American Legion site

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year we were welcoming in a new Chapel Hill Town Council, one that we hoped would support affordable and abundant housing, invest in buses and greenways, and fix our broken planning systems.

With an optimist’s heart, we were hopeful that the town council would tackle some of these issues. But we also knew that this is Chapel Hill, a town that has never turned down an opportunity to conduct a study and wait for another round of community input before making a decision.

After last night’s council meeting, it’s clear that this council is not just willing to tackle some of the most critical issues. It’s willing to take on all of them, at once, and in a way that matters.

Earlier in the year, the consultant Jennifer Keesmaat, who, more than any one person, should be credited with helping the council find its mojo, presented the town with three “hard truths.” Listed in reverse, they were:

  • 3. Chapel Hill has a hard urban form to remediate.
  • 2. No one is happy with the housing planning process and outcomes.
  • 1. Chapel Hill is already an exclusive place.

At last night’s meeting, the council addressed all three, as if they were completing a punch-list on a construction project.

First, the town completed its first phase of Keesmaat’s Complete Community project, approving pilot projects and committing to a plan to remediate its urban form. We’re going to invest in expanding our existing greenway network so our entire community is connected via safe, accessible transportation alternatives, like e-bikes and mobility scooters.

At the same time, the town is positioning itself to win a federal grant that will pay for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system along MLK, Jr. Boulevard, which will include a greenway.

Second, the town heard an update on its plans to rewrite its land use codes (zoning) and change the housing planning process with hopes of getting better outcomes. Some of these conversations are tied up with trying to win the federal grant to build the BRT, but with the skilled hand of Principal Planner Deidra Whitenburg-McIntyre they are feeding directly into larger efforts to change our town’s zoning—for the first time in decades!

While the council has another year or two of tough decisions ahead of them, including a pressing one coming up in February, we are impressed we’ve made it this far. (As a bonus, the town is considering approving “missing middle” housing even sooner, which will make it easier for people to build housing in their neighborhood).

And, third, the town council showed that it is willing to stand up to those who would prefer to keep Chapel Hill an exclusive place. (Or, at the very least, people who prefer doing nothing over exploring every feasible option to build affordable housing).

For seven years, more than a fourth of council member Tai Huynh’s life, as he noted on Wednesday night, the town council has been debating what to do with a 36-acre piece of property it purchased to prevent the site from being developed as apartment buildings or a neighborhood of million-dollar single-family homes.

Before the pandemic, the town appointed a special committee that held meeting after meeting, exploring many options for the land before coming to the realization that they couldn’t build consensus on what to do with the site. Years passed, home prices rose, and the largely abandoned site continued to decay.

When council member Michael Parker and four of his colleagues submitted a petition in May asking the town manager to explore selling part of the property, the community backlash was fierce. Petitions were filed, angry emails poured into the council inbox, and once again CHALT and its bedfellows sprung into action.

Weaker town councils would have stood down, retreated back to the safe and (in)defensible position of doing nothing at all. But this council not only stood firm, it stuck together.

While the compromise reached by the council—use a quarter of the property for affordable housing, and keep the rest as a park—was probably not anyone’s preferred option, it was a compromise that eight of the nine council members could support.

While you only need to count to five to win a council vote, getting to eight shows strength and resolve. And while the Save Legion Park group and affiliate organizations were organized and tenacious in their support for keeping the property as open space, seeing the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition (of which I am a member) respond in kind by demanding housing, too, demonstrates the power of community engagement.

In many ways, last night’s council meeting revealed that our town can do, and is doing, better. We’re trying to fix our suburban form. We’re making it easier to build good places. And we’re not letting the voices of a privileged elite—homeowners in a community where the average home is worth more than $600,000—overshadow those who need better housing and transportation options.

We’ve had a great 2022. Let’s hope we get even more done in 2023.

Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson (@martinlj) lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his research interests include documentary, educational film, and...