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Nervous Neighbors 

In Chapel Hill, university expansion and commercial development could change the landscapes of historic communities

College towns walk a fine line, catering to transient students and long-term residents--two groups with disparate needs and interests. In Chapel Hill, where a bulging university is eyeing expansion and real estate developers are sniffing out space for new students, 2001 promises to pose tough dilemmas for town planners.

Chapel Hill's latest comprehensive plan, developed last year, stresses that "conservation and preservation of neighborhoods" will guide all development planning, especially in areas buffeted by proximity to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. "These neighborhoods are rich in history and tradition, are highly valued by residents, and are among the areas of town that are most susceptible to change," the plan notes.

The perilous standing of some of Chapel Hill's residential areas is emerging as the hottest topic of municipal debate in 2001. UNC-Chapel Hill administrators, town officials, neighborhood associations, business owners and would-be investors are taking sides, and everyone has their own answer to the key question: Where goes the neighborhood?

University creep"See the land behind me?" asks Estelle Mabry, a neighborhood activist who has lived on Pritchard Avenue near campus since 1975. She gestures at a duplex occupied by student renters. "That used to be a community garden back there."

When the university expands, Chapel Hill feels the growing pains. The town will soon be reminded of just how much it's impacted by campus changes. To begin with, there's the university's plan to increase its student population by 6,000 over the coming decade, which will put the total at about 30,000. Mabry, who has already watched the tide of students rise steadily on her street, wants to know: "Where are they going to put all those bodies?"

Beyond the surge in student numbers, there's the larger issue of the university's plan to get bigger. UNC-Chapel Hill's much-ballyhooed master expansion plan isn't even a plan yet--it's still just a set of proposals--but it has already stirred concerns among neighbors. Especially nervous are residents just south of campus, an area slated for heavy development in most of the proposals.

The touchiest suggestion so far is to build a major new connector through the Mason Farm Road neighborhood, uprooting several houses in the process. Peg Rees, president of the Mason Farm Road Neighborhood Association, worries that the town's special charms will be smothered by such moves. "Chapel Hill has lost its small Southern-town feel and I fear it will soon lose its 'Southern Part of Heaven' reputation," Rees says. "This is a real struggle between town and gown."

These "edge issues" arising from the university's wave of ambitious planning put neighborhood preservation at the top of town government's agenda, according to Chapel Hill planning director Roger Waldon. The town is keeping a close eye on the process, he says, and weighing in about construction, congestion and sprawl concerns.

"The best thing is to have good, cooperative working relationships and open lines of communication between the town and the university," Waldon says, and so far, "the university has been quite open in its planning activities." Town government may be the best line of defense for Rees and her neighbors, but, Waldon adds, that's got to be backed up by firsthand insight from those in the path of prospective development. "Residents have two places to give their input on the expansion," he says, the town and the university.

The university welcomes community feedback, says Jonathan Howes, a former Chapel Hill mayor and town council member who is now the chancellor's special assistant for local relations. Mayor Rosemary Waldorf sits on the expansion steering committee, and residents have aired their views at a number of public forums with town and university officials.

Howes points to a Jan. 8 work session with campus and community leaders as proof of how residents can influence the planning. At that meeting, Howes says, "the neighbors expressed an idea which actually was a new one to us": Why not just widen and enhance Mason Farm Road, sparing the need for a major new thoroughfare that would transform the landscape?

"We haven't had a chance to perfect the idea or to go beyond that," Howes says, but he pledges that the option will now receive the university's full consideration. Rees believes that this round of give-and-take between the campus and the community could set the tone for future development debates. "If the university expands into the existing neighborhood and takes the homes before the owners are ready to sell, it will set a precedent," she says. "There is also the question of what the university will propose when this master plan is finished."

Whither Northside?As the university heads south, municipal government will continue to struggle with the question of how best to accommodate the influx of students just north of campus.

A case in point: the historic Northside neighborhood. The same characteristics that make Northside, one of Chapel Hill's few strongholds of African-American home ownership, so unique can make it a challenge for town officials. "Northside is a diverse community, which makes planning for it a challenge," noted a 1999 study by the town's planning department. "With this diversity comes an equally diverse spectrum of visions for the future of the Northside neighborhood."

The neighborhood covers a 150-acre square, bordered to the south by Rosemary Street, which runs parallel to Franklin Street's main drag. Rosemary has seen a recent wave of development spreading from Northside's eastern border, North Columbia Street, toward its western edge, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro property line. To the north, the neighborhood ends at McMasters Street.

The planning department report, commissioned while drafting last year's comprehensive plan, contained frank admissions about why some Northside residents are wary of development. The neighborhood "was 'discovered' in the late 1960s by 'surveyors' who came through the neighborhood to plan for urban renewal," the report says. "During this process, residents were offered money to move and build elsewhere in the Chapel Hill region. Residents pulled together and fought to prevent the dissolution of their neighborhood. ... The struggle against urban renewal was the beginning of residents working together to protect the Northside neighborhood."

In 1990, the town added Northside to its "residential conservation areas" list. "Neighborhood protection issues in these areas are paramount," the town's comprehensive plan says. "When policy choices that affect these areas are before the Town Council (road issues, rezoning proposals, public investment decisions), the balance should tilt in favor of protection and preservation."

That balance is being tested by applications from local investors to put up additional townhouses and shops on West Rosemary Street. Some Northside residents fear such development will cater to students and further marginalize the community's long-term residents.

"Our main focus is to try to keep this neighborhood as much as possible as the [one] middle-class, single-family neighborhood that's left in this town," Estelle Mabry says. She's been active with the Northside Neighborhood Association since the mid-1980s, and sees student renters as the top threat to the neighborhood's special character. "We are not anti-student, but you hate to see the total fabric of the neighborhood disappear because it all becomes student housing."

Empowerment Inc., a Carrboro nonprofit that helps low-income residents purchase and upgrade their homes, has worked on 10 properties in Northside. Maxecine Mitchell, Empowerment's community organizer, is a former Northside resident who works closely with neighborhood leaders. "If we're not preparing for more minority families to be able to come in and purchase here," she warns, "eventually it will become an elite, upper-class, white neighborhood."

Her challenge, she says, is to convince skeptical residents that they can get in on the ground floor of town development debates. "How do I get the community to do pre-planning? To be able to go to town planners and say, this is what we envision our community looking like?"

Mitchell tries a helpful exercise in neighborhood meetings, telling residents: "Let's just dream, just imagine what your community could look like five years from now." Once people envision and share that, she says, they're ready to prepare concrete demands for the direction of community development.

It's a hard sell in Northside, where many residents feel left out of the town's prosperity; mistrust from decades of marginalization won't go away quickly, Mitchell says. "If you want to begin some healing, you must truly start putting the community into the process of planning for their community, so they can feel some ownership and say, yes, I really knew this was going to happen, I was prepared for this to happen."

This year, residents who care about such issues have some prime opportunities to shape town policy, says town planning director Roger Waldon. The town council will hold hearings on a new development ordinance. "The intention is to make the standards clear and update them to the town's current needs," Waldon says. At the hearings, Northside can remind the town of what those needs are.

Chapel Hill officials may be nostalgic for last year, when the biggest controversy in local government was whether to enact "curbside collection" of garbage. That plan is going forward next month, when the town will provide wheeled bins to cart refuse out from behind the house. Town sanitation director Harv Howard predicts that the sturdy plastic bins will last at least 25 years. Many Chapel Hill residents are wondering: Will their neighborhoods last as long? EndBlock

More by Jon Elliston


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