Orange County

Chapel Hill Town Council backs growth plan for West Rosemary Street

Shortbread Lofts, a seven-story, student apartment building on West Rosemary Street, might not be possible under the town’s development guidelines, which limit buildings to four stories and oppose student-oriented residential projects.
Shortbread Lofts, a seven-story, student apartment building on West Rosemary Street, might not be possible under the town’s development guidelines, which limit buildings to four stories and oppose student-oriented residential projects. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

New guidelines approved Monday give developers and residents a sense of how downtown’s West Rosemary Street corridor could grow.

She’s seen a lot of changes in 70 years, Northside resident Clem Self said, urging the council to remember how new development will affect its neighbors.

“You need to really stop and think about who are these people that want to develop all of this stuff,” she said.

“Many of them don’t even live in Orange County,” she said. “They’re just people trying to make money, but we’re the people who are here, who’ve been living here all these years and paying the taxes.”

The West Rosemary Street Development Guide blends several years of community conversations and town plans into a menu of residential, commercial and public amenities that’s possible between Columbia Street and Merritt Mill Road.

The guidelines include a list of “do’s and don’ts,” along with a statement about the community’s desire for a safe, proud neighborhood that protects a sense of history, culture and family. It includes a dozen standards for public spaces, such as streets and sidewalks, and 19 building standards, including a height limit of four stories, or 48 feet.

The community’s desire for lower density, more amenities and limits on student housing is in conflict with the market’s drive toward high-rise condominiums, said Rae Buckley, the town’s assistant to the manager for organizational and strategic initiatives.

Who pays?

Meeting the desires could take public and private subsidies, a consultant has said. Is the town is ready to subsidize those public benefits or find partners to help pay for them, asked Meg McGurk, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

“It’s unreasonable to assume that the private market and, in some cases, specific private property owners on West Rosemary Street can or should shoulder the full responsibility of public goods,” McGurk said. “It’s just not financially feasible for any of those projects.”

Northside’s history is important to consider in meeting community desires and encouraging growth, Council member Donna Bell said. Council decisions don’t have to always benefit everyone equally, she noted.

“I think it is important to remember that this was the space that African-Americans were allowed,” she said.

“Their businesses were not allowed other places, their ability to grow wealth was not allowed in other places, and so the ability to grow wealth was greatly impeded,” she said. “And so for us to think about that history as we think about how to develop that small part of Chapel Hill, I think is appropriate.”

7-2 vote

The council’s 7-2 vote adds the guide to the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, which developers use in planning new projects. The revised guide also requires projects seeking a rezoning, special-use permit or development agreement with the town to include a community benefits agreement.

Council members George Cianciolo and Jessica Anderson dissented over adding the guide to the comprehensive plan. Cianciolo suggested giving the public more time to weigh in, while Anderson expressed uncertainty about the guide’s implementation and the public subsidies required.

“If we had an (complete) implementation plan, then maybe we could know more about what the implications are for the guide,” she said. “What’s realistic to do, what’s not realistic to do, what can we get.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Other action

The Town Council approved a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools plan Monday to expand its maintenance center. The 14.5-acre site is located at the northwest corner of High School and Seawell School roads.

The project includes a nearly 22,791-square-foot maintenance and storage facility and 68 parking spaces. It would be next to an existing bus transportation facility.

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