Breaking down the Residences at Grove Park (425 Hillsborough St.)

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 23rd, 2006

In recent years there has been no proposed development in Chapel Hill that I have more mixed feelings about than the Residences at Grove Park, which would replace the current Town House Apartments on Hillsborough Street with a number of relatively up-scale condos.

On one hand this kind of development fits in perfectly with the direction Chapel Hill's downtown needs to go in. We want more people living near the city's core. This certainly accomplishes that goal.

Beyond that, the Town House Apartments are not particularly nice. This would be a step forward in terms of aesthetics.

On the other hand, this poses a major problem in the sense that it will remove a large amount of student housing near campus. Already the local housing supply is having trouble keeping up with the university's expansion and causing students to choose places to live further and further away from Chapel Hill.

Over the last several years the Verge, which is in Durham County, has become one of the most popular student apartment complexes. This has a lot to do with shuttles being provided to get students to and from campus. More recently, larger numbers of students have started seeking out places to live in Chatham County and out toward Hillsborough due to a shortage of desirable places to rent in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area.

This is not an ideal situation. If all of these folks were riding the bus to campus every day it would be one thing, but most of them are driving and by extension causing air pollution and exacerbating the parking problems with which UNC and Chapel Hill are already plagued.

Some folks would say the solution to the problem is for UNC to provide more living space on campus, but that's really not realistic. I lived on campus the whole time I was a student and loved it, but by their junior and senior years most folks want to live where they can behave pretty much however they want. No amount of new housing that the university builds is going to change the mentality of 21-year-old college students.

This problem obviously is much bigger than what ends up happening to Town House Apartments. For instance, the Chapel Hill Town Council recently passed a duplex ban for the Pine Knolls neighborhood that complemented one earlier passed for Northside. Although I was one of just two Planning Board members to vote against the most recent ban, I can see where the neighborhood leaders who pushed it are coming from.

No doubt many students living off campus do behave terribly. At the same time the vast majority are perfectly good neighbors -- but that doesn't change the fact that the rotten eggs in the bunch have led to new measures being enacted that may have the further effect of eroding the affordable housing supply near campus.

At the end of the day this larger issue will not have much bearing on how I vote when this proposal comes to the Planning Board. But I do think it's time for some town and university leaders to get together and go through some meaningful long-term planning process of where students are going to live in the coming years. Continuing to take measures that decrease the supply of places where young people can live near campus will have negative unintended consequences down the road.

On another note considering the Residences at Grove Park, I thought Monday night's public hearing about it before the Town Council was a model example of Chapel Hill's approval system for development working right.

Many neighbors of the site had concerns about traffic and aesthetic impacts the proposed changes would have. They stated those valid concerns articulately and respectfully without any hint of rancor.

Likewise, Ram Development has shown good faith throughout the process so far. The company took plans for the site twice to the Community Design Commission for feedback already, and was also praised by neighbors for being responsive to their concerns.

Chapel Hill's development process is often criticized for being slow and unwieldy. But when developers, public officials and those citizens who are impacted work together in good faith as they are doing on this project, we end up with finished products that are much better than they would have been if not for all the work that went into them.

The proposal for the Residences for Grove Park, whether approved or not, is a good starting point for a community dialogue about where students are going to be affordably housed. Is it going to be near campus, promoting walkability? Or will it be miles away from campus, promoting the kind of car dependency that we claim we abhor in Chapel Hill? Time will tell.


On another note, tomorrow is OP's 3rd Birthday. Our community owes Ruby a great debt of gratitude for what this forum adds to the level of our political dialogue.

When OP came to life during the 2003 election cycle, I was becoming involved in Chapel Hill politics for the first time. I can't imagine ever becoming so active if not for the knowledge base this website has helped me build.

I've had the pleasure to meet folks ranging from Anita Badrock to Will Raymond to Fred Black that I may never have gotten together with if not for this website. And I think we're all the better for hearing those perspectives.

So on the eve of its third birthday, congratulations to OP and a big thanks to Ruby!

Well said on OP Tom. Congratulations Ruby on near 1,000 posts!

I second Tom on OP's utility as a link to further research on local issues. More and more as I "google" current issues, looking for additional background material, discussions on OP pop up. It's the "long tail" in action.

And Tom, thanks for placing me squarely between Anita and Fred.

The Verge is an interesting example. Though the shuttle, on-site amenities and floor plans seem pretty nice, the rents are pretty steep ($500+ per bedroom or more).

When I was a student, %90 of "desirable" was affordability.

I think the current size, layout and environmental footprint is too much. Traffic patterns, I believe, have been woefully mischaracterized.

