Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why all the fuss over Greenbridge?

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 24th, 2007:

In my day job for the Sierra Club, I work with volunteers from around the state to get local governments to implement green features into their public buildings. It can often be a struggle to get a few compact fluorescent light bulbs here, some LED traffic lights there. Small victories in the public sphere are much celebrated and appreciated, and in the private sector you can pretty much forget about it even though in many cases those improvements actually would save a lot of money further down the line. That's why it's just beyond me that there's been so much hubbub about the proposed Greenbridge development, which is up for approval by the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday night. We have a chance to locate in our downtown what will be one of the most progressive and environmentally responsible buildings in the country.

We have a great opportunity to solidify our community's reputation as a center of innovation, and we should take it.

A brief overview of the cutting-edge features Greenbridge will include are geothermal heating and cooling, a green roof, rain water harvesting and the incorporation of solar energy.

The proposed development is at the corner of Rosemary Street and Merritt Mill Road, on the edge of the Northside neighborhood. The big controversy then, at least in the local newspapers, is a concern that this project will cause damage to the vitality of the African-American community that has long defined that area of town.

The funny thing about that is when the project went to Town Council for a public hearing last month, the only person attacking it from that angle was a white UNC student. Every black person who spoke was in strong support of the project.

Three people's words particularly resonated with me.

One was Mildred "Mama Dip" Council who has operated a business just down the street from the proposed development for years. She said that she doesn't feel threatened by Chapel Hill's growth and that she's "happy to grow with it."

Another was Virginia Mason. An older African-American woman, her late father used to own the property where Greenbridge will be built. She said he would be proud to see such a wonderful project in this location.

The third was Delores Bailey, who has done an outstanding job as the director of Empowerment Inc. over the last few years. I've heard some folks say that the people speaking in favor of Greenbridge at the public hearing might not be representative of the neighborhood and that the council shouldn't move forward until everyone has been polled.

Frankly, you could apply that standard to any project since it is almost universally a minority of folks who go to meetings and speak out.

The fact that Delores, who pours her entire life into these neighborhoods, is supportive is good enough for me.

Maybe something different will happen Monday night but the discourse over Greenbridge so far puts the lie to the concept that this project is some white vs. black thing.

Rather the opposite, the process has brought white and black people together to talk about a vision for the future of downtown Chapel Hill and the Northside neighborhood.

That doesn't happen enough around here and it's a great credit to both the folks planning Greenbridge and neighborhood leaders that it has happened in this case.

One of the main concerns the Town Council had when this project was reviewed last month was that the affordable units weren't all on site.

The Greenbridge team, made up of folks who live in and understand our community, took that concern to heart.

Not only will they all now be part of the Greenbridge development, but extra measures will be taken to ensure that they stay affordable for the long haul. Condo fees will be fixed, and they will be subsidized by a transfer tax on the sale of market-rate units.

It's not enough for a good Chapel Hill development just to be environmentally sustainable. It needs to be socially sustainable, and the extra steps taken to ensure that the affordable units will remain affordable are encouraging.

It is a rare opportunity for a community to have a building designed by William McDonough, named by Time in 1999 as a "Hero for the Planet," anchor an end of its downtown.

In Greenbridge, the Chapel Hill Town Council has an opportunity to approve a building that will serve as a living, breathing monument to our status as the most environmentally advanced community not just in North Carolina but across the southeast.

Let's hope the council will do the right thing on Monday night.

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