Chapel Hill must do more to stop the ‘uglification’ of the town

“I have to wonder whether town officials tried hard enough to bring forth an imaginative project and prevent the clear-cutting,” writes Ted Vaden.
“I have to wonder whether town officials tried hard enough to bring forth an imaginative project and prevent the clear-cutting,” writes Ted Vaden.

Chapel Hill has inflicted some serious uglification upon itself in recent years – think of the massive Carraway Village on Eubanks Road at I-40, the eruption of high-rise apartments near Eastgate, the canyoning in downtown, once admired for its Williamsburg design.

But it’s hard to imagine a more hideous hematoma than the recent clearcutting at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Estes Drive, where bulldozers recently ripped out 15 acres of 50-year-old pine forest.

“It just looks dreadful,” says Mayor Pam Hemminger, who says the tree removal brought Town Council members the largest deluge of complaints in recent years. “It really is ugly.”

What surprises me is that there exists no plan for what happens next at this intersection that is, arguably, Chapel Hill’s second most important (after Franklin and Columbia streets).

The Estes forest was removed solely for the purpose of harvesting timber. It could remain as unsightly scrub brush for the foreseeable future.

When asked about the deforestation, town officials throw up their hands, saying they could do nothing to prevent it. The land had long been designated by the state as tree forest – taxed at a low agricultural rate. The landowner had the right to harvest when the trees matured.

But the story is more complicated than that.

There have been multiple proposals for the property, all rejected or discouraged by the Town Council. Two plans involved a hotel and apartments, and the most recent, last year, called for a mix of commercial and housing.

The council arguably had good reasons for not allowing those projects. The 2017 proposal had too little green space, too much parking, and not much imaginative design, Hemminger said. “It wasn’t something that interested us.”

A spokesman for the owner said the town ignored offers to craft a workable project.

“They were not working with us, and so we had no reason to work with them,” Tom Colhoun, an Apex real estate broker who represents owner Kathryn Butler, told me. “We didn’t do it to spite them. We didn’t have a choice. If we didn’t cut the trees, we would have lost our tax advantage.”

I think the truth is somewhere between the two versions. The landowner did have the right to harvest the trees, and the town does not have to approve an unsightly development. But I have to wonder whether town officials tried hard enough to bring forth an imaginative project and prevent the clear-cutting.

The town did have the option of buying the property and using it for better purposes. Hemminger said the council considered it for a new police station, but the price was high, and it was more land than needed. After earlier development proposals fell flat, the council in 2014 created a small area plan for Estes Drive that called for urban mixed-use development. But that plan did not include specific development guidelines.

Meanwhile, the area is changing anyway. Just east of the Butler property, a six-acre site has been cleared for a 152-apartment senior living center, approved by the council last year. On the west side of MLK Boulevard, landowner P.H. Craig has begun harvesting 34 acres of trees near the Bolin Creek Greenway, located within town limits of both Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Talks with the two towns to preserve the forest failed.

Now that the Estes tract has been denuded, what should happen to it?

Under the state forestry permit, the landowner is obligated to replant pines within a year. The town has the right to hold up any development for as long as three years. That’s too long to keep it in its current ugly state.

The Town Council should begin working with potential developers and the community to craft a project worthy of the premier location. The intersection is a gateway to Chapel Hill, with a commanding vista of UNC and a downtown cityscape punctuated with church spires. It offers the advantage of ready access to public transportation, greenway trails and schools. It could be an extension of downtown that is a destination in its own right.

As one planner suggested to me, imagine at the corner of Estes and MLK a building like Top of the Hill, with dining, shops and pedestrians. Housing should be in the mix; the trick would be to keep it affordable and not for students.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro in the past have successfully used the concept of a “charrette” — planners’ jargon for a community brainstorming session to bring together citizens, property owners, developers and elected leaders. Carrboro’s redeveloped ArtsCenter/Cat’s Cradle complex and the 140 West Franklin retail-residential center emerged out of such visioning efforts. With some imaginative leadership, we can do better.

Ted Vaden is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com.

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