Published: Feb 19, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Feb 18, 2013 11:25 AM
The Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, Big Idea No. 4, states as a goal, “increase the ratio of workforce housing by 2020 and develop a plan for student housing in the community.”
On Feb. 27 the Town Council will decide whether to approve high-density student-housing between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Hillsborough Streets on the site of the Central Park Apartments. The Bicycle Apartments, luxury by-design student-housing for 608 students, would replace a modest 74-unit apartment complex.
In addition to more than 2,000 student bedrooms currently under construction or in the planning stage, renting in the $600 to 800 per bedroom range, the most recent developments in town have all focused on higher-end housing: 54 East, Greenbridge, 140 West Franklin and eventually 123 West Franklin. Another development, The Residences at Grove Park was intended as luxury condominiums, but could well become 700-plus student bedrooms.
While payments in-lieu have been made and, in some cases, affordable units provided, these do not begin to address the need for true workforce and affordable housing. Shortbread Lofts paid $25,000 for its 105 units, while Bicycle Apartments proposes $90,000 for its 194 units, which hardly offsets the loss of 74 moderately-priced apartments currently on the site.
As for student housing, there are many choices for students in Chapel Hill: 400 to 450 vacant beds on campus, available beds in Granville Towers, an additional 500 beds when the Odum Village renovation is completed and a surfeit of rental properties in town. But there are hardly any options downtown for the workforce. Instead of the affordable and workforce housing the town needs, developers want to build student housing.
There are currently NO plans before the town to develop workforce housing within a mile of the town center. Absolutely none. Why is this? It’s simple economics. As the town runs out of space to build, each site becomes more expensive. In order for developers to make a profit they must build a product that will attract high-end buyers or renters. Who will build for the town’s workers?
The Bicycle Apartments present a thorny situation for Town Council members: if they deny the rezoning, they will upset people who believe that this student complex will be a boon to their businesses. Yet this is not a net gain for businesses since UNC’s enrollment is not growing. While students add vibrancy to our town and we value their presence, long-term residents (professionals, workforce, families, retirees) are the ones with the real buying power. Long-term residents, patronizing downtown businesses will attract new, diverse stores and restaurants.
The site of the proposed Bicycle Apartments is one of the last developable properties close to the center of town. The Town Council needs to take the initiative to create affordable and workforce housing or this option will forever be lost. It is time for the council to take the lead and make good on their commitment to encourage workforce housing in Chapel Hill. Elisabeth Benfey and Janet Smith live in Chapel Hill.
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