Meadowmont

An office building Chapel Hill can’t refuse

There’s much more to protecting the environment than making sure trees don’t get chopped down or subsidizing electric car chargers. We need to make sure we not only green our energy sources, but also live in a way that requires less energy.

That’s where the controversial proposal for a new office building in Meadowmont Village comes in. Bella Vista is an office, residential and retail building proposed to be built atop a current parking lot near other existing offices and condos. Measuring about 150,000 square feet, the project is proposed to be primarily office space with ground-floor retail and condos, and will incorporate structured parking below.

Meadowmont is still a relatively new neighborhood, having begun construction in 1999. Long-time residents of Chapel Hill will recall the controversy surrounding its development, and the Town faced multiple lawsuits over its decision to permit it. Some residents of the Oaks sued the Town over the plan to extend Pinehurst Road into Meadowmont. Most people have made peace with it, and the hundreds of residents living in the community are Chapel Hill residents like any other.

But, change is disruptive. Why suffer through short-term construction pain when the long-term benefits to the Town and generally don’t bring you any specific advantage? So it’s not surprising that, like those who objected to the existence of Meadowmont, some Meadowmont residents object to the Bella Visa project. The reasons are what you would expect — it’s too large, it’ll create too much traffic, it impinges on natural areas. One letter writer noted they “are not anti-development crazies,” but it’s simply not the right project in the right location. That is something you often hear with development or transit projects. It’s a great idea, just don’t build it near me.

In truth, there are few better locations for this office building than Meadowmont, especially from an environmental and climate-change perspective. It’s being built on top of an existing surface parking lot, so there’s little impact to existing natural buffers or stormwater. There’s a Chapel Hill Transit bus stop right outside the development, and several regional GoTriangle routes stop nearby. The office uses are well-suited for the high number of office workers who live in Meadowmont today; there’s a good chance that a few existing Meadowmont residents will end up working there, and it will be a reason for new people to move here in the future. Unlike most new office developments off in the hinterlands of RTP or in Wake County, this will mean that an appreciable number of the employees will have the opportunity to walk, bike, or take transit to get there. It’ll provide more employment options for all Chapel Hill residents, giving some the chance to shorten their commutes. In an office building, it’s hard to be more climate conscious than that.

Chapel Hill and Orange County are also in desperate need of additional nonresidential development to diversify the tax base and support businesses who want to open up shop or expand in Chapel Hill. There’s very little office space available for lease. The Town is considering spending $28 million to build a new parking deck downtown to support 200,000 square feet of new office space; here, a developer will build more than half that amount with no public subsidy. The Town has tried for years to encourage new office development in the Blue Hill district, with no success, but a developer is eager to build in Meadowmont. The presence of hundreds of additional people during weekdays will also help Meadowmont’s small retail hub, which has had high turnover and has leased prime ground-level retail space to office uses due to a lack of demand. More retail sales means more tax revenue for Orange County.

It’s a neighborhood that can easily accommodate the building. There’s plenty of roadway capacity, utility service, and multiple ultra-high-speed internet providers. I travel through the area just about every day on a bike, bus, or in my car, and there are no problems that this building is going to exacerbate. Nearby parking lots are never full.

It’s hard to imagine any other location that makes as much sense — where a developer can build office space on top of existing impervious surface, next to an existing office building, without Town subsidy, in a neighborhood designed for a mix of different uses, and with minimal impact on neighbors like me. The Chapel Hill Town Council will be meeting to review the concept plan for the project on March 4.