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The controversial Greenbridge project is built. What's next for the Northside neighborhood?

Greenbridge: A new chapter in a tense history 

When Tim Toben walks by the two towers he's erected at Rosemary and Graham streets in Chapel Hill, he sees the future: a 10-story prototype for development that is eco-friendly and could spur downtown business.

When David Mason Jr. drives up the street where he grew up, he sees the past.

"What I see for the most part are the memories that I had of Mason Grocery, the Starlight Club and things of that nature," Mason says. He has since moved across town, but his parents still live in the neighborhood. "In terms of Greenbridge itself, needless to say, it doesn't fit in with the neighborhood."

On the block where Greenbridge now stretches skyward, Mason's late uncle, Charlie, ran a grocery store, a supper club where James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald performed and a hotel that housed African-Americans, who, in the 1960s, were not welcome at the Carolina Inn.

The Greenbridge plaza is named in Charlie Mason's honor.

"It was a thriving, very cool, black enclave, and so we wanted to recognize the courage that it took for Charlie Mason to create something new and different, basically to bring life back to that corner," Toben says. "We think Greenbridge is doing something similar. We think it's bringing life back to something that was once very lively and now will be lively for black people, white people, brown people and all people."

The first residents of Greenbridge will move in this month. The project's six partners, neighbors and activists differ greatly on exactly what the controversial condominium complex symbolizes.

To some, it's a blueprint for environmentally friendly development, made with recycled material and featuring solar thermal water heaters and green roofs. In addition to its 97 residences, the project includes restaurants and other shops, the Southern Environmental Law Center office and a two-story parking deck. It's part of a nationwide trend of people returning to cities' walkable urban core, reversing decades of flight to the suburbs and exurbs. In fact, Greenbridge developers have been asked to develop similar projects in other college towns.

"We have to move away from fossil fuels," says Toben, chairman of the N.C. Energy Policy Council. "We have to live closer to our work, our services and our schools. We have to be able to walk and bike to those places, and Greenbridge is an example of what that future can look like."

To others, its proximity to the historically working-class, African-American Northside neighborhood, its height and its $60 million price tag signal the peak of gentrification. Many community activists say Greenbridge exacerbates the long-standing conflict between older, established neighborhoods and the wealthy opportunists exploiting their history.

"It frustrates me that people are like, 'Oh great, the building can sustain itself,'" says C.J. Suitt, a member of United with the Northside Community Now (UNC Now) and the executive director of Sacrificial Poets, a Chapel Hill-based group of teenage spoken-word artists. "What about the community around it?"

One of the few things the opposing sides can agree upon is that Greenbridge is built. How neighborhood residents, new and old, navigate their relationship hinges on how Northside's past is honored, embraced and carried forward.

Toben was staunchly opposed to development when he met Bill McDonough, a nationally renowned green architect, in 2004. Toben was on the board of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment when McDonough, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., came to speak. The two men toured Toben's farm, a 350-acre "eco-institute" 15 minutes west of Chapel Hill dubbed Pickard Mountain, which has a solar farm, organic garden and a biofuel facility.

"I told him my story. He kind of smiled in this fatherly way and said, 'If you're so opposed to sprawl and that sort of development, then you should become a developer and show people what you think is the right kind of development," Toben recalls.

Months later, McDonough invited Toben to Iceland for a fishing trip. The boat was filled with entrepreneurs foreseeing the demise of fossil fuels, who were eager to invest in green energy and green buildings.

After a week, Toben was convinced. The plan, he later learned, matched goals of Chapel Hill town leaders who envisioned a renewed and vibrant downtown, one that built up, not out, and created "more eyes and ears on the street."

Now Toben needed a place to put the building that McDonough promised to design. He found it with help from Esther Tate, who owned five lots along Rosemary Street bounded by Graham and Merritt Mill roads. It was home to Abundant Life Seeds of Sheeba, a cultural center "used as a home for derelicts," Tate says.

Tate, who lives not in Northside but off Piney Mountain Road in northern Chapel Hill, sold the 1.25 acres to Toben for $1.75 million.

"We didn't have the money that Greenbridge is putting into that building," says Tate, a supporter of the project. "If I had that kind of money, I would of done it myself."

Toben calls the area "a forgotten block." The walls and ceilings of the buildings were overrun with rodents and caked in asbestos.

"There used to be quite a bit of drug activity on that block," Chapel Hill Police Chief Brian Curran says. "A lot of it was pretty dark, and there were these hidey holes you had to walk through a lot at night to kind of flush things out."

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt recalls the property as "diminishing the quality of life for people who live around it" and says "it had been a redevelopment opportunity for some time."

Activists don't dispute that. However, they don't think Greenbridge was the right redevelopment, prefering something on a smaller scale.

Although Tate's land sale is the best known in Northside, it is just part of the turnover that has shifted the neighborhood's demographics and historic culture.

Once home to Chapel Hill's working class—the cooks, maids and masons who laid the stone walls that Charles Kuralt famously eulogized in his University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill bicentennial speech—Northside is now occupied by college students often with little vested in the neighborhood and fewer longtime residents.

Homeowners died and left their property to their children, who, with more career opportunities than their parents or grandparents, moved out of the neighborhood. They sold the homes or converted them to rentals.

"It really feels like this is sort of like Oz, where the house spins and all of a sudden you're not in Kansas anymore," says Michelle Cotton Laws, president of the Chapel-Hill Carrboro NAACP, which has criticized Greenbridge.

"That's what it feels like to a lot of people: 'I was sitting in my house minding my own businesses, and the next thing I know this tornado called gentrification swept through, and we ended up here.'"

Laws fears Northside will become an all-white, mostly transient neighborhood that lacks "true community."

