tl;dr – A CHALT petition circulating calls for park on the American Legion site. The petition is misleading: The plan has ALWAYS been to build a park on the American Legion site. Five members of Town Council announced plans to build a “world class park” on the site last week, in addition to some retail and missing middle (duplex, triplex) housing. The site is big enough to have both. The CHALT petition calls for a park, but has no plans to pay for it. The plan submitted by Town Council members clearly outlines how to pay for and maintain the park. Annual tax revenues resulting from development would be used to fund, at least in part, the ongoing upkeep of the park.

As Ernest Hemingway once observed about bankruptcy, the most contentious issues in Chapel Hill tend to develop “gradually, then suddenly.” For five years, the Town of Chapel Hill has owned the American Legion property, a 35-acre site that was purchased in part with bonds intended to be used for a Chapel Hill arts center and other park improvements. Like the Greene Tract and the Berkshire, the American Legion property has been the subject of heated political campaigns, charges and counter-charges of malfeasance, and even a few bad metaphors.

How we got here

The story of these 35 acres could fill several blog posts, but, briefly, here’s where we are. In 2005, fearing that their property could be taken via eminent domain in order to build a new school, the American Legion signed an agreement with the town giving them the right of first refusal for any potential sale of the property.

Like many other Legion chapters, Chapel Hill Post No. 6 was land-rich and cash-poor, making it especially vulnerable to governments and developers alike. Ten years later, in 2015, the American Legion began exploring the prospect of selling the property to a developer who wanted to build up to 600 homes, as well as several commercial sites, on the property.

In September 2015, the developer agreed to buy the property for up to $10 million, depending on whether the Town would approve its plans for the property. That December, after a contentious election in which Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and several council members were ousted, the town manager Roger Stancil wrote the Council to let them know that he had declined to match the developer’s lowest offer—$9 million. 

In 2016, the future of the American Legion site became a hot political issue, with newly elected Mayor Pam Hemminger and the Town Council agreeing to buy the property for $7.9 million using town reserves and money from a recently passed parks and recreation bond. 

When the town agreed to purchase the land in late 2016, elected officials noted that they could use some of the land for park space, while other parts could be set aside for commercial development and housing. The one council member who vetoed exploring other options besides park use was Nancy Oates.

The sale was completed in March 2017, at which time an American Legion Task Force was created to decide what do with the property, but they were unable to reach consensus on the best path forward. Since then, the property has been sitting empty—the site of old grudges and guerilla gardening. 

Recent developments

The earth began to move last week when five members of the Chapel Hill Town Council—a majority of the body—signed a petition calling for the Town Manager to develop an “implementable plan” for the property by this Fall. More specifically, the petition asks the manager to do the following:

  1. Work with an outside party through a sale, lease, or other remunerative arrangement to develop a reasonable portion of the front of the site, i.e., that portion closest to Legion Road, for missing middle/middle income housing or retail/office space. Annual tax revenues resulting from such development would be used to fund, at least in part, the ongoing upkeep of the park.
  2. Explore using a portion of the site, possibly that portion currently (or formerly) occupied by the dance studio for affordable housing, possibly for those with developmental or other disabilities.
  3. Use the funds from No. 1 above to invest in making the remainder of the land into a first-class park, including active and passive recreational opportunities, consistent with the 2013 Parks Master Plan.

After the plan has been received, the Town would begin its long public engagement process, with a vote scheduled for early next year. This petition is in keeping with a December 5, 2016 resolution, and a June 2016 Town document— “Guiding Principles for the Property”—which suggested that Council consider the following actions:

  • Describe how proposed plan and timing of development would integrate with Town’s vision for future development in northeast Chapel Hill. 
  • Conduct analysis of traffic impacts on Legion Road.
  • Describe how proposed multi-family project would contribute to mix of housing options in town. 
  • Provide mix of uses in proposed development, including office space.
  • Detail how project would help maintain quality of life, including how the project would provide green space, trails, and/or indoor recreation space.
  • Explore potential partnerships with other public or private entities to provide needed community amenities. 

Of course, if you follow Chapel Hill politics you might be aware of a competing narrative, one that intentionally mis-names the site, celebrates unauthorized uses of the site, and encourages financially irresponsible plans that, if enacted, would limit the fiscal capacity of the town to address other pressing issues.

Not surprisingly, CHALT members, who have pushed this alternative narrative for the last five years, issued a petition of their own last week, arguing that the entire property be turned into a park, and that we pay for current and future work using scarce town resources. (For clarity’s sake, there are three recent petitions from CHALT members. First, in March 2022 Virginia Gray, who in 2021 was a member of CHALT’s coordinating committee, submitted a petition to the Chapel Hill Town Council asking them to use funds from the American Rescue Place Act to develop the site. The petition was signed by many CHALT members. Second, on May 20, 2022, Julie McClintock, founder of CHALT, put a petition on the CHALT website calling for the entire property to be developed as a park. Virginia Gray was the first person to sign it. Finally, last week, Gray submitted a third petition to the town, calling for the Legion Property to be developed as a community park. This third petition was not signed by anyone else.)

The “keep it all a park” argument is somewhat new. In the past, CHALT members have called for commercial development—but not housing—on the property. 

We need a park—and housing

But keeping some portion of the property for housing makes a lot of sense. Currently, 72% of Chapel Hill’s 49,784 workers commute to town from outside Orange County. And Orange County’s job growth has outpaced the number of workers living here — we see the number of people driving in for work growing much faster than the number driving out for work, or driving to work from within the county.

Since 2019, Orange has added the fewest new homes in the region — only 4 percent of our county’s total housing stock has been built since 2010. The average median year a structure was built in Orange County was 1986. And home prices have increased over $100,000 dollars (median) between 2019 and 2021.

We have more people commuting here from far away, we have more people working here, and over half our residents rent.

All of this is to say: Yes, we need a park! And yes, we also need housing. Our Town Council’s plan makes a lot of sense — and keeps with the character of the space.

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Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...

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