Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill’s mayor elect: ‘I’m not planning a U-turn’

Challenger Pam Hemminger is all smiles with a supporter at City Kitchen in downtown Chapel Hill on Tuesday.
Challenger Pam Hemminger is all smiles with a supporter at City Kitchen in downtown Chapel Hill on Tuesday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Mayor-elect Pam Hemminger’s victory Tuesday wasn’t a mandate. It did show that the roughly one in five voters who cast ballots are split about where the town is headed.

Hemminger and incumbent Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt each got more than 4,000 of the 9,460 total votes. Hemminger won by 825 votes, or almost 9 percent.

The results made town history: Kleinschmidt, a three-term mayor, is the only incumbent in at least the last 50 years to lose a re-election bid.

Hemminger, 55, said her goal now is to learn and to encourage residents to be part of the conversation about where the town should be heading. There’s been a lot of fear about how a new board might change the town’s direction, she said.

“I’m not planning on a U-turn,” Hemminger said. “I’m looking to move forward.”

The size and pace of development was the election’s top issue, spurring a new grassroots citizen group – the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town – which formed a political action committee and threw its support behind Hemminger and three opposition council candidates.

Two new council members were elected: education policy analyst Jessica Anderson, who led the nine-person council field, and local political blogger Nancy Oates. Challenger Michael Parker, who has been more in line with the incumbent council, and incumbent Councilwoman Donna Bell filled the other seats.

They and four remaining council members – Ed Harrison, George Cianciolo, Sally Greene and Maria Palmer – must now find common ground, both Hemminger and Kleinschmidt said.

Hemminger, a former county commissioner and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member, said she has talked with most of those who will serve with her and many other community leaders and residents who called Wednesday to wish her good luck.

“This board is going to need a little time to gel,” she said. “There’s a lot of hurt feelings.”

It’s too early to talk about what could change, Hemminger said, but she wants to make the town more inviting to all businesses and help feed hungry, local children next summer.

This board is going to need a little time to gel. There’s a lot of hurt feelings.

Pam Hemminger, Chapel Hill mayor-elect

Kleinschmidt and Town Manager Roger Stancil have offered their help, she said. Kleinschmidt said he thinks Hemminger is well-suited to bridging any gaps between council members.

“It will be interesting to watch,” he said. “I think it will be challenging because I think any transition like this comes with some bumps, but I believe the community will allow her to have some bumps and be OK with that, and see how she is able to manage that.”

How to grow

Kleinschmidt first joined the council in 2001 and was first elected mayor in 2009, just as the town was starting to talk about how it should grow. In 2012, after yearlong meetings with hundreds of people, the council took the resulting 2020 Comprehensive Plan and started looking at how to implement and pay for it.

They sought ways to lure back developers who had written off Chapel Hill as a place that was too costly and complicated to get anything done.

They approved dense multi-story apartment buildings and streamlined the process for getting building permits. They signed a development agreement for Obey Creek – 1.6 million square feet of retail, office and residential space at the southern entrance to town – on land that leaders said 20 years ago would be limited to low-density development.

They created a new form-based code to encourage redevelopment of decades-old strip malls in the Ephesus-Fordham district at the eastern entrance to town and laid plans for fixing convoluted roads and flooding problems. They negotiated with developers to secure some affordable housing, public parks and stormwater controls.

While some residents approved, others grew concerned the town was giving up too much. They armed themselves with research and experts. They demanded and even begged the council to pause, ask more questions and say no to developers unwilling to do more.

But one by one, controversial projects and policies were approved.

Kleinschmidt, 45, said Wednesday he’s proud to have worked with a council that was willing to take risks.

“I feel like we got the old car started, even if I’m not the one who’s going to drive it anymore,” he said. “I’m glad we got it going.”

The focus on development in this year’s election, he said, has overlooked many of the council’s accomplishments, including the master plans being implemented for parks, greenways, bike and pedestrian amenities. The bonds that voters approved Tuesday will help pay for those benefits, he said.

Rumors that Kleinschmidt, an attorney and nationally recognized gay rights activist, might turn to a higher office are just that, he said. He’s sacrificed to serve the town, and the time now is right for focusing on his passion for civil rights and social justice, he said. He also wants to start building a future with his partner.

“But honestly, right now, I just need to sleep,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s possible

The new mayor and council members will have to find common ground with the four incumbent council members, but some changes are possible around town:

▪ Obey Creek: A development agreement has been signed, so it’s a done deal unless the developer fails to meet the requirements or asks for a major change

▪ Ephesus-Fordham district: The form-based code is a living document that can be modified by the council. Mayor-elect Pam Hemminger has said the council did not go far enough in writing the code to provide affordable housing, design standards and flood relief. She also called for more emphasis on commercial spaces

▪ Carraway Village: The council has approved a special-use permit for the Eubanks Road project formerly known as the Edge, but there are still details to work out in a development agreement. Caraway Village is ripe for commercial development, Hemminger said, but as an environmental advocate, she could draw the line at building over a small stream there. A request that the town help pay for $3.5 million road improvements could face tough questions.

▪ High-rise buildings: Hemminger and others have said seven-story and taller buildings are more appropriate in the downtown core and on highway corridors. The new council is likely to ask developers for more benefits, such as affordable housing, in exchange for building taller.

▪ Amity Station: The current council has asked developers of the high-rise apartment building proposed for West Rosemary Street to make significant changes. The incoming members are expected to agree. The project also could be affected by the council’s talks with UNC about student housing between now and early 2016.

▪ Central West: The first project – a senior living center – has been proposed for the area near the Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection. The small-area planning process for Central West was one of the catalysts behind this year’s opposition candidates. The senior center and future proposals for the area could face tough scrutiny.

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