Village. The decision capped a three-year process: concept work, a citizens committee, advisory boards, and multiple, lengthy public hearings – more than 50 public meetings in all.
Here’s an analysis of two of the opposing arguments:
The project should pay for itself. Translation: residential should be minimized. Obey Creek is a mixed-use development with a significant housing component. Since housing potentially uses more government services, it can cost the community more than office or retail. This is especially true if the housing attracts families with school children, as education is the biggest expense.
CHALT, a relatively new Chapel Hill group advocating for development that “pays for itself” underscored this point by hosting a presentation studying growth in Charlottesville, Virginia. That report concluded new housing costs its community much more than the increased tax revenue it brings in.
The danger in this position is its logical conclusion: under a “pay for itself” guideline, most new housing would be denied. We could add college students or retirees, but not families. Interestingly, the Colcom Foundation, which funded the Charlottesville study, has long been active in the anti-immigration movement. Closing the door here is the local equivalent of closing the border nationally. Is that the kind of community we want?
Pay for itself is a false criterion. It’s nice to have extra tax revenue, but that should not be a necessary, nor sufficient condition to approve new development. If applied historically, nearly all our neighborhoods would never have been built. It’s good to know revenues, but the final judgment should be on the project’s benefits. Is it something our town needs or desires? Are we willing to pay for it if necessary? If so, add it.
The project will destroy the character of Chapel Hill. Translation: commercial should be minimized. Obey Creek is a very large, dense project, prompting criticism it would be out of scale for our town.
That may have been true in the 1950s, but, quite frankly, we lost our commercial virginity in the half century since. Our village hamlet grew into a town with Eastgate, then University Mall, Village Plaza, Timberlyne and Ram’s Plaza. These are discrete commercial centers appropriately located on major entryways, and Obey Creek would simply be the latest. It needs to be large to compete with Chatham County’s aggressive efforts to siphon off more of our tax dollars. It will not change the character of our town.
Commercial, whether office or retail, should be judged by what it brings to us. Do many people choose to leave our community and travel elsewhere to get what they need or want? If so, then we should probably add it right here.
The Town Council listened to these and other concerns, looked at many different options, and decided Obey Creek would add more than it would take away. But the battle over growth versus status quo isn’t done. It moves next to the November elections. Brace yourself, this promises to be a passionate debate.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org