Sunday, October 01, 2006

Breaking down the Residences at Grove Park

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 23rd, 2006

In recent years there has been no proposed development in Chapel Hill that I have more mixed feelings about than the Residences at Grove Park, which would replace the current Town House Apartments on Hillsborough Street with a number of relatively up-scale condos.

On one hand this kind of development fits in perfectly with the direction Chapel Hill's downtown needs to go in. We want more people living near the city's core. This certainly accomplishes that goal.

Beyond that, the Town House Apartments are not particularly nice. This would be a step forward in terms of aesthetics.

On the other hand, this poses a major problem in the sense that it will remove a large amount of student housing near campus. Already the local housing supply is having trouble keeping up with the university's expansion and causing students to choose places to live further and further away from Chapel Hill.

Over the last several years the Verge, which is in Durham County, has become one of the most popular student apartment complexes. This has a lot to do with shuttles being provided to get students to and from campus. More recently, larger numbers of students have started seeking out places to live in Chatham County and out toward Hillsborough due to a shortage of desirable places to rent in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area.

This is not an ideal situation. If all of these folks were riding the bus to campus every day it would be one thing, but most of them are driving and by extension causing air pollution and exacerbating the parking problems with which UNC and Chapel Hill are already plagued.

Some folks would say the solution to the problem is for UNC to provide more living space on campus, but that's really not realistic. I lived on campus the whole time I was a student and loved it, but by their junior and senior years most folks want to live where they can behave pretty much however they want. No amount of new housing that the university builds is going to change the mentality of 21-year-old college students.

This problem obviously is much bigger than what ends up happening to Town House Apartments. For instance, the Chapel Hill Town Council recently passed a duplex ban for the Pine Knolls neighborhood that complemented one earlier passed for Northside. Although I was one of just two Planning Board members to vote against the most recent ban, I can see where the neighborhood leaders who pushed it are coming from.

No doubt many students living off campus do behave terribly. At the same time the vast majority are perfectly good neighbors — but that doesn't change the fact that the rotten eggs in the bunch have led to new measures being enacted that may have the further effect of eroding the affordable housing supply near campus.

At the end of the day this larger issue will not have much bearing on how I vote when this proposal comes to the Planning Board. But I do think it's time for some town and university leaders to get together and go through some meaningful long-term planning process of where students are going to live in the coming years. Continuing to take measures that decrease the supply of places where young people can live near campus will have negative unintended consequences down the road.

On another note considering the Residences at Grove Park, I thought Monday night's public hearing about it before the Town Council was a model example of Chapel Hill's approval system for development working right.

Many neighbors of the site had concerns about traffic and aesthetic impacts the proposed changes would have. They stated those valid concerns articulately and respectfully without any hint of rancor.

Likewise, Ram Development has shown good faith throughout the process so far. The company took plans for the site twice to the Community Design Commission for feedback already, and was also praised by neighbors for being responsive to their concerns.

Chapel Hill's development process is often criticized for being slow and unwieldy. But when developers, public officials and those citizens who are impacted work together in good faith as they are doing on this project, we end up with finished products that are much better than they would have been if not for all the work that went into them.

The proposal for the Residences for Grove Park, whether approved or not, is a good starting point for a community dialogue about where students are going to be affordably housed. Is it going to be near campus, promoting walkability? Or will it be miles away from campus, promoting the kind of car dependency that we claim we abhor in Chapel Hill? Time will tell.



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