The Chapel Hill Town Council raised significant concerns Wednesday night about traffic, density, and the environmental impact of two housing developments proposed for the eastern side of town.
Both the 264-unit Huse Street project, at the southwestern corner of Old Durham and Pope roads, and the Barbee Chapel project near Meadowmont, with up to 355 apartments, are still in the concept planning stage.
A concept plan, which precedes an official application, lets the councilgive developers early feedback. The council does not vote on concept plans.
Both Huse Street and Barbee Chapel are in the portion of Chapel Hill that lies within the Durham County limits and occupy critical spots on the U.S. 15-501 and N.C. 54 transportation corridors.
Both projects would replace wooded lots and older, single-family homes with high-density, multifamily housing, and both would need the council to approve rezoning the land.
But only Huse Street developer Ernest Brown, of EB Capital, got a positive council reaction Wednesday, and only to some details of his project, including the mix of housing types and community amenities.
A representative of Toll Brothers Apartment Living, one of two developers behind the Barbee Chapel apartments project, was told to take a fresh look at his site.
“There are ways to be creative on this flat piece of land in a really good transit location, so I think you have some opportunity here that you haven’t capitalized on,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said.
Huse Street residential project
Developer: EB Capital Partners
Location: 9.7 acres at the corner of Old Durham (Old Chapel Hill) and Pope roads. While the land is slated for future low-density development, it is across Old Durham Road from a high-density development area.
Current use: Mostly wooded, with 13 single-family houses, and zoned for residential uses.
Proposed use: 150 apartments in two, four-story buildings with parking underneath; 104 three- and four-story, stacked townhouses; and 10 one-story, potentially age-restricted cottages.
Project representative Dan Jewell, with Coulter Jewell Thames, said the three-story townhouses could provide owners with rental income from a second, main-floor unit or a granny flat for aging relatives.
Amenities: Green space; outdoor plazas and a courtyard with tables, chairs and string lights; playground; pool; pop-up retail space or ghost kitchen where chefs could prepare food for delivery and takeout with the expense of a dining room or staff; and a possible East Coast Electric Speed Shop electric bike repair center with e-bikes for residents on site
Affordable housing: Could be part of an official application or council negotiation
Parking: 430 spaces, including 204 under the buildings
Public input: At least 500 people have signed a petition urging the council to slow down the Huse Street project and three others planned for the immediate area, including a 90-unit apartment building that EB Capital is seeking at 5500 Old Chapel Hill Road.
Several residents spoke Wednesday, worried about traffic, stormwater and the project’s density. The project would be a stark change for the wooded, residential area, although higher-density apartments have sprung up on the Durham side of Interstate 40.
JoAnna Pomerantz, who lives on nearby Clark Lake Road, said large, multifamily developments are destroying Chapel Hill’s small-town feel and vibrancy.
“We are not a city. We are a town,” Pomerantz said. “Outside of our downtown area, we should be building neighborhoods that preserve green space. We should not be rezoning areas to make our outskirts look like our downtown area.”
What the council said: Most council members supported the variety of housing types, the idea of a pop-up commercial space, and the project’s density.
However, there was criticism for how the plan segregated each type of housing and surrounded buildings with parking, as well as a push for the developers of all four proposed projects to collaborate and create a sense of community across a wider area.
“I think there is general acknowledgment there’s going to be housing and a mix of other uses built on these sites, so the debate is not ‘do nothing.’ The debate is what should we do,” Council member Adam Searing said.
“I think following necessarily from that, this project shows just why overall planning is desperately needed in this area,” he added.
It “could be a really exciting collaboration” between the developers, Council member Jessica Anderson said. She and other council members also supported higher-density housing on the site.
“I think we have to think about the trade-offs — that change is hard, but not changing is going to be even harder,” Anderson said. “We don’t want to be an unaffordable bedroom community. We don’t want the outcomes that we found out about through our (2021) housing study, and we have better targets for what we’re trying to do, so I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to say no to housing.”
Other concerns focused on traffic and stormwater. Neighbor Keith Shaw described for the council how a pond on the project site overflowed during a May 27 storm, sending “a surging river” into his yard for almost an hour.
The developer is proposing an underground stormwater system to handle runoff.
Barbee Chapel Apartments
Developer: Toll Brothers Apartment Living, Rockwood Development Group
Location: 10.5 acres, zoned for residential use, located between the Valero gas station and the Hillmont development project also proposed for Barbee Chapel Road. The site is in the Chapel Hill town limits but inside Durham County’s borders.
Current use: Mostly wooded, with 10 single-family homes and residential zoning.
Proposed use: 325 to 355 apartments in four, three- and four-story buildings
Affordable housing: 10%, or up to 36 apartments. Half could be priced at 65% of the area median income and half at 80%, serving individuals earning up to $53,520 a year or couples earning up to $61,120.
Parking: Roughly 500 surface parking spaces are possible
Amenities: Central green space, community center, pool, clubhouse, play area and dog park
Public input: Only former council member Ed Harrison commented, reminding the council that it doesn’t have to approve a rezoning.
The town could triple or quadruple its population in Durham County if the Huse Street, Barbee Chapel, Hillmont and other projects proposed for the Old Durham Road area are approved, he said, and the traffic added to the N.C. 54 corridor could overload “a system that is getting close to breaking.”
“There isn’t a whole lot of room for error here as you proceed with these projects, and I hope there’s coordination between this and Hillmont, because there sure needs to be,” Harrison said.
What the council said: Council members described the plan as “buildings in a sea of parking” and told the developer to try for a better project that blends into its surroundings and coordinates with the pending Hillmont development to the east.
“We really need to think about how these two fit together,” Council member Michael Parker said. “Looking at the two, they’re very different butting up against each other. It needs real planning, not just coordination.”
Council members also questioned the amount of impervious surfaces that could be created, including driveways and rooftops. About half the site is now covered by impervious surfaces, according to project documents. That could grow to 75% with this project, because the site is flat with no wetlands and perfect for development, said Michael Skena, with Toll Brothers.
That’s not a compelling argument for exceeding the town’s standards, which are meant to protect water quality, Council member Amy Ryan said. The site drains into surrounding wetlands and eventually into Jordan Lake, which is one of the Triangle’s primary water supplies.
Other council members pushed for more affordable housing. The town’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires 15% of all for-sale housing to be priced at a below-market rate, but state law prohibits the council from requiring affordable rentals, even if it’s expected.
“I’m really frustrated when concept plans come before council and they’re not hitting that 15% for affordable housing, because I’m sure our staff is having that conversation with our applicants,” Council member Paris Foushee-Miller said.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis right now, and so we need y’all’s help to help us get to where we need,” she added.
This story was originally published June 16, 2022 8:23 AM.
CORRECTION: The story was updated to clarify statements from former Town Council member Ed Harrison about how the town’s size could increase in Durham County if all projects proposed for the Old Durham Road area are approved.
Corrected Jun 16, 2022
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