The change also has been felt in small, but telling ways.

Belinda Caldwell, who raised her family on Church Street, where she's lived for more than 40 years, buys only a handful of candy at Halloween. There aren't enough kids to justify buying big bags, she says.

"I see more college students going up and down the street," says Caldwell, who retired recently after 30 years working as a UNC phone operator. "We used to buy candies galore, but we don't have that many to come."

By her count, student rentals outnumber permanent residents 2 to 1 on Caldwell's block.

"I think it started to happen when I looked out and I saw all of my neighborhood that had been bought out or when I started see most of the neighborhood be people dying and children being put in the position of, 'What do I do, do I rent it out, do I sell it, or what do I do?' And some of them were put in positions where they had to sell it and they had no other option. Instead of trying to find someone in the black community that was buying them, they ended up going another route."

Kleinschmidt says students have been altering the dynamic in Northside since he was in school 20 years ago. He calls Northside "the most at-risk neighborhood in town."

"It's become harder and harder for them [students] to do things like not turn front yards into parking lots, learn how to handle their own trash, learn how to live peacefully with neighbors, learn how to take care of their own property," he says. "Those issues come up every single year."

Like Toben, investors are eager to snap up property in Northside. It's just a few minutes' walk from UNC, and property owners can rent the houses for far more than the cost of the mortgage.

"This is the right side of a large duplex on Chapel Hill's Northside, a great hot-spot for student rentals in town," an advertisement on Chapelhillrent.com reads. "You can walk to campus in about 10–15 minutes, bike even quicker!"

Rental companies are building houses upon houses, splicing others into duplexes, such as a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom unit on Caldwell Street, named after a cousin of Belinda's husband, that rents for $1,800 a month—far more than working-class and middle-class families can afford.

Speculators are eyeing Caldwell's house. Every few months she receives unsolicited cash offers for her home, some from as far away as California. She refuses to sell.

"By us not coming together as one, we started to lose our land and basically our identity," Caldwell says.

EmPOWERment was founded in 1996 to advocate for African-American neighborhoods as they struggled to retain their communities while improving housing and economic development.

"When I came to EmPOWERment in 2002, it was more like 85 percent owner-occupied, maybe like 15 percent rental," says Delores Bailey, the group's executive director. "Now that's flipped."

EmPOWERment, which is next to Greenbridge on Graham Street, is trying to curb that trend, buying property and redeveloping it for homeowners. But investors often outbid them.

In 2004, the organization worked with the town to create Chapel Hill's first Neighborhood Conservation District, which sets minimum distances between homes, bans duplexes and prohibits "McMansioning"—building new 3,000-square-foot houses next to 700-square-foot homes. The town is considering strengthening the rules, now that developers have learned to circumvent them.

"We're not fighting the students, what we're fighting for is preservation of our neighborhood," Bailey says. "We're trying to keep that feel, and this is the only way we know how."

The extent of the change dawned on residents in 2008, when a 160-foot crane was placed at the Greenbridge construction site. Businesses like Delaine's House of Beauty, two doors down from the construction, were hurt as Graham and Merritt Mill became one-way streets in opposite directions.

"My business has dropped tremendously because there's nowhere to park," says Delaine Burnette Ingram, who's run the salon for 23 years.

Still, she calls Greenbridge "a beautiful building" and hopes the residents become her customers.

Greenbridge developers emphasize they are balancing community and development. They cite listening sessions they held, where community feedback prompted them to change their original proposal—from one nine-story building to two attached towers, 10 stories on the east and seven on the west. Under the new configuration, Greenbridge doesn't block the sun from reaching nearby homes and yards, nor does it loom higher than the steeple at St. Paul AME Church.

Some also felt that the original design created a literal and symbolic wall between Northside and the rest of Chapel Hill.

"The front of the building became the Northside," Toben says of the redesign. "We've created this sort of vortex, this triangular entry to the Northside neighborhood that is physically inviting to the Northside as opposed to repelling."

UNC Now, the most visible opposition to Greenbridge, disagrees. The group formed out of UNC Professor Della Pollock's classes on oral history and local desegregation.

The class partnered with St. Joseph CME Church, where the Rev. Troy Harrison welcomed them openly, despite a longtime mistrust of university researchers who collected neighbors' histories but did little else. Pollock says the class came to learn about the changing neighborhood but felt compelled to act after Harrison challenged them to do so.

Students responded by creating UNC Now, which includes community members, and focuses on politics, development, economics and history.

The group held several meetings on campus, rallying opposition to how Greenbridge was presenting itself. UNC Now pushed for a development moratorium, job training for local youth and support for businesses impacted by the construction.

Talks were derailed, though, after vandals sprayed graffiti on Greenbridge, called in a bomb threat and plastered a flyer around town falsely claiming the project was being halted. UNC Now firmly denies any involvement. No one has been arrested.

"The UNC Now group was a plus to the situation. When they got labeled the troublemakers, that was not justified," says Bailey, who served on the group's steering committee. "UNC Now absolutely had some problems with Greenbridge, but they were moving in a positive direction."

Two of Pollock's former students, Rob Stephens and Hudson Vaughan, now work at the church's Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, named after the church historian who calls them "godsons."

"Starting out, I didn't want the building to happen, and that obviously has not happened," Stephens says. "But for Mrs. Jackson, we've already won. Even a year ago we had already won. We had wakened people up. We had made people aware. It hadn't, like so many injustices, gone under the table and been forgotten. And it won't be forgotten. That building has become a part of institutional memory. That building isn't just going to wipe out, erase all the history, all the struggle."

  • The controversial Greenbridge project is built. What's next for the Northside neighborhood?

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