Orange County

What do you want at the American Legion site? Chapel Hill council weighs the question

The town of Chapel Hill bought the American Legion Post 6 property on Legion Road in March 2017 and is planning what will become of the land when the Legion moves to a new home. The Legion is leasing the land from the town through March 2020.
The town of Chapel Hill bought the American Legion Post 6 property on Legion Road in March 2017 and is planning what will become of the land when the Legion moves to a new home. The Legion is leasing the land from the town through March 2020.

A lot of people still want to see neighbors living and playing on the American Legion site, despite a task force report that downplayed the public desire for affordable housing.

A few dozen people showed up Wednesday to make sure housing is still on the Chapel Hill Town Council’s radar. It is, council members assured them. Town Manager Roger Stancil is expected to return in the spring with a draft plan for the 36-acre tract, based on public and town input.

Council member Donna Bell, a liaison to the task force, noted the American Legion Task Force was only charged with looking at recreational opportunities. The town has bigger problems than having enough parks, she said, which can be addressed in the master plan.

“I will not be quiet about spending $8 million for a piece of property that we’re going to turn into a park,” Bell said. “I feel like the information that came out of this task force is valid ... I appreciate the fact that we are thinking about how we can use recreation as an engine for economic development. I think that there’s a larger conversation that needs to be had. I want to be clear that that conversation has not been had.”

Legion map 2017

Only 28.2 acres can be developed, because a stream cuts through the property. Well-used natural trails also run through the woods and connect with the town’s 10-acre Ephesus Park adjacent to Ephesus Elementary School on Ephesus Church Road. A pond covers another three acres and needs repairs. The task force recommended budgeting money now for an engineering study to determine whether to make repairs or fill it in.

The town signed a $7.9 million deal to buy the land from the American Legion Post 6 in March, paying $3.6 million from its reserves. The remaining $4.3 million is due in equal installments in March 2018 and March 2019. The Legion is looking at another site outside of town for its new home.

The town could pay the remaining debt with money from an $8 million voter-approved parks and recreation bond, but that would delay a planned cultural arts facility and reduce the amount available for new parks and recreation offices, Stancil said. Another option is selling a portion of the land to pay off the debt.

The task force recommended considering all the possibilities before selling any land. The town’s Cultural Arts Commission opposes using any bond money, said Dan Cefalo, a task force member and commission chairman.

“The cultural arts bond was something that we really battled for, it’s something that the the entire commission went out and campaigned for, and if you look at the results of some of these surveys, art and dancing fell pretty low on the list,” he said.

The task force used a public survey, conversations, and technical data to come up with a priority list. There’s no money yet to build, equip and operate the park. The top three activities in each category were:

▪ Athletic activities: indoor gym-based sports; net- and court-based sports; and outdoor, hard-surface sports

▪ Casual/other activities: water play; taking walks; and outdoor gathering spaces

▪ Other uses: large, open-air pavilion; a community center; and educational uses

Sports fields could generate great economic potential, said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau. Sports tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry, she noted, and pickleball, a growing sport blending tennis, badminton and pingpong, offers something for everyone.

However, residents also pointed out that roughly 10 percent of those surveyed wrote in their support for affordable housing. Ira Jackson, who works in town but has lived at the IFC transitional shelter for 15 months, made an emotional plea to help the working poor.

“I know there’s affordable housing for police and teachers and things like that, but what about the janitors and the dishwashers, people like me,” he said.

“I don’t have all the statistics with me, but I will say it sounds like enough for parks and affordable housing,” he said. “Why are we building more parks to sleep in. Can’t we build some homes?”

Colony Woods resident Dan Levine, with community developer Self-Help in Durham, noted three parks within a few miles of the neighborhood. There’s plenty of land at the American Legion site for a park, housing, and for office and retail to recoup some of the cost and create jobs, he said. Self-Help is working with DHIC, a Raleigh-based housing nonprofit, on a similar mixed-use project now on Jackson Street in Durham, he said.

The town’s need for affordable housing is critical, Council member George Cianciolo agreed, and there’s little concern about grouping affordable communities in one area, he added in response to a citizen’s concerns.

“We overlook the people who get things done in our jobs, in our town, and I think it’s important that we not become so elitist that we say, no, we don’t want them all to have to live in the same place,” Cianciolo said. “They need housing, and we have to stop telling them what they need, and help them get what they need.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Other news

▪ The town will pay $250,000 more for a new fire station at Hamilton Road, behind the 54 East development, because of construction problems.

The Town Council approved selling a ladder truck that is being retired this year to cover the overruns. The truck is valued at between $275,000 and $300,000 and will be replaced with a new ladder truck in January.

Unsuitable soils and significant underground water were found when the site was excavated, Chapel Hill Fire Chief Matt Sullivan said. The cost of installing two fire poles in the new station also came in at $80,000 instead of $10,000. The developer is trying to recoup some of that cost from the architect, Sullivan said.

The town’s share of the now-$3.3 million project is roughly $1 million, Sullivan said; he does not anticipate cost overruns of more than $370,000.

Developer East West Partners is paying $1.75 million and building Fire Station No. 2 and an adjacent office building under an agreement with the town. Orange County is picking up $520,000 and will station an EMS ambulance crew there when the station is finished, possibly by mid-February.

▪ The council will hold a public hearing Jan. 17 about the sale of a small parking lot at 127 W. Rosemary St. to Investors Title.

The $300,000 deal, if approved, would require Investors Title to provide 75 parking spaces for public use from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily. The spaces would be available at “commercially reasonable rates” for six years, unless the property is sold or redeveloped.

The town could use the proceeds to repair and expand the Wallace Parking Deck on East Rosemary Street.