We are publishing a six-part series looking back at Chapel Hill in 1968, and the lengthy and contentious battle to build duplexes and small apartments next to a church, and between a neighborhood of single-family homes and a shopping center.
Where we left off: In May 1968, the same month that the town of Chapel Hill passed an “open housing” law, which forbids racial discrimination, the council considered a proposal from a local non-profit to build 39 affordable apartments on five acres of land behind the Church of the Reconciliation. After outcry from nearby neighbors in Lake Forest and Coker Hills, the council decided to send the matter back to the Planning Board for more study.
While the Chapel Hill Planning Board set to hear the proposal to build In-Chu-Co’s housing project on June 4, James Shumaker, the editor of The Chapel Hill Weekly, was doubtful the project would go forward. On June 2, he penned an editorial titled “Lament For a Housing Project,” observing that opposition from nearby neighbors, the Board of Realtors, and a few town council members was likely to prevent the project from going forward.
Even though Schumaker admitted the validity of some of the neighbor’s complaints—the protection of property rights, the undesirability of high-density apartment buildings in single-family-only neighborhoods—he also reminded readers of the larger context. In recent years, scores of similar multifamily apartment buildings had been built in similar places in Chapel Hill, and only rarely did neighbors protest.
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More importantly, liberalism seemed to be on the upswing locally. Shumaker recalled the days after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when “community leaders solemnly promised there was going to be a new birth of the spirit of brotherhood in Chapel Hill.” In early May, two hundred participants in the Poor People’s March, which had been planned by King, were welcomed with open arms in Chapel Hill, whose residents housed and fed the marchers as they made their way to Washington. Shumaker wrote:
Shumaker’s editorial ends by acknowledging the desire by some in the community to prioritize “residential exclusiveness” and “the purity of zoning,” but suggested that some things were more important, including the Inter-Church Council’s housing project.
Two days later, the Planning Board considered the project. Of the nine member board, all but three recommended turning down the rezoning request. Once again, the matter was both seemingly technical, involving the ideal density of land formerly dedicated for agricultural use, and deeply moral. Planning Board member Fred Cleaveland, who was also the chair of the Political Science department at UNC, noted that while often redevelopment requests result in profits for developers, in this case “no one stood to make a nickel off increased density except those people in this town who don’t have nickels.” Meanwhile, Roland Giduz, a photographer and journalist who had served on the town council since 1957, used his weekly column (“Newsman’s Notepad”) to note that he was appalled by Shumaker’s editorial, as it recommended ignoring the town’s zoning law.
The next day, Thursday, June 6, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in a California hotel. But the leading headline in that Sunday’s paper focused on the Inter-Church Council’s housing project, which was to go back before the Town Council on Monday. While the story was largely the same as the one printed in late May, the News published a full-page of letters to the editor about the project. One letter writer, Michael P. Brooks, noted that in the two-hour planning board discussion of the project, no one noted the “social problems and objectives,” that In-Chu-Co sought to address. As Brooks observed, concerns with technicalities, like the town’s zoning ordinances, ignore the very people that zoning is intended to serve.
At the meeting, the same petition against the project was presented, along with a counter-petition from the Inter-Church Council that listed 256 names, including 150 residents of Coker Hills and Lake Forest. By a 3-2 vote, the Chapel Hill Town Council overturned the Planning Board’s recommendation, paving the way for an ordinance to rezone the land that the council would consider at its next meeting. Alderman Lt. Col. Gordon Kage, who headed the Air Force ROTC at UNC, cited legal principles in his opposition to the project, while Giduz simply said that “the cons had outweighed the pros.” However, because a protest petition was filed by twenty percent of the adjoining property owners, the council’s rezoning required a three-fourths majority vote for approval—five of the six Aldermen.
In that same issue, a number of nearby neighbors, including the architect Arthur Cogswell, the political scientist James W. Prothro (whose wife, Mary, was on the town council), and the biochemist Mary Ellen Jones Munson, all signed a letter in support of the project, noting the site is already near “developing filling-stations, a large shopping center, a major garage, and a radio station,” and just a half-block away from the “new Durham super-highway.” Another resident and self-professed fan of Ayn Rand, Dorothy Kayye, dissented, asking the following: