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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."

Driving through Northside, where Dave Mason Jr. grew up, he clutches a piece of paper listing 36 key markers: Bynum Weaver's Grocery Store, Henry Baldwin's Wood Yard and Bill's BBQ. Most were black-owned businesses, now long closed.

His daughter, Danita Mason-Hogans, steers, looking out the window and trying to understand her past.

"You know, Daddy, to see your list of businesses I've never even heard of, I can understand how someone your age might really think that Chapel Hill is not making a place for black folks to be a part of the future," she says.

Mason recites from memory the names of his former neighbors.

"None of us had anything, and a lot of us had less," he says. "That's the way everyone viewed themselves."

He points to the house where he played cards growing up, the house where the school principal lived and the rock wall he used to climb.

"The biggest difference is when I was coming up, we had neighbors. Right now you simply have people that live next door to each other," Mason says.

"I'm almost certain that the people who stay next to my parents have yet to come over and identify who they are. This was just completely unheard of. This was just one big family," he continues.

When Mason was a child, his grandmother and two uncles lived down the street, and the neighborhood formed an extended family.

"If you were out doing something that you weren't supposed to do, I could whip you and take you home and tell your mom, and your mom is going to punish you for getting the whooping. You're going to get two," says Northside resident Velma Perry, 89, who has lived all her life in the house her grandfather built on Lindsay Street.

"That's the way we all were raised. Everybody raised everybody's child."

Perry saw her neighborhood begin to shift after World War II, when soldiers enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill.

"They weren't about to come here to be a janitor," she says, mirroring today's concern of a Chapel Hill without ample non-university jobs. "They wanted to do what they went to college to do. They made homes away. They went all over the country."

Not Perry. She still had to pay for her home. She spent 40 years as a housekeeper at the Carolina Inn, earning $6 a week when she started in 1939. Perry is among only a few residents to grow up and grow old in the neighborhood, making her Northside's matriarch, even though she doesn't have children.

And although she thinks Greenbridge is too tall, she's distanced herself from the debate.

Greenbridge developers recognized Perry's importance and sought her support. They featured her in a documentary that Toben says was intended to honor the neighborhood's past and integrate it into the project. UNC Now says the documentary was condescending to the neighborhood and its residents.

Stephens, now associate director of youth initiatives for the Jackson Center at St. Joseph CME, says he was "just horrified" when he first viewed the documentary on DVD.

The film, which cost $30,000 to produce, juxtaposes oral histories from neighborhood elders with the plans for Greenbridge and implies that the building will help continue a tradition of sustainability.

Vaughan, the Jackson Center's associate director for documentary initiatives, had a similar reaction. "This concept of bringing back what the black community had here and that Greenbridge was the way it was moving into the next century was rather, I just thought, incredibly demeaning to the community that is here," he says.

Toben maintains that the video was respectful and that it was never used as a marketing tool, but only to remind residents of the neighborhood's historical significance. He says the film will continue to show in a 30-person theater in the Greenbridge lobby.

"We are actually really proud that we have this archive, this history of their voices to share," he says.

Critics also take issue with the project's $1.4 million, 2,600-square-foot penthouse suites that overlook the modest homes in Northside. Most units start at $300,000 and range from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet.

To address the affordability issue, Greenbridge developers originally proposed energy audits for the neighborhood to meet the town's inclusionary zoning requirements. They would update and weatherize homes in order to lower energy bills in the relatively few owner-occupied homes.

The town didn't go for it.

"We would have had this gated community, and in exchange we would have had a dozen or so houses that would have been upfitted that might last for five or six years," Kleinschmidt says.

Instead, the town council required developers to dedicate 15 units at Greenbridge as affordable and donate them to the Community Home Trust, which sells the condos to Orange County residents who make 80 percent of the area median income. These one- and two-bedroom units sell for between $82,000 and $115,000, a third of the market rate, which Toben says represents a $3 million donation.

Frank Phoenix, one of six Greenbridge partners, says the town's decision misled some Northside residents to believe the developers never intended to invest in the community. (Phoenix is moving into Greenbridge.)

Greenbridge developers originally wanted to purchase land in Northside and build affordable homes there, but town leaders also nixed the idea in favor of including them within the Greenbridge building. However, Northside residents were cool to the idea of moving there.

