What's with all the massive new luxury apartment buildings?
Updated: Aug 17
This question is on the minds of many Chapel Hill residents. They're looking at recent projects in Blue Hill (along Fordham Boulevard behind Whole Foods), and at the impending Aura project (corner of MLK and N. Estes), and wondering whether this has all been thought through.
The short answer is, well, trending toward yes.
In the spirit of violating every norm of political communication, I'm going to give a long and nuanced answer. As you'll see, the question implicates a lot of distinct issues that people care about, like housing, climate change, community character and design, community benefits, tree canopy, traffic, and stormwater. Depending on who’s asking the question, it may be about any combination of these things.
The point of this post isn’t for me to defend or criticize specific projects. By adopting the new Complete Community framework, the Council itself has acknowledged past weaknesses in its approach to growth and development. Instead, this post provides a window into how I approach the question in the title and the various issues underneath it.
Why are we so intent on growing?
The Town has no obligation to change its zoning. Yet most residents accept that growth is necessary, even if they're not necessarily enthusiastic about it. Why?
Here's one way to think about it. Starting assistant professors at UNC – making, say, $70,000 – are commuting from Mebane and Pittsboro because they can't find suitable housing in Chapel Hill that they can afford. Can we "solve" this? Not completely, no. But we can make a dent in it by continuing to make careful, methodical adjustments to our current land use (zoning) rules.
At a household income level of $70,000, a $300,000 townhouse or condo is a stretch. Let's say it costs $250 per square foot to build housing. For $300,000, that gets you 1,200 square feet. But actually it gets you less than that, because $250 per square foot only covers construction cost, not land cost or "soft" costs (design and engineering costs, regulatory approval costs, developer profit, etc.). By comparison, the Town’s Affordable Housing office reports that Chapel Hill’s median home sale price in 2022 was $557,500.
Most of our housing stock was built in an era of lower (inflation-adjusted) costs. It’s big, detached, spread out. Many long-time residents could not afford to move here today. This has implications for the mix of people who will move to Chapel Hill going forward. They’re going to trend wealthier, and whiter.
There’s no magic wand to fix this. The scale of the problem extends far beyond Chapel Hill.
But consider this: Much of the Town's remaining developable land (outside of Blue Hill) is zoned restrictively enough that developers can't – not won't, but can't – build housing there that the average household could afford (without subsidies). Under different zoning, developers could do so, at least to a much greater extent. That's due to basic economics. The way to build more affordable units is to use less land per unit, build smaller units, share amenities, and harness economies of scale. Zoning restrictions on density, which are entirely within our control, pose an obstacle to this. In a sense, we’ve banned the most economical housing options over much of our land area – not intentionally, but that’s the effect.
To be clear, density restrictions are only one aspect of zoning, and Chapel Hill’s zoning can and should be stricter in other respects. It’s mainly the density restrictions that impede production of less expensive housing.
It's also worth mentioning that Blue Hill has a special zoning regime ("form-based code") that allows developers to build densely "by right" so long as they comply with specific building form and design requirements. This has been in place for almost ten years (and tweaked several times) and is intended to promote growth through greater specificity and predictability for developers – ultimately to help address the housing needs discussed above. Whether the Blue Hill form-based code is functioning well is very much an open question, which I'll leave for another day.
At any rate, as the discussion above implies, the density restrictions outside of Blue Hill increasingly pose a fairness problem. There’s a lot of pent up demand for small units in walkable/bikeable neighborhoods near peoples’ workplaces, with access to quality schools. Chapel Hill can address more of this demand. And we can do so in a selective, orderly way that respects existing neighborhoods and delivers tangible benefits to the people who already live here (more on this below). That’s fair to the average Chapel Hill worker seeking local housing. It’s also fair to existing residents who made sacrifices to live here and expect effective planning.
If we want to respond to the time we’re living in, a key way is to remain reasonably open (as we have been) to clearing gratuitous obstacles to building small, land-efficient units that normal people who work in Chapel Hill can afford.
In the end, the more of this kind of growth we’re able to accommodate (in a well-planned way), the more economic and racial diversity we're going to retain. That's a big part of what's at stake here.
Also, consider the environment
There's also a strong environmental case for increased density, when done properly. More spread out, car-centric development results in more carbon emissions and consumes more land per person. It's relatively bad for the environment overall. Some argue that density is bad for the environment, because it results in loss of in-town tree canopy, heat islands, and stormwater problems. These are great reasons to grow in a balanced way and with appropriate safeguards (discussed further below). They do not refute the climate implications of suburban sprawl.
