In a unanimous vote just before midnight Tuesday, the Carrboro aldermen paved the way for the Inter-Faith Council to build a new three story building to combine its food pantry, counseling and community-kitchen programs at a single location in downtown Carrboro.
The vote approving a conditional rezoning comes after years of planning and debate, including two prior efforts to find other locations for the FoodFirst building.
Once completed, the community kitchen will move to 110 W. Main St. in Carrboro from its present spot at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia streets in Chapel Hill.
John Dorward, former interim executive director, told the board the nonprofit, which provides free meals twice a day, expects to serve 150 to 200 people each weekday, in addition to providing the food pantry and other support services currently offered on site.
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That has worried some in Carrboro, including Carr Mill Mall Manager Nathan Milian. He read a letter from the mall’s owners asking the board to consider the potential harm the rezoning could have on surrounding properties, and suggested Carr Mill Mall might have to enforce more stringent loitering regulations or limit events on the mall’s lawn.
However, board members and other business owners praised IFC leaders for reaching out to those concerned about the FoodFirst project, and noted that the organization had been receptive to many suggestions. Alderman Sammy Slade called it “an impressive response” that ultimately produced a better design.
One major design change was to move the entrance away from the front of the building to address concerns that long lines of diners awaiting meals would fill the sidewalk along West Main Street. Instead, guests will gather in a covered courtyard in the interior of the site, to wait on benches designed by a local artist.
Representatives of two nearby businesses spoke in support of the project, saying the IFC had addressed their concerns.
“We believe in IFC and IFC’s mission,” said Ben Barker, renown chef and co-owner of Pizzeria Mercato on W. Weaver St. “We think that IFC will bring better facilities and better services to those who sorely need it.”
Alderwomen Bethany Chaney and Jacquie Gist applauded the IFC’s willingness to reconsider how services could be delivered, but urged board members and the nonprofit to keep the dialogue going once the kitchen opens.
“I think it behooves the people with the IFC to acknowledge one out of 100 (clients) might be disruptive,” Gist said. “How do we not ignore that, how do we provide the services, just like we’re providing food and warmth, so that behavior doesn’t impact the community?”
Gist said the initial presentations of the FoodFirst project dismissed community concerns and set the wrong tone for public discussion.
Speaking after the vote, Dorward acknowledged that changing public perception had not been easy.
Dorward, who originally retired from the IFC in 2015, was brought back on board last August to shepherd the FoodFirst project through Carrboro’s approval process after Director Michael Reinke stepped down.
Dorward said a series of one-on-one discussions with business owners helped reset the discourse.
“That’s the difference, we listened better,” said Dorward.
He contrasted the process in Carrboro with the contentious, years-long battle to get the IFC’s transitional housing program relocated from downtown Chapel Hill to a more suburban location on Homestead Road. That process pitted the IFC against a group of neighbors who worried the men’s shelter would bring more crime to the area. Though ultimately approved in 2011, the shelter plan sparked hours of acrimonious debate and a lawsuit.
“I think with the process in Chapel Hill, we didn’t exactly stick to the high ground at all times,” Dorward said. “We lost sight and kind of got angry. Being angry is just not a good way to handle this. Being open and willing to listen is the only way to work through this. I think this time we tried to do that and it made a big difference.”
With the conditional rezoning in place, the FoodFirst project will undergo additional review by town staff, but needs no further approval from the board of aldermen. The IFC will now launch a fund-raising campaign for the building, which could cost up to $5 million. Dorward estimates it will be two years before the existing structure can be demolished and new construction begins.
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With the conditional rezoning in place, the FoodFirst project will undergo additional review by town staff, but needs no further approval from the board of aldermen.