Opinion

Time to match Chapel Hill development to our values – Rachel Schaevitz

Rachel Schaevitz
Rachel Schaevitz

In my role chairing the task force for Chapel Hill’s newly purchased 36-acre property on Legion Road, I hear from people from all over town about what our residents want – and don’t want – on town property.

As you might expect in our opinion-rich town, I get a lot of input.

I hear a lot of discussion about buildings like the Berkshire Chapel Hill. You know the one: it sort of looks like a cruise ship docked in Whole Foods Plaza. The concerns about the Berkshire range from the aesthetic to the environmental, with some folks getting downright irate that we’ve let developers build a tower of luxury condos in a town desperate for affordable housing.

After hearing from the some of the businesses adjacent to the Berkshire, I have learned that our concerns should not stop there. Jeff & Cathy Bailey, owners of Great Harvest Bakery a few doors down from the Berkshire, told me they have seen their sales drop since construction cut them off from Whole Foods’ foot traffic more than a year ago. Cecilia Milla, who inherited the neighboring Oriental Tailor from her mother, is concerned that her multi-generational, minority-owned Chapel Hill business may not be able to stay due to rising rents.

Our town needs to hear these stories and understand that the development decisions we make have far-reaching impacts. To be clear, I’m not saying that density – where appropriate – is a problem. Building up is much more environmentally sound than sprawling out. However, while any large mixed-use building on that site would have generated tax revenue for our town, this one fails to deliver on so many of the things we want such as affordability, green space, and connectivity.

I see the Berkshire as a missed opportunity. Chapel Hill doesn’t have infinite land and, therefore, the decisions we make about future growth and development must be wholly consistent with our values.

If we say we want inclusive affordable housing and retail space for locally-owned businesses, we should revise development guidelines to support and incentivize creation of affordable units.

If we say we are committed to meeting the goals set forth in the Paris Climate Accord, we should incentivize energy-efficient buildings that feature green space and encourage walking, biking and shared parking – rather than permitting outmoded construction that forces consumers to drive from shop to shop and makes us even more prone to flooding.

If we say that we want to create a walkable, bike-friendly district that supports thriving retail and start-up companies, let’s integrate solid connective urban design into our work upfront, rather than permitting buildings that create visual and physical barriers between businesses.

I see a bright future for Chapel Hill. I want to see our town redeveloping our older properties and empty lots in a way that gets us closer to the kind of town we want to be. I want to see us building co-working flexible office space to house the startups coming out of UNC that currently take their innovation and jobs out to Cary and Durham instead of putting down roots here. I want to see us rehabbing our older shopping districts, like those in the Ephesus-Fordham area, in a way that promotes connectivity and success for all our local businesses, legacy and new. I want to see us taking advantage of creative infill to add affordable homes integrated among market rate housing to encourage diverse, socially just neighborhoods.

Most importantly, I want our town’s values to be clearly visible from its sidewalks. We say we want to be a town for everyone, that we want to protect the planet for future generations.

Together, we can put action behind our words.That’s why I ask for your vote.

Rachel Schaevitz is a postdoctoral fellow at UNC running for Chapel Hill Town Council. Learn more about her at www.rachelforchapelhill.com.

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