BY: ZAINA ALSOUS, op-ed columnist
When we think about development downtown, we tend to leave some out of the conversation.
Developers in Chapel Hill recognize we students as a profitable market, and with the unanimous vote of the Chapel Hill Town Council to approve of Shortbread Lofts — a 7-story apartment complex to be located on West Rosemary Street — future Carolina students will have more options for short-term residence.
However, the Chapel Hill community is not, and has never been, limited to students. There are residents who have called Chapel Hill home for years, and who will continue to call Chapel Hill home long after students move out. Residents living in the Northside Neighborhood, located directly adjacent to the newly approved complex, are integral to the very fabric and history of Chapel Hill; yet they are consistently left out of the conversation around development in downtown. Convenience for future student tenants and profitability for investors should not be privileged above other significant long-term ramifications for Chapel Hill residents.
Problems with development in the parameters of downtown Chapel Hill do not stop at Greenbridge, a huge residential development recently constructed at the end of West Franklin Street. Greenbridge developers overlooked longtime community resident concerns, and Shortbread developers have followed suit by failing to make a serious effort to sit down with Northside residents and hear their thoughts, and incorporate their voices in the development process.
Shortbread could possibly decrease the demand on student housing rentals within the Northside, which would be a boon to its non-student residents. However, with a significant cost difference and varying preferences of students choosing between home and apartment rentals, there is no guarantee of that.
Alternatively, with increased construction of luxury rentals comes the possibility of higher property taxes — which have already increased by over 300 percent in the last decade — and could make the gentrification problem even worse. Because Shortbread Lofts will offer spaces for rental and not for sale, it is not accountable to the Town Council Inclusionary Zoning Regulations for Residential Development, which mandates that 10 to 15 percent of units in a new development are set at prices that are affordable to low- to moderate-income households. While the developers did offer a $25,000 gift to EmPOWERment Inc. for affordable housing expansion, when compared to the profit to be made by the luxury rentals, set at the market rate of more than $700 per bedroom, one is forced to ask the question: who really gets to benefit from new housing developments in Chapel Hill?
‘Low-income housing’ remains a buzzword during local campaigns, and the need is real. According to The Orange County Affordable Housing Analysis published in 2010, Orange County possesses a rental gap of over 4,000 units for those making 50 percent of the median household income and over 6,000 units for those making 30 percent of the median household income.
The narrative of successful development in Chapel Hill needs to include our ability to fill these gaps in our community. Chapel Hill can show courageous leadership on the issue, but working to create spaces that are accessible to a diverse population will involve more aggressive backing on the part of our elected officials, and greater imagination on the part of Chapel Hill developers. Density alone does not translate into a vibrant community — what also matters is who can afford to take part in our local businesses, as owners and consumers.
It is also imperative that as development in Downtown increases there is a deliberate plan to reach out to Northside community members and pursue growth that is compatible with their concerns, their ideas, and their dreams for the town they have long called home.
In their Rezoning Application, Shortbread Lofts cites as a goal to “preserve, protect and enhance the Northside Neighborhood.” There is an opportunity for them to speak truth to this statement and really listen to what people in the neighborhood have to say. The students who will rent a space in Shortbread years from now will be offered the incredible privilege of living in Downtown Chapel Hill, but there is a breadth of lived experience that fills the space now, and it deserves our sincerest respect and consideration.