Imagine your town council proposes a 20+ acre new park and also much needed missing middle housing for municipal workers in your community. Oh yeah, and also some shops like the ones they have next to that amazing downtown park in Blowing Rock, NC.
And, get this, the new park will be within easy walking distance of three grocery stores, several restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, an elementary school, and will merge with an existing 10-acre park (Ephesus Park) with tennis courts to create a true community park.
That’s what five town council members asked town staff to start investigating last May for the 36-acre property that formerly housed the Chapel Hill branch of the American Legion.
The petition by Mayor Pro Tem Stegman and council members Berry, Huynh, Miller-Foushee, and Parker calls for the Town to investigate the sale of part of the site to meet key town priorities such as missing middle housing or retail/office space, and to use the revenue from that sale and the properties’ ongoing tax property payments towards constructing a large actual American Legion Park that meets the community’s needs. This is consistent with the Town’s intention when it purchased the land in 2017.
Everyone wants the big new park, including all members of Town Council.
You may have seen messages imploring you to “save the park space at the American Legion property.” As usual, a ton of misinformation about this project is circulating around NextDoor and neighborhood listservs in Chapel Hill.
There’s now a website, a ‘working group’, yard signs, and talking points circulated by a leader in CHALT that repeat the tired old chestnut that there’s a need to “save” the Legion site. Emails have poured into the council inbox, imploring them to save the park.
However, today, there is no park. Just vacant land with an abandoned building on it. And no funding to create the park that everyone wants.
Make no mistake: the ongoing fight around the American Legion land in Chapel Hill is not about park space. We’re getting park space. A lot of park space.
This fight is about housing.
What five members of Town Council have proposed:
What town council has proposed is that we move forward with a park — a really large one! — and carve off some space for much-needed affordable housing in Chapel Hill as well as some light retail which will then help pay to maintain the parks. Approximately 13.5 acres of the 36 acre site have been identified for non-park use, according to the draft document prepared by Town Staff. (Note: This could change, but it’s the latest document that has been published on this topic so it’s the most current information every single person in town has about this project.)
The draft diagram by Town Staff, who were asked to prepare a draft for potential land uses, leaves us with approximately 22.5 acres for park space. This aligns with what the Council voted for when they purchased the land, as we’ve detailed in previous posts. And it generates at least some of the funding needed to create an actual park.
What does a 20+ acre park look like?
It’s often hard to envision what acres of land look like, so here are a few examples of parks and how big they are so you can see what’s envisioned for the American Legion property.
^ This is Community Center Park on South Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. It’s 13 acres, and contains a community center, playground, rose garden, bocce ball court, outdoor basketball court, and trailheads for the Battle Branch and Bolin Creek trails.
^ This is Hargraves Community Park in Chapel Hill. It’s 7 acres, and contains a community center, the Northside Gym, the AD Clark outdoor pool and bathhouse, baseball/softball field, 3 tennis courts, a playground, a picnic facility, and an outdoor basketball court.
^ This is Umstead Park in Chapel Hill. It’s 20 acres, and contains a playground, picnic facility, outdoor basketball court, and seven sand volleyball courts.
^ Here’s the Coker Arboretum at UNC. It’s roughly 5 acres in size.
^ If you’ve ever been to UNC, McCorkle Place and Polk Place – the two central quads on the UNC campus – are roughly 13 acres together.
Let’s head out of Chapel Hill. If you’ve been to Blowing Rock, NC, you’ll know that they have an absolutely beautiful park downtown — with a playground, sports fields, public bathrooms, and a gazebo to sit in. It looks like this:
^ That’s just under 5 acres of land.
^ Old Chapel Hill Park in Durham, which has athletic fields, a basketball court, a greenway, a playground, restrooms, swings, and a water fountain is 23.7 acres.
A 22-acre park in Detroit looks like this:
And that’s about the size of the park that will be built around the American Legion property in Chapel Hill… if the council’s plan is adopted.
Why are people fighting this?
It’s about housing. It’s always about housing. They’d rather have the land sit empty for years — without amenities like bathrooms and walking paths and playgrounds and courts and places where people can gather — if it prevents much-needed affordable housing from being built.
We know this because some of the people leading this effort are the same people who have worked to block housing in Chapel Hill for years.
The newly-formed Legion Park Working Group’s listed contact for those who want to speak at an coming Town Council meeting is a coordinator for CHALT. The petitions submitted to block this project were created by CHALT. (There have been three recent petitions from CHALT members.)
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
It is good to get a park. We all want a park — a really big, nice park with amenities and playgrounds and walking paths. It is also good to be able to pay for that park and maintain all of the other parks in Chapel Hill, many of which have been waiting years to be upgraded and maintained.
Keeping some portion of the property for housing also makes a lot of sense.
Chapel Hill has many needs, among them more housing of all types, particularly affordable housing, more parks and green space, and diversifying and growing our tax base. As the Council knew when it purchased the land, the American Legion property offers us the opportunity to meet many of these needs. Devoting all of the land to a single use is simply short sighted and even selfish. There is a simple formulation that Chapel Hillians can use as we try to wrestle with how best to use the American Legion property: Everyone gets something, and no one gets everything.