To Duplex Or Not To Duplex, Is That The Question?

When they adopted the Land-Use Management Ordinance in 2002, the Chapel Hill Town Council created a new way to protect residential areas, it's called the Neighborhood Conservation District. The first community to develop an NCD is Northside, where I live. If you are unfamiliar with it, Northside is a historically black and working-class neighborhood downtown (north of Rosemary Street, south of Bolin Creek, east of Carrboro, and west of Columbia Street). Low prices and convenient location have made the neighborhood increasingly attractive to student renters and their investor-landlords who can afford to pay more than many families and contribute less to the community in my opinion.

I have lots more I'd like to say about this, but what I want you to know right now is that the Town is holding a public forum to discuss the recommendation of the citizen committee that is working with the Planning Board to develop this Neighborhood Conservation District for Northside. Here's the scoop:


A commitee of Northside residents and other interested individuals appointed by the Chapel Hill Town Council have established recommendations for a Neighborhood Conservation District that would guide future development in the Northside neighborhood. The committee's recommendation includes changes to the Town's current development regulations such as

  • No new duplexes in the neighborhood
  • Establishing a maximum house size
  • Lowering maximum building heights
  • Changing neighborhood notification procedures

To learn more about the Commitee's work and to share your views, please come to this Community Forum.

Where: Hargraves Gym Meeting Room, 216 N. Roberson Street
When: Wednesday, November 19, 2003. 7:00-8:00pm

For more information, contact Commitee Chair Delores Bailey or Vice Chair Esphur Foster at 967-8779. You may also contact the Town of Chapel Hill PLanning Department at 968-2728, come by Town Hall at 306 N. Columbia Street, or visit the Town's website at

By the way, I'm on this committee but I don't agree with all of its recommendations.



Yeah, I know...I'm really sad about GO. I don't know what to do about it. But while there were never be a mass-movement of students to go see some of the really good bands that no one has ever heard of, I would venture a guess that there are students at all those shows too...

Come on Cam, where's your knowledge of U.S.

history? George Washington did start the

Cat's Cradle. The first song played there was

a minuet, and Martha and George really kicked

up their heels.

You all have no sense of humor.

George Washington started the Cradle? I thought it was like Scott and Gene and whatshername and then Dave Robert....

Oh, Christ. Well, OK, if you want to take it back far enough to find some cause-and-effect, why stop with the aggregate economic impact of Carolina students, which can't be argued with? Why not take it back to, say, George Washington? Without him, no Cat's Cradle.

I was specifically referring to the fact that your fellow students might think about coming out and supporting local bands and artists in greater numbers, but you had to go and get all economic on my ass. OK, sure -- you all show up like locusts for the noodly, wank-fest jam bands that greatly boost the Cat's Cradle's bottom line -- which Frank Heath has thankfully, and tirelessly, been using to support local charities _and_ local bands. So yes, through the power of your dollars, you're helping local bands, if indirectly. But I guarantee you it would mean as much, if not more, if some of our great local performers could see your face out there in the dark every once in awhile.

Save Go!

Oh, and just as an aside to Duncan, let's be honest, without the University, would we have a Cat's Cradle? We'll never know--this is purely hypothetical. But I tend to think that without Carolina, Chapel Hill wouldn't be an enlightened metroplis where the median family income is 166 percent above that of the US median income and where more than 25% of the residents have a professional or graduate degree. Pittsboro and Hillsborough, to say nothing of Siler City or Roxboro up in Person County, aren't quite the draw that Chapel Hill is when it comes to quality bands.

No, Carolina students don't sell out every show, and no Carolina students are often not the ones on stage performing. But tell me something, where did those "former students and their lovers" get their start and why do they come back?

And to your further response, it's not just high rents or predatory realtors that drive out artists or anyone else, for that matter. Taxes in this town can be a bit stiffling. Parking no less of a headache. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think that as much as anything drive people away from Chapel Hill.

Mark, Ruby:

That's the clarification that I wanted. Not all students are bad neighbors, and it is unfair to characterize us as such. Yeah, I'll agree--many of us could do even more for the community, but let me tell you, the hundred-thousand community service hours committed by just fourteen of Carolina's most active student organizations is nothing to sniff at either.

As students, we don't want the natural town environment to change, but we have to have places to live. And there are many of us who hate the soaring cost of rent as much as any resident. But according to the last census, half of the residents in Chapel Hill fall between 15-29 in age. Many of those people, not all of whom are undergrads, need duplexes or other types of high occupancy housing in order to be able to afford the rent. So lets not pretend that the only people who need this type of living situation are wealthy students looking for a good time.

What really scares me are the times when you go one step beyond a duplex band--when you start to limit the number of non-family members living under one roof. Doing that, you make life more difficult with everyone with limited means. And even beyond that, I just don't think the Town should be in the practice of creating legislation that it will find nearly impossible to enforce.

This is our town together, and we have to share it as such. I'm convinced that we can do it, that there can be a partnership between the people who have lived in Chapel Hill for a lifetime and those of us who will only be here for four, five, or (God-forbid) six years. But this is a University Town, and the University is growing. And for that matter, so is Chapel Hill--we grew 2.1% over the last decade. We're going to have to build, we're going to have to develop. I am all for neighborhood conservation, but we have to be responsible about this.

The duplex issue is not unique to Northside. About

a year ago, at the western end of Coolidge Street

and Pine Bluff Trail (a one block long road that

is immediately south of Coolidge; both are at the

southern edge of the westwood neighborhood),

East-West Partners applied for building permits

to construct seven duplexes of 6,040 square feet

each. The floor plans showed that each duplex

side had four bedrooms, each bedroom with its

own bathroom, indicating that this was

housing for students, not the classical family.

