In an email to Town Council, the chair of Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commission (HDC) has requested that the HDC be able to review a project near a historic district.


Because, according to the email, “several HDC commissioners have expressed a keen interested [sic] in learning more about the proposal given its immediate proximity to the Franklin- Rosemary Historic District.” Not only do they want to review it, and want the applicant to take the time to present to a board it is not required to, they want Council to wait for feedback from their courtesy review before Council’s votes on it.

The project the HDC is interested is a 12-story building proposed for 157 E. Rosemary. The building would include 56 condos, a quarter of which would be affordable. The building would replace an existing three-story building best known as the former home of Bub’s and Hell – bars responsible for historically significant amounts of fun and perhaps alcoholism, but not for its architecture. (The building is currently home to The Gathering Place, a popular board game and RPG destination. We imagine that TGP would be eligible for the downtown relocation grants that the town provides.)

Council should obviously deny the HDC’s request. Its charge is to “guide physical change within the historic districts of Chapel Hill in such a way as to promote, enhance, and preserve the character of the districts.”

If the HDC can delay a project outside of its purview, what’s next? The planning commission reviewing the town’s Human Resources policies? The Cultural Arts Commission reviewing stormwater plans?

If Council is on the fence regarding the request, it should think back just a few months to the many voices from the historic districts that criticized the Housing Choices proposal as 1) a grave threat to their neighborhood character and 2) incapable of producing affordable housing. Now those neighbors have exactly what they claim to want: a project with dedicated affordable units that doesn’t affect historic homes. Council should give them what they want.

As for the HDC, they are welcome, just like the rest of us, to provide feedback on the project. They are not, however, entitled to capriciously expand their scope and invent an unnecessary step for a developer.

Chapel Hill has a terrible reputation for the unpredictability of its development review process, which has real consequences for the cost of development and the types of developers we attract (it’s popular here to criticize out-of-town developers for wanting to build here, when really we should be asking why local developers who build in Durham and Raleigh don’t even try to build here). The current Council has taken positive steps to make development review more predictable. Let’s hope that continues with their response to the HDC.


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Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...