Orange County

Chapel Hill mayor faces challenge in 2nd re-election bid since 2015 upset victory

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, left, and her challenger Joshua Levenson
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, left, and her challenger Joshua Levenson Contributed

Updated: The story was corrected to note this is Mayor Pam Hemminger’s second re-election bid. Chapel Hill mayors serve a two-year term.

Political newcomer Joshua Levenson is challenging Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger in this year’s Nov. 5 municipal election.

The mayor serves a two-year term. This is Hemminger’s second re-election bid since defeating former Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt in the 2015 election.

Early voting starts Wednesday, Oct. 16, and is open in Chapel Hill to everyone within the town limits, including the portion of Chapel Hill that lies in Durham County.

Get more details about each candidate at Here’s what we recently asked the mayoral candidates:

Is there a local development that you think was a mistake? Is there one that you like?

Pam Hemminger: Shortbread Lofts was a mistake. Projects on downtown parcels need to provide commercial or housing opportunities for people here year-round, not just for nine months, to support our downtown businesses.

Liked the AC Marriott Hotel. They worked with the neighborhood to fit in and be a good community partner by hiring locally. The hotel has a green roof, underground parking, an entrance on Church Street, is only four stories tall with art from local artists.

Joshua Levenson: Expanding roads and surface parking without safe separate bike lanes, especially in the Blue Hill-East Franklin Floodplain area, have been some of the most stark strip mall-style mistakes. Taking full advantage of Chapel Hill’s remaining green space — pushing parking underground and changing the emphasis to enhance community common space like the Carrboro town commons — would be the kind of local development that I support. A space to connect all members of our community, and not just the wealthy who can afford going out to high-end establishments.

Is the town doing enough to attract commercial development?

Pam Hemminger: We have implemented several strategies, including creation of the Millhouse Road Enterprise Zone and use of performance-based incentives, to attract companies and jobs to Chapel Hill and to get new commercial office space out of the ground. Through the Launch business accelerator and other efforts, we are working hard to capture, nurture and grow our start-up companies. We need to continue to reduce barriers for businesses to locate here.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

Would you vote for a tax increase?

Pam Hemminger: Not necessary at this time. We are seeing success from our strategy to diversify our tax base. Our sales taxes are way up and will increase further when Wegmans opens. New property and sales taxes will help fund affordable housing, greenways and more. Since high taxes push people out of Chapel Hill, I am only willing to support a tax increase if we have a plan on why and how the monies would be used.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

Does the town have a traffic problem?

Pam Hemminger: Yes. Our road infrastructure was not designed to handle all the growth from within the town combined with the cars coming from outside Chapel Hill that pass through our community each day. Addressing these problems requires comprehensive transportation planning. To help people get around more effectively, we are: working on a town-wide traffic model to inform decisions; planning for transit expansion; increasing bike/pedestrian infrastructure; integrating SMART technologies; exploring last-mile options and more.

Joshua Levenson: Yes, but rush-hour traffic may be transformed into a bit of a good thing. I hope we never try to cram six-lane roads through the center of town. Instead of expanding downtown parking decks for convenient parking the way the current mayor and council have voted to approve, I plead that we start to move the other way, providing Bus Rapid Transit from park-and-rides around the perimeter of town that visitors can access every 5-10 minutes. Then providing free parking passes to low-income residents at several staggered scheduled times per week, as we gradually increase parking fees during peak hours. This appears to be one of our last hopes for making a walkable and bike-able green downtown which encourages public transit and raises funds, moderating car parking while still providing affordable convenient access for community members.

Is the town doing enough to address bike and pedestrian safety and connectivity?

Pam Hemminger: In 2017, the town completed our Mobility & Connectivity Plan which establishes a framework for making bicycling, walking and riding the bus safe and convenient options for recreation and transportation throughout town. The plan lays out a network for non-motorized transportation that connects high-priority corridors with short- and long-range projects identified as funding becomes available. The town also has a staff working group that meets weekly to discuss bike/pedestrian initiatives and safety concerns.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

Should advisory board recommendations play a bigger role in the town’s decisions?

Pam Hemminger: Chapel Hill’s advisory boards play a critical role for our town, digging deeper into issues that the town faces, looking critically at development projects and bringing new information, such as best practices, forward. We have taken steps to try to strengthen communications with and between our boards and are currently considering Planning Commission and Community Design Commission recommendations that will improve the development review process.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

Is enough being done to balance housing and commercial development with environmental protection, including the preservation of trees and wetlands?

Pam Hemminger: To achieve our goals of environmental sustainability, we need to do a better job as we plan for our future. Trees and wetlands play a vital role in the social, environmental and economic health of our community so it is essential that our updated land-use map and ordinances provide effective protection for these resources. We also need to be thinking about integrating green infrastructure, creating renewable energy, adding publicly accessible open space and more.

Joshua Levenson: More affordable housing is needed to ensure that teachers and public servants who serve our community can also live here and not triple our transit emissions and traffic with daily commuting. We also need to preserve and expand our few precious parks and greenways. This means smart town design with some higher buildings and terraced setbacks along transit routes, as well as tiny home options for those who eagerly aspire to reduce their environmental foot print. More needs to be done to restore trees and wetlands in and around Chapel Hill. Failing to see the whole picture in how we relate to the surrounding area and our total emissions may save a few acres in town but cause thousands of acres to burn further afield.

Do you support duplexes, triplexes and quads in single-family neighborhoods? Where?

Pam Hemminger: Incremental density is important as a town grows to meet goals of offering many different types of housing and maintaining affordability. The town took initial steps in this direction by approving accessory dwelling units in 2015. As we consider these types of missing middle/infill options, we can make sure that new housing maintains the scale of housing in existing neighborhoods and should prioritize them for areas that are walkable to transit and employment centers.

Joshua Levenson: Some 400- to 800-square-foot, energy-efficient smaller units in low-rise buildings may be something I would vote to support with the affordable housing bond. But along public transit corridors, to balance more green space with additional units, I would work harder to inset taller buildings with two- to three-story commercial frontage, stepping up gradually towards six- to eight-story interiors.

Do you support mid-rise (four to 10 stories) multifamily buildings and where?

Pam Hemminger: I am open to mid-rise buildings but want to be intentional about the heights based on the location in town, adjacent land uses, ability of infrastructure to support increased density and opportunity for community benefits. The current draft of the land use map includes four- to six-story buildings located along transit corridors with a transition into neighborhoods. Taller buildings could be considered for certain sites at Eastowne and downtown.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

Do you support extending urban services to the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction area south of U.S. 15-501?

Pam Hemminger: The future of South 15-501 (now South Columbia Street) is important, especially because it represents a critical transportation corridor; however, we are not ready for that discussion at this time. The town is in the middle of a Future Land Use Map and Land Use Management Ordinance re-write for the existing urban services areas which will also consider the Southern Village Park & Ride area. When we are finished with this planning, we can re-open this discussion.

Joshua Levenson: No response.

The story will be updated as more responses from the candidates are available.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

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.