Chapel Hill council frustrated but gives downtown apartment talks more time

Developers brought this version of the Amity Station mixed-use project at 322 W. Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill to the Town Council in 2017, about five months before the council members, town staff and neighbors entered negotiations for a development agreement.
Developers brought this version of the Amity Station mixed-use project at 322 W. Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill to the Town Council in 2017, about five months before the council members, town staff and neighbors entered negotiations for a development agreement. Contributed

Nearly four years after developers proposed replacing the Breadmen’s restaurant downtown with apartments, the project remains stalled, and a Town Council member says the council is partly to blame if neighbors feel like they’ve “been dragged down the road.”

The 2.2-acre Amity Station apartment project will attract people with means and those willing to get enough roommates to share the cost, but it won’t bring families downtown, said Donna Bell, a council member and 17-year Northside community resident. A consultant also has said the site is not viable for significant office and retail development, she added, because of the location and parking needed.

Negotiations have continued off and on for 15 months. Bell said the council let the talks drag on when it should have taken control of the situation. Unresolved issues include parking, the kind of commercial space the town wants, and how to make the project’s public spaces more active.

“At a certain point, we have to draw the line and say you guys have tried to figure it out for yourselves, now we have to come in and make some decisions,” Bell said. “Some of those decisions are easily going to be this is not [yet] a development that we support.”

Donna Bell 2019.jpg
Donna Bell Town of Chapel Hill Contributed

She voted to continue the negotiations, because they haven’t discussed all the possibilities yet, Bell said.

The current version of the plan would replace the Breadmen’s restaurant on West Rosemary Street and several apartments with 184 new apartments. That includes 18 apartments priced at an affordable level for someone earning roughly $45,000 a year or two people earning about $51,600 a year, town staff said.

The five-story building would sit on the southern edge of the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District — a special zone created to preserve the historically African-American neighborhood in the face of an onslaught of student rentals over the last 20 years.

Bell noted the negotiations have reduced the proposed building’s height and the number of apartments, and future residents would have to be age 22 and older. But she’s frustrated that a lot of time has been spent getting to a plan that’s just “appropriate.”

“This is a developer who is not new to Chapel Hill and was clearly pushing boundaries,” she said, instead of offering a project that’s closer to the town’s values. It took a long time “to get to just basic things, like no, you can’t have a nine-story building,“ she said.

The council’s decision Wednesday will extend the talks at least until spring. Council members Hongbin Gu, Jessica Anderson and Rachel Schaevitz voted against continuing the talks.

Jessica Anderson.jpg
Jessica Anderson Town of Chapel Hill Contributed

Anderson said the town and neighbors don’t want substantial housing with a little affordability. The project could better meet the Rosemary Street guidelines and offer more commercial space while creating a ground floor that engages passers-by, she said.

“By the hour, we are investing huge amounts of money in something that we’re not excited about, and that makes me sad, because it’s such an important part of town,” Anderson said. “It’s such an incredible opportunity for something really cool that neighbors could get behind, that would really benefit them, and I think to horse trade over parking spaces or less than 20 affordable housing units [in the overall project] just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The development team, which includes developer Larry Short and Breadmen’s owners Roy and Bill Piscitello, has offered a community benefit of 10,000 to 14,000 square feet of commercial space, council member Michael Parker said, and also public parking in return for town tax incentives. Mayor Pam Hemminger noted nothing has been agreed to yet.

Neither the developers nor the public spoke during Wednesday’s report to the council.

Amity Station would be the second project for the partners, who also collaborated on the Shortbread Loft apartments across the street. The council reviewed three Amity Station concept plans before asking a four-member council committee — Bell, Anderson, Parker and Nancy Oates — to continue talking with neighbors and the developer in 2017. An official application has not been submitted.

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The last concept plan Short brought to the council came with five alternate plans based on the site’s current zoning. Each proposed a four-story, 20,000 square-foot building that could include commercial space, apartments, or both. A plan meeting the current zoning would not need council approval or tenant age restrictions.

Parker, who presented the subcommittee’s report Wednesday, said the negotiations have identified four key elements:

The project should follow the town’s West Rosemary Street Development Guide for future growth in the corridor

The project should not provide housing to undergraduate students

Property management would enforce a prohibition on residents under age 22 by verifying their identification at the lease signing

The project needs community benefits approved by the Northside neighbors

Parker said Northside neighbors may not view the affordable housing as a direct benefit for their community. He called the project “tolerable,” citing an email that Hudson Vaughan, senior director of the nonprofit Jackson Center in Northside, sent to the council.

“That is something that I think still, if we do continue, we’re going to have to explore more,” Parker said, “because I have my own doubts whether this project currently provides enough community benefits that it makes it really a good thing for the Northside, rather than something that they can swallow hard and tolerate.”

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In other business

The council also got an update Wednesday from staff and UNC officials about the growing trend of electric scooters. Although Bird scooter company dropped 90 electric scooters in Chapel Hill in August, it removed them two days later. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC do not allow electric scooter services at this time, but are considering how to regulate them in the future.

The council and public shared a number of concerns Wednesday about safety and how police might be able to enforce speed limits and keep scooters off sidewalks and other non-vehicular areas. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC could wait for the General Assembly to weigh in on the issue before deciding whether to let scooter companies set up shop in town again.

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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.