The devil’s in the details
Absent effective planning and execution, many of the potential benefits of density, in terms of housing affordability and environmental sustainability, diminish. Left to their own devices, developers may very well build 3,000 square foot multifamily units. (For those that follow local rezonings, consider the original concept plan for 710 N. Estes Drive.) Such projects are profitable, and the Triangle is awash with people who can afford them. The developers that usually win the biggest land deals in Chapel Hill also tend to build for cars (i.e., excessive parking and impervious surface, garage doors everywhere you look, other pedestrian-repelling features).
But these are things the conditional rezoning process gives us a lot of leverage to control, even if we somewhat overlooked them in the past. We're not pursuing a strategy of "build, baby, build," or "density for the sake of density." That's antithetical to the Complete Community vision. Our official strategy involves planning meticulously and building wisely, so that we fully capture the intended benefits of development. That means smaller average unit sizes, and zero tolerance for car-oriented development.
"Luxury" branding aside, it's not possible to build much more cheaply
One thing we don't have control over is the cost of construction materials and labor. When people say "luxury" apartments, they might be imagining Wolf ranges, Sub-Zero fridges, and the like. I'm not aware of anything like that going on. No doubt some developers are going a bit fancier in some respects than necessary, but what's driving the high cost of new units is generally the cost of basic construction that meets building code and tries to satisfy the Town's expectations for design quality and on-site amenities. On this point, I'd be happy to receive contrary information.
Stick-built mid-rise structures fill an important need but have their limitations
Most of the so-called "luxury" apartments popping up around Town are made of wood, sometimes over a first level made of concrete. Building with wood framing is cheaper, by a lot. Above a height of about 5-6 stories, international building code requires concrete and/or steel construction, which is more expensive. Generally our Future Land Use Map does not allow structures much higher than that.
The problem with wood construction is that it seriously limits architectural possibilities. Yet if we ban it, either very little will get built, or the cost of housing will skyrocket. That's not to say all stick-build mid-rises are the same. Our Community Design Commission can explain in detail why that's not true. But there are practical constraints at play here.
Allowing taller buildings in some areas is an option. Counterintuitively, they can be more interesting and attractive. They can also make it possible, physically and economically, to preserve more trees and open space on a given lot. That's just food for thought.
Some of what irks people about the appearance of recent development in Chapel Hill can be attributed to poor site design and landscape architecture. For example, in Blue Hill, the block lengths were probably excessive, resulting in very long, unbroken masses, and some developments seem to have skimped on street trees. We now have a Town Urban Designer on staff, Brian Peterson, to help with this kind of thing. He’s an asset who should probably have a more prominent role in vetting projects.
The issue of tree canopy preservation is also quite important to the visual (and functional) impact of new development. I discuss it later in this post.
Past development has under-delivered on community benefits
New development of any kind is hard to accept when it fails to deliver shared benefits. The lack of compensating benefits causes us to judge perceived costs all the more harshly. The Complete Community framework recognizes this and calls for more holistic planning that benefits the entire community. Many residents perceive, with some justification, that the Town has not excelled in this area over the past decade.
Going forward, residents should expect the following tangible benefits from new development:
High quality public gathering places
Walkable amenities (such as preserved open space, plazas, food service establishments, etc.)
More greenways and linear parks
Greater fiscal strength for the community
It's the Council's job (with assistance from our capable staff) to figure out how to deliver these benefits. That starts with better development standards, unapologetic use of negotiating leverage, more proactive planning at the neighborhood level, and better fiscal strategies for delivering public infrastructure. All of this is already in the works but will require ongoing focus.
We need to get more serious about preserving existing tree canopy
Trees are among Chapel Hill's greatest community amenities. In fact, they're a signature feature of our town. We can absolutely add housing density without allowing indiscriminate clear cutting.
Because the right balance heavily depends on the facts and circumstances of each project, the Town will need to address this case-by-case.
The conditional rezoning for 710 N. Estes is a good example. The original plan called for clearcutting and regrading virtually the entire 7.5-acre site, with a thin strip of trees remaining along the single-family neighborhood in the back and some others preserved in an unbuildable riparian area adjacent to the Aura property. Before the project came to the Planning Commission, I reached out to the developer to talk about the existing trees on the property and what could be done to preserve more of them. In the end, the developer incorporated in its plan a wider tree buffer in the rear (which required shortening some townhouse driveways) and a substantial stand of mature hardwoods near the center of the property (which required shifting an underground stormwater retention tank). No dwellings units were lost in the process. In fact, some were added.
