I first came to Chapel Hill in 1974. It was a place that’s not at all like the wonderful town I call home today. Rather, the 1974 Chapel Hill I remember exemplifies why our town and its leaders must continue to approve new development and implement progressive policies to move our community into the 21st century.
In 1974, the only grocery stores in town were the A&P, a tiny Kroger, and Fowler’s – all dark and dreary places, nothing like the bright, open Publix Food Stores I knew when I lived in Florida. It took a full 20 years for a modern Kroger or Harris Teeter to come to Chapel Hill.
Then there were the 1974 restaurants: the Pines, which burned in a grease fire and arose as Slug’s at the Pines (what a name); the Villa Tao; the Ranch House; the other Danziger enterprises; and the House of Chu, the second worst Chinese restaurant in the country, if not the world. To my amazement, I was told that people came to Chapel Hill to dine in the fine restaurants. I thought it must be really bad in the rest of North Carolina.
And yet, despite how far we have come, for all the 41 years I’ve lived in it or around Chapel Hill, there has always been a small group of ardent opponents who arise whenever any major development is proposed, decrying any change at all. That tradition continues today with its most recent incarnation as CHALT (Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town). Before my time, there was probably a group opposed to turning cow pastures into Eastgate shopping center, too.
I particularly remember the many years it took to get Meadowmont approved because of such opponents and then the subsequent debate over the connection of Meadowmont to the Oaks retirement community. We also saw the same kind of groups form to oppose Southern Village and many other developments around town ranging from hotels to new retail and commercial space to single-family homes and apartments.
Today, these areas around town that faced strong opposition from a small but vocal minority are part and parcel of the Chapel Hill community we love. These areas have brought us new commercial businesses, food stores, conference and meeting space, and especially fine restaurants that we cherish and that enrich our quality of life.
Look at the transition of West Franklin Street into a mixed-use, walkable community with apartments and condos and easy access to good restaurants and entertainment. Just like Meadowmont and Southern Village, new development on West Franklin has strengthened the quality of our community. Just think of what Chapel Hill would be like in the 21st century if the predecessors of CHALT had won – it certainly wouldn’t be at all like the Chapel Hill we love today.
The mantra of the new opponents of growth is that the incumbent Town Council members and mayor don’t listen to them. Translated, this statement means that after many hours of listening to and hearing these opponents voice their opinions, the council and mayor still didn’t agree. But let’s be clear here: not agreeing does not equal not listening.
The council and mayor have a professional town staff and hire expert consultants to provide them with the data, information, and analytics they need to make informed decisions to make our town even better. As well educated as our community may be, not every resident is a trained urban planner, economic- development professional, affordable-housing expert, budget and financial analyst, or public administrator. The advice and consultation given to our elected officials by these professionals helps to ensure that smart decisions are made strengthen our community for the better.
Let’s keep moving Chapel Hill forward into the 21st century and never go back to the Chapel Hill I found in 1974.
John E. Hammond is a professor emeritus in the the UNC School of Medicine.