Gas station, self-storage plan could displace more Chapel Hill mobile-home families

This closed gas station at 1200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill -- and the 72 mobile homes behind it -- could be redeveloped if a recently submitted concept plan moves forward. The project aims to keep as many of the families in their homes as possible, a development official said.
This closed gas station at 1200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill -- and the 72 mobile homes behind it -- could be redeveloped if a recently submitted concept plan moves forward. The project aims to keep as many of the families in their homes as possible, a development official said. tgrubb@heraldsun.com

The families living at Tar Heel Mobile Home Park panicked when they learned the land under their homes had been sold to developers, Mauricio Jimenez said.

They love the 72-home community at 1200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Jimenez said. They love their schools and the field where kids play at the back of the property.

But that could change if a vacant Marathon gas station next door is redeveloped and a new, three-story self-storage building is added.

Consider how that could affect residents, especially if they have to move, Jimenez urged the town’s Community Design Commission on Wednesday night.

“This is just the place where all of us, where we all feel safe, where we all feel basically unified, because we’ve all lived with each other for a long time,” Jimenez said. “This is our safe haven. Our place that we call home.”

An official application for the project has not been submitted.

A concept plan, where the project is now, is a way for a developer to get feedback and make improvements. The town’s Housing Advisory Board could review the concept plan in January, ahead of a Town Council review in February.

It’s the latest project threatening Chapel Hill’s few remaining, affordable mobile-home parks. A concept plan submitted last year calls for replacing 33 mobile homes and two duplexes on Weaver Dairy Road with Hanover Chapel Hill — 321 apartments and townhomes. Another mobile home park just north of the town limits also has been sold, and some residents have been relocated.

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Stackhouse Properties LLC paid roughly $3.9 million in September for the 13.9-acre MLK Boulevard site, between Ashley Forest condominiums and Orange United Methodist Church, land records show. Stackhouse owns another 14 properties in Orange County, mostly single-family homes in Hillsborough and Mebane, records show.

Jonathan Gindes said he and his partners in Stackhouse also own mobile home parks, but those are registered to different companies. Gindes, another company official and Coulter Jewell and Thames representatives refused or did not respond to interview requests.

But the early plan suggests at least some residents might be able to stay.

Stackhouse officials could make more money by building apartments or mixed use, Dan Jewell, a partner with Coulter Jewell Thames, told the design commission. He noted the town’s planned bus-rapid transit line would serve the property in the future.

“That would be a much more financially lucrative approach to this property for the owners, but they think the better thing to do if the advisory boards and ultimately the council are willing to approve it is to expand the commercial presence out on the front of the property ... and accommodate as many of the existing residents as they can on the remainder of the property.”

The developer is proposing to rezone the properties from neighborhood commercial and residential to office and institutional (OI) uses. The council created a new OI-2 zoning for self-storage buildings a few weeks ago, however, it does not include gas stations, staff said.

The plan shows a slightly larger service station — 5,680 square feet — on MLK Boulevard with a fuel pump canopy at the side. Parking would be moved to the side and rear of the building, next to the 100,800-square-foot self-storage building. Two driveways into the mobile home park would be rerouted to a new traffic signal at the Northfield Drive intersection.

Commissioner Susana Dancy, noting the future bus-rapid transit line and the town’s pushto transit-oriented development, questioned the wisdom of investing in a gas station and a self-storage building at that site.

Jewell defended the plan, noting modern gas stations serve customers in many ways.

“There have been a few folks that have called me who do modern [convenience] stores,” he said. “Folks are interested, and it’s all these days about what’s the more modern-looking, sleek [store] that really pulls people in.”

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The project could force them to relocate 12 to 15 homes, Jewell said, adding about half could be moved to the play field. The property owners, the town and housing nonprofit Empowerment Inc. are working with the families, determining which of the aging homes can be moved, and resolving the potential loss of open space, he said.

Some commissioners took advantage of the review to put in a plug for affordable housing.

Affordable apartments or townhouses could be added to the self-storage building or elsewhere on the site, commissioners Polly Van de Velde and Christine Berndt said. It doesn’t help residents to keep them in potentially substandard housing, Berndt added.

“I would be concerned about the current condition of the homes and what could be done to bring them up to standard,” she said. “If they could not be brought up to standard, then I think the developer would have some responsibility to provide new affordable homes as part of the project and take the money that would go for a self-storage building and put it towards decent affordable housing.”

The strong sense of community at Tar Heel Mobile Home Park is worth preserving, commission Chair Volker Mueller added, although he acknowledged the developer faces tough decisions. The size of the storage building and losing the play space also are troubling, he said.

“I think the open space is an opportunity to relocate homes, but on the other hand, it’s the one open space that the community has and the children have to play, and it’s in safe location off MLK,” he said. “I would regret seeing that be lost, but I can also see there is this struggle between commercial use and preserving as many homes as possible.”

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.