Chapel Hill council will vote again on plan for apartments, retail on a busy corner

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Plans to build a mix of housing, shops and a restaurant at one of Chapel Hill’s busiest intersections got a tentative nod Wednesday from the council, but the project will have to come back for another vote next week.

The Chapel Hill Town Council voted 5-3 to approve Aura Chapel Hill, a three- and four-story, mixed-used project that would replace a 16-acre former tree farm at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive.

The lack of a majority — six of eight votes — means the council will have to vote again June 23. Only a simple majority is required to approve the project in the second vote.

Trinsic Residential Group wants to build 419 apartments and townhomes, and over 15,800 square feet of commercial space, as well as a future stop on the town’s North-South bus-rapid transit line.

Over three acres would be dedicated to public green space, including a central plaza with fenced-in playground, a Central Park for holding activities and events, and a Woodlands natural area around a stream on the site.

Council members spent a couple hours talking about their lingering concerns Wednesday, including increased traffic and safety issues and how the developer would control stormwater runoff from the site, which slopes down toward surrounding neighborhoods and drains into the Booker Creek and Bolin Creek watershed areas.

Council member Hongbin Gu asked the council to delay the vote to allow for further consideration of the details. In principle, she supports the project, Gu said, but it is a challenging site and the community has valid concerns. Council member Allen Buansi said he also would like more information about stormwater.

“The council needs more time read through it and make sure that we fix all of the issues that we have now,” Gu said. “I’m hoping that we can make sure that given how important it is, how much we wish this project to succeed, we owe it both to this project and to this community to make sure that we get it right.”

Gu, Buansi and Mayor Pam Hemminger voted against approving the project.

Central West plans, changes

The site is in the Central West District, roughly 97 acres east of the boulevard, from north of Estes Drive to Mt. Bolus Road. A public process defined district expectations in 2013 when UNC was planning its 3 million-square-foot research and academic campus at the former airport across the street. That plan has stalled.

Aura has the public green spaces, transit and pedestrian connections, and a mix of uses outlined in the Central West plan, but also has twice the housing allotted to its part of the district — and nearly two-thirds of the housing planned districtwide. It also has much less commercial space. Surrounding sites are being looked at for future development.

The town’s recent Mini Market Study recommended residential development and live-work space for Aura because of limited visibility for businesses and the number of gas stations, convenience stores and other businesses nearby.

Council members Michael Parker and Amy Ryan, who co-chaired a public process several years ago to envision how the area around MLK Boulevard and Estes Drive should grow, said the project will be a plus for the community.

The town has invested in a local bus system and changes to combat climate change, including an urban services boundary that restricts sprawl, Ryan said. While “it’s hard to see this area evolve from the out-of-town place that it was 40 years ago,” Aura offers an “unprecedented” stormwater commitment, a high level of traffic modeling, bike and pedestrian links, and public amenities, she said.

Parker noted that the assumptions for the area were very different years ago, because Carolina North was driving the demand for a hotel and retail. UNC may not build that campus for many years to come, he said.

“What we see before us tonight, while differs in particular from the Central West plan, adheres to the basic principles that were articulated in the Central West plan, recognizing the environment has changed and things that would have worked then won’t work now,” Parker said.

Concerns about public process

Buansi and council member Karen Stegman also called out comments from town residents about the project’s focus on renters instead of homeowners and about how the council has handled the project.

As a person who has lived in rentals and has relatives still living in rentals, Buansi said he feels “strongly that we need to elevate the discourse when comes to talking about renters here in Chapel Hill.”

“The notion that renters don’t contribute much or that we should proscribe what they should be doing is quite frankly disturbing. We need to make room for a wide range of housing options, be they rentals or homeownership,” he said.

Stegman focused her comments on residents who she said have spread “misinformation” about the project and the council’s process.

Although she didn’t call them by name, a new grassroots group called Estes Neighbors has mounted a neighborhood campaign in the last several months, posting roadside signs and mailing out postcards that pushed back against Trinsic’s plan. A June newsletter from another group, the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, questioned whether the council had the “courage” to deny the project.

“We have engaged very genuinely with the community and want that and need that to do what local government is meant to do,” Stegman said, “but when there’s intentional misinformation spread to cause fear or to cause anger at council, rather than collaboration, it hurts all of us, it hurts our whole community, and it doesn’t lead to good outcomes.”

Aura plan details

Housing: 361 apartments, 58 for-sale townhouses. Eight townhomes would be sold to those earning up to 80% of the area median income — $48,400 a year for an individual and $69,120 for a family of four. Nine apartments would be rented to those earning up to 80% AMI, while another 20 would be rented to those at 65% AMI — $39,325 for an individual and $56,160 for a family of four.

Commercial: 15,857 square feet of restaurant, retail and office space

Parking: 650 surface, underground and garage parking spaces, with leased parking for residential tenants. An upper level of parking along Estes Drive could be converted to other uses in the future.

Traffic: A town traffic consultant said drivers will see longer wait times at the Estes Drive intersections with Somerset Drive and with East Franklin Street regardless of whether Aura is built. Another traffic study showed nearly 1,500 more vehicles on surrounding roads.

The plan includes new turn lanes and high-visibility crosswalks, a full-service intersection on Estes Drive, a right-in, right-out driveway on MLK Jr. Boulevard, and traffic signal adjustments. Town and N.C. Department of Transportation staff determined a stoplight at Estes Drive and Somerset Drive is not necessary at this time.

Transit options: The site is on a future North-South bus-rapid transit route and would include a station on MLK Boulevard. Bike lanes, sidewalks and trails are planned, including the town’s long-awaited pedestrian and bicycle improvements on Estes Drive, from east of Somerset Drive to the elementary and middle schools. The Aura site and an adjacent lot were removed from the town’s plan.

Environment and climate change: Residents are concerned about stormwater runoff, landscaping buffers, and the amount of rooftops and other impervious surfaces planned. The largely flat site slopes down to a stream and wetlands on its eastern boundary.

The developer could use silva cells that support tree growth and absorb stormwater, submit detailed landscaping and stormwater management plans, and include infrastructure for rooftop solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and energy-efficient features. One culvert crossing Estes Drive would be removed, while another east of the site would be replaced with a larger size.

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