David Schwartz and I are driving through Little Ridgefield, Schwartz's wooded, quaint neighborhood on the northern edge of Chapel Hill, directly across the street from Ephesus-Fordham, a 190-acre swath of low-slung, somewhat dingy shopping centers bound for a town-pushed makeover in the next decade.
Campaign signs, most of them for candidates supported by the organization Schwartz co-founded last year, the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, sprout like gaudy, poster-board mushrooms. Sure, a poll released last month by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling showed the incumbent mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and three incumbent council members—Donna Bell, Jim Ward and Lee Storrow—winning, along with CHALT-backed local blogger Nancy Oates. But it's the signage that really matters, he says. "Anyone can put their signs in the right-of-way. These are in yards. We're not in the minority." (Besides, as CHALT supporters have noted on social media, PPP director Tom Jensen appears to support Kleinschmidt over the CHALT-endorsed Pam Hemminger.)
Schwartz, a Duke and UNC researcher and lecturer, is almost a Chapel Hill native. His family settled in the rolling college town in the 1960s when he was less than a year old. He was raised in the local school system. When he returned from Michigan, where he was earning postgraduate degrees, in 2003, Chapel Hill's population had quadrupled.
Over the next several years, Chapel Hill leaders approved several significant high-rise projects, including Greenbridge, 140 West and East 54. The latest, Village Plaza, is a 90-foot-tall mixed-use complex with 266 apartments and more than 15,000 square feet of retail space. When it is finished, it will serve as a testing ground for redevelopment in the rest of Ephesus-Fordham.
Schwartz is none too pleased with what he's seeing. To him and his fellow CHALT members, this project is further proof that Kleinschmidt and the Town Council are irrevocably mucking up this town, turning what was once a charming college vista into a gentrified, bourgeois mess.
"They think they can use development as an ATM," he grouses.
Schwartz has a penetrating stare, a quick wit and an abiding but frustrated love for his hometown. His coiled-whip performances in this year's candidate forums have many in CHALT, Chapel Hill's third-ever political action committee, thinking he's primed to lead a revolt.
In Schwartz's view, the town has become too willing to accommodate developers, accepting unwieldy projects like Village Plaza that will undermine the town's unique character. In the process, he argues, Chapel Hill is losing local businesses and drowning townies like him in a wave of well-heeled college students and UNC alumni seeking urban-style, off-campus housing.
The election for mayor and four seats on the Town Council is three weeks away, and for many residents, Nov. 3 can't come soon enough. This campaign has been unusually venomous by Chapel Hill standards, with malicious attacks, Internet trolling and a bitter wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, all in a town that, historically, tends to agree with itself more than it doesn't.
As an example, this summer, an anti-incumbent troller created a fake Facebook profile for Kleinschmidt's former assistant, Mark McCurry, casting him as an out-of-touch buffoon who played on social media during business hours, apparently an attempt to heap scorn on anyone associated with the mayor. (McCurry wasn't Kleinschmidt's assistant at the time.) And of late, Schwartz has taken to blaming the entire Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment on Kleinschmidt's bitterness over the closing of an area Volvo dealership where he bought his car. The accusation, Kleinschmidt says, is "ridiculous."
"I think that the truly negative energy that's being used is really disappointing," says Kleinschmidt, a civil rights attorney and former Town Council member who won the mayoralty in 2009. "Lots of trolling on Facebook and web pages, attacks coming into my office from CHALT supporters. It's just unworthy of some of the people who are expressing the views."
Incumbents' supporters have been just as bristling.
Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, taunts that the "C" in CHALT is silent. "It's pronounced halt," he says. "The group that is the core of CHALT has a long history of opposing all kinds of development, all growth."
The bickering has grown so vituperative that even some CHALT-supported candidates—mayoral candidate Pam Hemminger and council candidate Jessica Anderson—have distanced themselves from the PAC.
"I'm not for polarization," says Hemminger, a former Orange County commissioner and school board member. "I'm for healing."
Schwartz blames all of this acrimony on Kleinschmidt and the three other incumbents running for re-election, Bell, Storrow and Ward. He describes the council as an ineffectual, self-centered board, hell-bent on transforming Chapel Hill into an urban jungle no matter the public consternation.
And he thinks that, like him, the town's residents have had enough. "To me, it ain't even close," Schwartz says. "What I see is people eager for a change."