Council approves controversial Bicycle Apartments

Feb. 28, 2013 @ 11:30 AM

On Wednesday, more than 30 residents went before the council to offer opinions about the merits of the controversial Bicycle Apartments planned for 602 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

And while the residents who spoke were divided in their support of the project, the council granted developer Trinitas Ventures a rezoning and special-use permit to move forward with the student-oriented housing project.

Trinitas plans to demolish 74 residential units in three two-story apartments and replace them with four six-story apartments with 194 student-oriented rental units containing more than 600 bedrooms.

Residents in the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District and other nearby neighborhoods have voiced concerns about noise, traffic and crime as a result of the project they said is too tall and too dense for the location. 

Meanwhile, supporters touted revenue from additional property taxes the town will collect as a result of the redevelopment of the property, the economic benefit of having students near downtown and a need for more student-housing to relieve the pressure of an influx of students into neighborhoods such as the historically black Northside neighborhood.

But residents opposing the project, citing anemic enrollment growth at UNC, weren’t buying the argument that the town is in desperate need of more student housing.

“We do not have a housing crisis for undergraduates,” said Hodding Carter, University Professor of Leadership and Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill who lives near the project. “It’s utter, total baloney. Go ask again if you don’t know this.”

Carter also said the university is facing deep cuts in state funding, which will further hamper its ability to grow.

“Thanks to this wonderful legislature and governor we have, they’re getting ready to cut our budget in Chapel Hill by 9 or 10 percent, specifically Chapel Hill,” Carter said. “We’re not going to be having overwhelming pressures out of Chapel Hill. We’ll be lucky if we’re being sustained in ways we believed we’re entitled to by what it is the state is doing through Chapel Hill.”

Sallie Shuping-Russell, a member of the UNC Board of Trustees who lives near the project on Rosemary Street, also spoke out against it, saying she was concerned about its scale and student safety.

Shuping-Russell, noting that she spoke as a private citizen, also said earlier that UNC system growth projections at the university didn’t materialize due to the recession.

“I don’t think there’s an assumption of any significant growth over the next 10 years,” Shuping-Russell said,   

But even if the university doesn’t grow, Councilman Jim Ward said the town is already struggling to meet the demand for student housing.

“If UNC doesn’t grow a bit …we still have a serious student housing problem in our community,” Ward said. “I am very supportive of this student housing by design that we’ve got in front of us right now.”

Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce agreed, contending that the larger threat to the town is to not allow the development of student housing to accommodate the 300 students a year the university has been adding over the past decade.

“Over the two years it will take to build this project, 600 students may join our community,” Nelson said. “Let’s say we’re off and only 300 students join our community, where do they live?”

He said that currently, students who decided to live off campus are doing so in Durham and will likely move to northern Chatham if apartments are eventually built there near town limits.

“Or, we can convert more single-family residences,” Nelson said. “We’d have to convert 100 more single family residences to accommodate these 300 students.”

The Bicycle Apartments will offer limited parking and residents will be encouraged to bike, walk or use public transportation.

Shuping-Russell said she doesn’t think the project will appeal to students, noting that students move off campus for independence, but also to bring their cars to school.

“I feel very strongly that students aren’t going to want to pay $600 or more and not be able to have their cars here,” Shuping-Russell said.

The developer made several concessions in response to concerns expressed by council members and residents at last month’s public hearing.

They included shifting the building to the west on the 9-acre site to increase the distance between it and the property line by a half-acre, removing balconies from the side closest to the historic district, bumping its payment in lieu to the town’s affordable housing fund to $120,000 and donating $50,000 to Chapel Hill Transit for transportation improvements.

The council unanimously approved the rezoning in a 7-0 vote. The special-use permit was approved on a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Ed Harrison voting against it.

Council members Matt Czajkowski and Laurin Easthom were absent from Wednesday’s council meeting.