These duplexes would have attracted 56 students

with 56 SUVs in an area that is not equipped to

handle this much parking. Looking at the

plans and understanding the topography, the

only way to accomdate the cars would have been

to convert the end of coolidge street into

a lot similar to fraternity court across the

street from the Ackland Art Museum.

Nor is it affordable housing. The rent would have

been 600 per bedroom

per month. Do the math: the annual rent

per duplex would have been 57,600.

Due to these applications and others in other areas

of town, including Northside, town planning director

Roger Waldorf asked the town council to impose a

moratorium on duplexes until the council could figure

out how to deal with this issue, and the council


While I very much sympathize with the problems of

Northside and hate to see an affordable neighborhood

become a profit-driven rather than a people-driven

residential area, the solution to this problem cannot

be a vehicle (pun intended) that is unique to

Northside. It must be applicable to all the neighborhoods of town that are under such


I think a neighborhood conservation district will be a very good thing for Northside. If you're interested, please come to the public hearing tomorrow night. As a member of the committee (a Planning Board representative, not a resident), I've been pleased to see how the process has prompted a conversation about exactly what the residents want to preserve and why. It's exciting to be part of Chapel Hill's first attempt at this. Delores Bailey has done a fine job chairing the committee.

The more I have thought about it, though, the more it seems clear that limitations on house size and type, while useful and important, are not all of the answer to the problem of restoring and maintaing a stable, family-oriented neighborhood. Part of the solution has to come through the hard work of the people who live there, and that includes the students.

In Ann Arbor, in a neighborhood that even the students who lived there called a "student ghetto," the students were unhappy with problems of crime and trash and lack of community. Luckily, they were in a political science class together at the U. of Michigan, and they made a class project out of their worries. They called it the Student Neighborhood Action Project.

They took these steps: (1) identified the student residents; (2) generated a sense of respect through communication among students and permanent residents in the neighborhood; (3) worked to bridge the gap between the neighborhood and both the university and the city by opening lines of communication and soliciting the support of both; finally (4) through their efforts they made tangible improvements in the crime rate, the trash problem, and education of students regarding their rights as citizens and tenants. They succeeded beyond their best hopes in creating a new sense of community.

How did this work? The poli sci students thought of it in terms of social capital: “connections among individuals--social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Social networks have value, like other kinds of capital; “social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.”

A community with transient residents, as students by definition are, tends to be a place where it's easy to remain anonymous and uninvolved--low social capital. (In contrast, in a dormitory there is a high level of social organization.) But when people are engaged in collective community work that seems worthwhile, a broken social fabric can be woven back together. This is what the Ann Arbor students discovered.

You can read more about SNAP at

which can be found at the web portal "College Town Issues":

What I take from this story is that the characteristics of where you live are important in framing the experience of living there. This is true whether you or a student or not. No matter who you are, boardinghouse-style, absentee-landlord duplexes promote isolation, anonymity, and apathy. They make it pretty challenging to spend much of your finite amount of energy on the neighborhood. Limiting the size and style of housing is one step in the right direction for the Northside community. But it's only part of the story. The rest of the work, for students and permanent residents alike, will be harder.

Mark's interpretation of my comment is exactly right. In no way did I intend to say that students don't contribute to our community! They have, they do, and they will continue to. (Your participation here is an example of that, Matt.) However, I think it can be fairly stated that *most* student don't contribute much to their off-campus neighborhoods. Nor do many of their landlords.

This is a really important discussion to have since student renters are both a vital part of our downtown neighborhoods, and also a spark (among others) that has spurred the neighborhood and then the Town into action on protecting Northside.

I am concerned that banning duplexes only addresses a symptom rather than the cause of our problems, and also will limit housing options where we need them badly.

I was being a little flip with my last comment, but only a little. The high rents and predatory acquisitions by real estate investors has driven more than a few artists and musicians of my acquaintance out of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and off into the country or Durham, where they can still afford to live while scraping by trying to pursue the making of art -- writing, music, visual arts, etc. This is not a minor problem, in my mind.

I must have missed it when enrolled UNC students (as opposed to former students and their lovers, whose contributions are legend) made themselves an essential element of the local music scene. Hooray! For so long the relative lack of support of the local music scene among UNC students was such a running scandal, I must not have noticed when that changed. Now maybe I can go to a Ghost of Rock /Cardiff Giant / Lud triple-bill without bringing my portable defibrilator.

i think ruby overstated her position a little. i am sure that she did not mean that no UNC students contribute to the community (she and i were both a part of the Campus Y as undergrads, for example). the point is more that many students in Northside are bad neighbors (not all students, of course). but more importantly, many of the investors are really destroying this neighborhood by focusing solely on creating more bedrooms and more cashflow. seldom is there any thought about aesthetics or long term appreciation of the property. its sad. i'm sure the Northside NCD is not perfect, but i think it is a step in the right direction to have some kind of NCD rules in place and i am looking forward to it being adopted.

-mark chilton


Just out of curiousity, why do you think students contribute less to the community than others? Students don't live in neighborhoods for years and years---true. But don't students do hundreds of hours of community service in and around Chapel Hill? Students drive up rents and the cost of living---true. But don't students honestly add millions of dollars when it comes to commerce for Chapel Hill?

As students, we volunteer for community organizations, we tutor in area schools, we organize fundraisers and hold roadside cleanups. God knows we add to the cultural environment. What would Chapel Hill's vaunted music scene be without students? What about the arts? I grew up in Orange County. I know what this place is like when students are not here.

Honestly, I don't know how you can say that students don't contribute to this town, and indeed, in the individual neighborhoods where we live. So I'm curious, how are you measuring contribution?


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