The diminishment of even "not particularly nice" affordable housing stock (which, from a recent walk through the complex still seems to be used for students and families) is a real concern.

I get a sense from RAM's advertising on this that the units will be used more like downtown's The Warehouse (of which the # of $35-50K cars pulling up to the front of still boggles the mind) than the current mix. Even if we can't maintain the stock of affordable units, we should at least seek the best possible compromise.

And then there's the unique juxtaposition between the nexus of concerns over RAM's on-going negotiations with Council on downtown development and negotiations on this development. That juxtaposition warrants extra transparency in the process.

That said, I look forward to the next iteration in the process to see how RAM (and the Council) work through the issues.

Tom, thanks for sharing this thoughtful editorial. I agree with your assertion that many students are going to move off-campus even if campus has many more beds.

I have a question about your comment that more students are moving further away from campus. Really? I recall UNC classmates, way back in the early 90s, who lived in north Chatham, Saxapahaw, and out 54 in Orange County.

I'm also seeing plenty of lingering for-rent signs at houses around Carrboro as well as desperate appeals for tenants at various apartment complexes (free rent for 1-2 months!). The free bus system makes all these places that much more accessible.

So while I haven't been following the Grove Park issues closely, I wonder if there are other issues at play in where students choose to live.

Hey Joan-

According to the UNC Office of Institutional Research, in 2002 77.8% of Carolina students lived in Chapel Hill or Carrboro. In 2004 it was down to 64.5% So I do think the phenomenon is on the rise, even if it has deeper roots. I have no idea why there was such a fall just during that two year period.

I think there's still plenty of apartment space in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but a lot of it is becoming more expensive and further away from campus. I'm most worried about people without cars who want to have a cheap apartment and be able to walk everywhere...

I lived in Town House Apartments from 1972-1974. I certainly hoped they have been rehabbed since, as they were in pretty poor shape back then!

Hey I like being part of that distinguished company, Tom! And I agree, OP has allowed many of us to get to know people outside our usual circles, and it has definitely been a plus for me.

Tom, what is your opinion of the private residence hall options that seem to be proliferating at other campuses? I know we have one (University Commons?) here, but are they a desirable option for students at UNC?

We also can't forget that there are parents who are willing to support their kids living off campus in a safe place and they are willing to pay for it. They either pony up the rent money or buy the place. Contrary to the popular notion, we don't have a school completely filled with poor, hungry students!

As someone also said in Madison, "if you build it, they will come!"

And that about sums it up.

At least in the short term,uptake isn't the problem. Even though many of the other "hot" real-estate markets are starting to turn or already have turned, Chapel Hill could probably still accommodate additional growth in the high-end - thus Hillsborough 425.

It's interesting how the housing issue parallels the tuition issue.

Yes, not every student is poor - and with housing costs increasing, fewer and fewer can afford to be poor. We're squeezing potential UNC students out of the mix from both ends with escalating housing and tuition costs.

Of course, you can argue that both are UNC's problem ("a bed for every head", etc.).

Fewer and fewer can afford to be poor is exactly right, but where isn't that true? If we wish to intervene in how the market works, what tool is best? Building housing that students don't want has failed most places, but building what they do want is working. Are we not moving in that direction? The tuition increases are a function of the same forces.

When we were at the UW-Madison research park, the director joked that when he heard 100 people were coming to visit, he thought they were there to snatch back the "superstar" that they lured away from UNC-Chapel Hill. Kidding aside, how did they lure him, money, support and facilities. Maybe if Carolina North adds to the bottom line like their facility (payroll in excess of $260M and $3.5M in property taxes per year, job creation and , we can do better on tuition.

Property taxes? How does that work in Madison? How much of that payroll stays in local circulation? I bet a large chunk of UNC's support staff (hospital and otherwise) is going to Chatham, Alamance, etc.

well unc knows and had a map of where everyone lived at the very begining of the horace williams track i remember i bet u they should do it over as far as i can rember they lived about 50miles outside of chapel hill

Will, the way they structured the research park, they pay their local property taxes like other corporations. All of the URP assets and net income are for the benefit of UW-Madison to continue research that will create more high-tech start up companies down the road. Their lit says that of the $260M payroll, about 25% leaves the local area for federal taxes and other deductions and another roughly 20% leaves the area due to spending outside Dane County.

URP firms also spend over $200M on non-payroll goods and services and about 47% of that spending occurs within the local economy. At the brief, they estimated that the total economic contribution to the local community is $630M annually.

Wow, that's a chunk of change Fred. You've got the figures down cold (wish our BOT had the same grasp). One last question on the payroll - how much is governmental?

I think the redistributive power of paying Peter with Paul's bucks is not necessarily bad, just wanted to size the net proceeds (so to speak).


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