This column was originally published on Thomas Mills’ blog PoliticsNC, a blog and news site launched in 2013 to provide a reasoned voice in the political debate at a time when throwing rocks and calling names is far more popular
Today, I’m writing more of a local post, though it might be of interest to people interested in zoning and growth problems. It’s in response to threads I’ve been reading over on Nextdoor, the social media platform that could get as toxic as Twitter if it’s not careful.
Chapel Hill is exploring doing away with zoning laws that restrict areas to single-family dwellings. The goal is to increase more affordable housing by encouraging multifamily development like duplexes and townhomes. The town is trying to increase housing stock and options. Other cities are moving that way.
To hear a lot of the folks on Nextdoor tell it, the city council is trying to ruin Chapel Hill. Well, I’m here to tell you, Chapel Hill has already been ruined. In my lifetime, I’ve watched it get ruined about a dozen times or so and a lot of the people who are complaining about it getting ruined, are the same people who ruined it before.
I have a long history here. My mother moved here in 1950 and graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 1955. My grandmother lived here until about 1990. I grew up coming to Chapel Hill for long periods and I’ve lived in Chapel Hill or Carrboro most of the past 40 years.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t much past Walker’s Gulf at the intersection of Franklin Street and Estes Drive except Billy Arthur’s hobby and toy store and Brady’s Restaurant across the street. Beyond that, picturesque farmland and forests separated the few miles between Chapel Hill and Durham along a lazy country road. Anybody who lives in any of the neighborhoods off of Ephesus Church road or Old Chapel Hill Road ruined the town when they developed that area. So if you live there and are complaining about development, you need to sit down.
In fact, if you live in Chapel Hill and you drive to the Research Triangle Park or Durham or Raleigh for work, stop complaining. In 1960, Chapel Hill and Carrboro had a combined population of less than 15,000. Almost everyone was associated with the University or the merchants who supported it. Carrboro was the working-class neighbor that also supported a textile mill. Since then, the Chapel Hill bypass and 15-501 corridor ruined the town, dividing neighborhoods, increasing traffic, and facilitating people who treat the town like a bedroom community.
If you live in a neighborhood off Weaver Dairy Road, you helped ruin the town, too. That corridor was originally built to be the completion of the by-pass around Chapel Hill, relieving some of the congestion that chokes the current 15-501 bypass at certain times of the day. However, as cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods took shape, residents fought any high-speed road way that might have made getting around easier. And East Chapel Hill High School killed that notion all together, so if you have kids at that school, you ruined Chapel Hill.
I remember when Southern Village and then Meadowmont ruined Chapel Hill, too. They were going to increase traffic and population so much that Chapel Hill was going to have to stop referring to itself as a “village,” something it hadn’t been since about 1950 anyway. So it you live in those areas and are complaining about development and zoning, sit down. You’ve already ruined the town.
If you retired to Chapel Hill and bought houses walking distance to the University and downtown, you ruined the town. When I was kid, those neighborhoods were inhabited by middle-class professors or people working for the university. Their kids and families mingled with students and enjoyed walking in the Arboretum and hanging around the Planetarium. My grandmother bought her house on Senlac Road between Battle Lane and Boundary street for $20,000 in 1959, about $202,000 in today’s dollars. It would sell for more than $2 million now. Wealthy retirees and those with disposable income have priced anybody from the middle class out of those neighborhoods. They ruined the town.
Lack of development has done every bit as much damage as over development . We could have had New Hope Commons in Orange County, sucking in those sales tax dollars to keep our property taxes low, but the anti-development folks didn’t want big box stores in their county. So, Walmart, Michael’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and a host of other shops traveled just over the Durham County line and now Orange County subsidizes Durham County. Those businesses were so successful sucking tax dollars from the people who ruined Chapel on the east, that Walmart set up shop just across the Chatham County line to the south and got those Orange County tax dollars, too.
I’ve watched Chapel Hill and Carrboro get ruined about a dozen times in my life and in as many ways. I still believe it’s one of the great places to live in this state, if not the country. But it is under threat. What makes this area special has little to do with nice houses and leafy neighborhoods. We’ll always have plenty of those. What makes this place special is the University, which isn’t going anywhere, and the creative people it attracts, who might go elsewhere.
We’re a place where writers, artists, and musicians can hone their skills and ply their trades. We’re a place where inventors develop cutting edge technology. We were instrumental in creating movements like the farm-to-table enterprises spurred by a dynamic farmers market. Chefs from here are regularly recognized with James Beard and other awards. Our restaurants are written up in New York Times. Cat’s Cradle is one of the most influential music venues in the Southeast, if not the country. It’s reputation lives alongside historic places like CBGB. And the combined population of Chapel Hill and Carrboro is only about 80,000 people. You can’t find amenities like we’ve got in a town our size anywhere in the nation.
Since the Research Triangle Park broke ground about 60 years ago and set off an economic boom in this region, Orange County has grown considerably more slowly and more deliberately than its neighbors. They have worked hard to preserve what makes the area special, protecting large tracts of land for open space and maintaining its rural character. They’ve made some mistakes along the way and they have some real challenges ahead, but they haven’t stumbled into the sprawl and strip malls that define so much of the growth to our east.
The goal of Chapel Hill and Carrboro should be to keep the people who make this place special. We need more affordable housing to do so. Chapel Hill and Carrboro need to embrace density. If we ruin the Chapel Hill and Carrboro that you love, but still keep the creative and intellectual folks that might not have made it big financially, then we’ve only ruined it for you, not the rest of us.