Greenbridge: A new chapter in a tense history | News Feature | Indy Week
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Greenbridge: A new chapter in a tense history 

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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.

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