Ugly and Unacceptable: An Evening with the Chapel Hill Community Design Commission

If there were a soap opera about Chapel Hill, it would be called As the World Burns and the lead villain would be the Community Design Commission (CDC).

Soap opera villains tend to be rich and powerful and will take any steps to protect their oil wealth or media empire.

The CDC may not have an empire but it really, really wants stuff that gets built in town to be pretty. And don’t you dare try to build something they don’t like.

On August 23, the CDC had a marathon 5.5 hour meeting to discuss if some new housing developments are pretty enough to be built. (Side note to taxpayers: The CDC is a volunteer board but town staff support it and sit through their monthly meetings – in 2022 every meeting has been at least 3.5 hours long).

If you are unfamiliar with the CDC, they advise developers at the concept plan stage on how to make their projects more aesthetically pleasing (there is no parallel concept plan review required by the planning commission, housing advisory board, or the transportation and connectivity board, which gives an idea of Chapel Hill’s priorities for development).

The main plot in As the World Burns is that the earth is literally on fire due to climate change and the residents of our fair village are in a race against time to save the planet. They are exploring obvious interventions like building more densely in transit corridors to reduce auto-dependency and to enable people to live close to centers of economic opportunity instead of far-flung, sprawling suburbs.

Additionally, town residents and elected officials have pressed for the development of owner-occupied condos and townhomes. A benefit of such housing is that it more efficiently uses scare land than suburban-style development, which lowers housing costs and enables more families to afford to live in Chapel Hill.

Enter Lock7 Development to save the day with their proposed project, 710 N. Estes Townhomes. The project – on what is now vacant land – would create homeownership opportunities for 95 families within easy walking distance to the MLK transit corridor, Phillips Middle School, and the YMCA. The new multiuse path on Estes will create easy access to the library and grocers and restaurants.

Fourteen units in the project will be reserved for homebuyers making 80 percent or less of the area median income. That’s 14 homes that will be affordable to public school teachers, firefighters, or junior professors at UNC.

What’s not to like?

Oh, it’s not pretty. So says the CDC. And it has too much housing. They voted unanimously to recommend that Council reject the project.

According to the CDC, the proposed project lacks “character,” the colors “have no logic,” a retaining wall is “outrageous,” and the back decks on some units are not “appropriate” given the project’s adjacency to existing single family homes.

Per usual, the development of the site would remove too many trees and generate alarming amounts of stormwater runoff.

But, of course, the proposed buildings are also too tall for the CDC (despite the fact that building up rather than out is one of the best ways to preserve green space).

One CDC member, who is straight out of central casting but apparently forgot to wear his monocle and tophat for this meeting, said about one building on the site, “That is unacceptable. That’s not architecture, that’s a tenement building facade.”

I rewatched the video to make sure he wasn’t referring to something else as unacceptable, perhaps homelessness, or having to commute 30 miles twice a day to earn $31,200 cleaning up after UNC undergrads. Nope, he just didn’t like the look of one side of one building, emphasizing that it might have vinyl windows. Additionally, he noted, “It’s up on a hill! …We’re putting this really ugly project up on a hill!”

Hearing this, I thought wow, this asshole must have a really beautiful mansion.

Rewriting the Script

I will acknowledge that the developer’s proposal is, in my opinion, uninspired.

But does that matter? Not really. There’s a lot of insipid architecture in Chapel Hill.

And can you blame the developer? Developing in Chapel Hill is an expensive crapshoot. Lock7 submitted a concept plan for this project about a year ago and all along has been trying to appease the project’s anti-growth and anti-housing neighbors, the types that when asked if they support multi-family housing wonder if you mean a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard that’s big enough for their next family reunion.

Developers simply cannot win. Propose affordable units the town says it needs and wants and your contemptible vinyl windows earn you a public dressing down. Had Lock7 proposed to build Southfork Ranch here instead, we’d probably spend a couple years studying acceptable methane levels for the cattle grazing on the front lawn.

Like any good soap opera, the development process in Chapel Hill has a recurring set of characters and plot lines that appear over and over again. The rapacious developers and entitled NIMBys forever locked in conflict, occasionally interrupted by the hemming and hawing of advisory boards and elected officials.

On TV, the repetition is comforting, enabling viewers to pick up the plot despite missing dozens of episodes. In Chapel Hill, the repetition has real consequences. Homes not built here while we dither will be built elsewhere, farther from job centers and inaccessible by transit. Our affordability and environmental crises will only get worse.

Fortunately, all great soap operas include the occasional plot twist. A jarring revelation that changes everything.

I can think of nothing more shocking for our drama than to quickly and quietly approve a decent project that will benefit 95 families.