"We set up expectations in the community that we were going to go in and do certain things, and when the town said no, we didn't do a good job of communicating [what happened]," Phoenix says.

Some Northside residents are worried that the economic value of Greenbridge will increase their property taxes and possibly drive the remaining homeowners out.

Toben says he would advocate for keeping taxes flat for Northside homeowners, although he doesn't have the power to do so.

He maintains that the partners won't earn a profit on Greenbridge. Phoenix says that's yet to be determined.

They built Greenbridge, their first and only development so far, to be a model for other projects, he says. Those developments will be built to make money.

Kane Smego is a spoken-word artist with the Sacrificial Poets, who performs an anti-Greenbridge piece. Smego teaches poetry at the Jackson Center. He challenges Toben's motives. "Gentrification isn't just the moving in or the changing of the demographic, but it's the changing of the demographic without understanding, without connection, without being a neighbor," Smego goes on. "Places are going to change, demographics are going to change, that's the way of the world, but it's how it happens that matters."

Greenbridge has served as an "awakening" to Northside residents, says the Rev. Troy Harrison of St. Joseph CME Church. "The good that has come out of this through the controversy and the struggle is that people are more aware and willing to be in early conversation about any development that needs approval from the town," he says.

Residents won't have to wait long.

C.J. Suitt, of the Sacrificial Poets, calls it "the Greenbridge effect," pointing to the project as a sign of what's to come.

Cities and towns are trying to reduce sprawl with dense, urban development located on bus and light-rail lines. Mayor Kleinschmidt has that vision for Chapel Hill: a mix of residential and commercial spaces that creates a "365-day downtown experience."

"The conversations that inspired the Greenbridge developers to do what they proposed came after many years of public conversations about what our interests were," Kleinschmidt says.

Greenbridge is the tallest building in Chapel Hill, but it will soon share the skyline. Another downtown high-rise is in the works, and it will use the new zoning regulations allowed for Greenbridge. The Town of Chapel Hill is partnering with Ram Development to build 140 West, an eight-story condominium complex scheduled to begin construction this summer.

Tim Ross is downsizing from his Carrboro home and moving into his one-bedroom apartment at Greenbridge later this month. Ross, who works in information technology at UNC, has lived locally for 20 years. He hopes he can contribute positively to his new neighbors.

"Those of us who are moving in, we didn't build the building. I would hope that people give us a chance as residents," Ross says. "I think it will surprise people that it is more of a range of people with different backgrounds than the sort of stereotype many have assumed."

Greenbridge and the established neighborhood must navigate new territory—emotional and historical.

"There's been a pretty clear idea that there doesn't need to be a focus on Greenbridge," says Vaughn of St. Joseph CME Church and UNC Now. "It's finding alternative ways to really create a vision for community that ultimately needs to integrate Greenbridge, as well as everyone else."

Now, instead of opposing the building, UNC Now stands for Northside. It helps with the Heavenly Groceries Food Ministry, which operates out of St. Joseph. It provides fresh produce to anyone in need, five times a week, serving about 600 families a month.

At the Jackson Center, Stephens and Vaughan teach local high school students photography, documentary production and writing. Gladys Pendergraph, a member of the St. Joseph Church steward board, says the center has empowered youth.

"Without a past you don't have a future," she says. "We have a lot of our kids and even a lot of our people talking about their history. Who can tell it better than you?"

The work culminated the first weekend in May, when St. Joseph held an event called "Facing Our Neighbors."

The more than 100 community members from many generations in attendance shuffled through the house adjacent to the church, greeted in each room by portraits of important neighborhood residents and oral histories. The group also dedicated the Jackson Center library to Yonni Chapman, a local freedom fighter who donated his personal book collection to the center.

"What we're trying to do today is not get consumed about Greenbridge," Stephens said at the time. "This isn't about what's going on behind us or what's going on in the back with other rental properties that are squeezing out neighbors. This is about this right here. It's among us right now."

Harrison, the St. Joseph minister, is ready to re-engage, and he plans to hold a welcoming event when residents are settled.

"We're always striving and seeking to embrace all of the community, and that will be no different with persons from Greenbridge," he says. "Our goal is to make some sort of contact and develop a conversation with the residents and the owners to let them know that we are here, available, and we're good neighbors, we're actually really good neighbors."

Correction (Wednesday, June 16, 2010): Gladys Pendergraph's last name was misspelled in the print version of this article.

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

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