Too tall for Chapel Hill? Town sends developer of 55+ apartments to the drawing board

A Chapel Hill developer wants to build a nearly 60-foot-tall, 190-unit apartment building at this wooded location on Homestead Road, across the street from Weaver Dairy Road Extension. The site is adjacent to UNC’s Carolina North Greenway (background).
A Chapel Hill developer wants to build a nearly 60-foot-tall, 190-unit apartment building at this wooded location on Homestead Road, across the street from Weaver Dairy Road Extension. The site is adjacent to UNC’s Carolina North Greenway (background). Contributed

A plan for 190 senior-living apartments on Homestead Road was held up Wednesday when the developers couldn’t show how the four-story building would look against the surrounding neighborhood.

Richard Gurlitz, owner of Gurlitz Architectural Group, said they would return Feb. 13 with something to show to the Town Council.

Neighbors came to Wednesday’s meeting with an image they made of a four-story apartment building looming over trees and ranch-style homes at The Courtyards at Homestead, a 55-plus neighborhood next to the project site.

They are worried the 17-acre project will affect the environment, their quality of life, and traffic and safety, Courtyards resident Diane Martin said. They also don’t think the project will do enough to help meet demand for moderately priced and affordable housing.

Martin suggested a plan “with vision and imagination,” such as 60 to 65 affordable and moderately priced duplexes, built in partnership with local nonprofits and funded with money from a $10 million affordable housing bond that Chapel Hill voters approved in November.

“We’re actually quite shocked that the council members would even consider a rezoning request to allow a drastic change in density and height before seeing what it would actually look like in the context of the surrounding neighborhood,” Martin said.

Town rules don’t require a drawing of the building for council approval, Gurlitz said. It is, however, a common practice for developers.

“I’d just hate to come back for yet another time,” he said. The citizens’ image “is clearly not an image of anything remotely even the scale of it,” he said. “It is ridiculous.”

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If approved, the 60-foot-tall building would offer Chapel Hill’s first apartments serving older adults. (A 55-plus rental project also has been proposed for the Lloyd Farm development on N.C. 54 in Carrboro.) The apartments on Homestead Road would be within walking distance of the Seymour Senior Center, Homestead Park and UNC’s Carolina North Greenway.

Several council members agreed with residents asking for a concept drawing. Council member Rachel Schaevitz said she’s uncomfortable rezoning the site for a higher density because of the “inappropriate transition” to the lower density of The Courtyards.

Council member Karen Stegman said she is open to the project. The town wants to avoid sprawl and respond to climate change, and land-use policies have to focus on greater density, she said.

“Four stories is reasonable,” Stegman said, adding, “It needs to be well done. It needs to look good.”

Affordable housing

The project has prompted two citizen petitions, asking for a traffic study of Homestead Road, where housing has rapidly replaced trees in recent years, and asking for a detailed look at what exists on Homestead Road now and what will be there in the future.

Town staff members reported working with residents and developers since October on major issues, including stormwater, traffic and affordable housing. The latest proposal included 20 apartments affordable to households at 60 percent of the area median income, or roughly $34,000 a year for an individual, $39,000 for a couple.

The apartments would remain affordable for 30 years.

In return, the developer asked the town to cap building permit fees at $10,000, instead of an estimated $103,000; allow on-site recreation space; and leave proposed solar panel installation to a future date.

Council member Nancy Oates said capping the building permit fees might set an unwanted precedent.

Even with the fee cap, council member Michael Parker mused, the town would get 20 affordable apartments for roughly $5,000 each.

The council didn’t talk about stormwater and traffic Wednesday, but staff reported that 55-plus apartments create less traffic than typical apartments. Most of it is around midday, they said, instead of in the morning and evening. The Homestead Road project could add about 770 more trips a day vs. 300 more trips for typical apartments, they said.

The apartments would have one driveway onto Homestead Road, with one-way access from The Courtyards to allow emergency vehicles and pedestrians. Sidewalks would connect both neighborhoods to UNC’s greenway.

The stormwater on the site is uncontrolled now and has flooded some Courtyard properties. The project would include some stormwater-control measures, staff said, and impervious surfaces, such as roofs and driveways, would cover about a quarter of the site.

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In other news

Homestead Road sidewalks

The council approved an agreement that will add sidewalks, bike lanes and multi-use paths to both sides of Homestead Road, from Seawell School Road to Weaver Dairy Road Extension.

The town will pay $260,000 toward the project with money from a 2015 voter-approved bond for street and sidewalk projects; the town has $7.7 million in unspent bond money. The N.C. Department of Transportation will reimburse the town for up to $1 million more using federal transportation grant money, freeing up bond money for other projects, Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

Construction could begin this summer.

Eubanks Road-Interstate 40 road work

The council supported a plan that would avoid re-routing Eubanks Road through the Northwood neighborhood in northern Chapel Hill. Neighbors who worried about losing homes and their sense of community under a prior plan asked the town for help.

The N.C. Department of Transportation will improve the Interstate 40 interchange at N.C. 86 and Eubanks Road when I-40 is widened to six lanes through Orange County. The current alignment of the eastbound I-40 exit ramp and Eubanks Road is contributing to increased traffic congestion, officials said.

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The council supported a plan Wednesday that would require drivers heading eastbound on Eubanks Road to turn right at N.C. 86. Drivers heading north toward I-40 and Hillsborough would make a U-turn at a superstreet turnaround at Perkins Drive (Chapel Hill North). The plan adds another exit lane to the eastbound I-40 off-ramp for drivers heading west on Eubanks Road.

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.