As it turned out, the original plan sacrificed extra trees for no particular reason – just lack of motivation to find creative ways around it. That's often the case, which is why it's important to have these conversations at a granular level, with property-specific tree maps in hand.
My inspiration for having that conversation in the first place was this account of how a Washington DC-based nonprofit convinced a developer to preserve specific high-value trees that existed on a planned development site.
Traffic concerns require effective planning and execution on multiple fronts
As the Town adds more big buildings, rush hour traffic is likely to increase unless we do something about it. The “traffic impact analyses” that independent consultants provide (at developers’ expense) with each major rezoning proposal help flag issues related to driveway configurations, turning lanes, and nearby intersections, but they can’t substitute for holistic, long-term infrastructure planning.
Major road widenings are an option, but those would seem to come at a high cost financially, environmentally, and in terms of aesthetic degradation of the Town. The Complete Community strategy rejects this approach on principle.
The Town’s formally adopted solution to this dilemma is to build an “everywhere to everywhere” greenway system, invest in high-frequency, dedicated bus infrastructure, and only rezone for new developments that are pedestrian-, greenway-, and transit-oriented. In this way, the Town intends to add population while limiting congestion and providing viable transportation alternatives.
Currently most people who work in Chapel Hill commute from other towns, and most employed people who live in Chapel Hill commute to other towns. That helps explain the enormous volume of cars on our circulator roads (MLK, 15-501, 54, Estes, Weaver Dairy) during rush hour. (Some of this traffic just passes through Chapel Hill without stopping here.)
Greenways help with this directly and indirectly by giving in-town commuters – and parents shuttling kids around – another option, thereby freeing up additional road capacity. The Town recently won a $1 million federal grant to fund initial planning and feasibility work related to 25 miles (!) of new greenways. This does not guarantee construction funding, but it's progress. The Town also has plans to extend UNC's new e-bike share system off campus. E-bikes are key to the greenway vision, particularly given Chapel Hill’s topography.
Meanwhile, the Town is likely to obtain federal funding in the next couple years to build the long-awaited North-South Bus Rapid Transit (NSBRT) line, which will take riders from Eubanks Road (near I-40) to Southern Village and places in between. The NSBRT will run at short intervals, have its own dedicated lanes, and will have signal priority – meaning that stoplights will favor the buses as they approach. Soon the Town will begin planning a similar BRT route along Fordham Boulevard/15-501 to Durham.
Finally – and this is a hobbyhorse for me – we need to ratchet down parking ratios for new developments. That's a key tool to select for future residents less likely to commute by car, and to reduce housing costs. To this end, the Planning Commission recently petitioned the Town Council to adopt our proposed amendments to the Town’s parking standards for new development – an initiative I conceived and led.
Will these measures prevent traffic jams? No. Nothing will – at least not until driverless cars find their way to Chapel Hill. Even if we did not grow, growth in surrounding towns (and resulting pass-through traffic) would ensure additional congestion. But are we taking thoughtful steps to sync up the pace of transportation infrastructure development with the pace of growth? Yes. Can we do more? Yes, I think so – primarily at the level of execution of the measures described above.
The Town is actively considering better approaches to stormwater management
Many Chapel Hill residents have experienced flooding in recent years and are wary of the potential for large new developments to make the problem worse. The good news is that the Town Council requested and received (in June 2023) a set of wide-ranging recommendations in this area from the Booker Creek Working Group (BCWG), which the Town is now considering.
Under the Town's existing rules, stormwater that leaves a given property post-development must not leave at a faster rate than it did pre-development. The Town's current rules specify a 25-year storm event standard for this – that is, the rate of post-development stormwater egress must not exceed pre-development egress assuming a 25-year rainstorm. The BCWG suggests that the Town consider increasing this to 100 years, partly to account for climate change. (The Town Council has been selectively imposing this standard on projects for several years already.)
Among its nine other recommendations, the BCWG also suggests that the Town permanently protect and expand its Town-owned bottomland forests, many of which are located along greenway trails.
There is no conspiracy
More than a few people think that some recent development is so bad that the Council must be on the take. I assure you it is not. The Town has made some missteps over the years, which is why we now have a new planning framework. I believe we are getting onto the right track.
As I hope this post illustrates, city planning involves nuanced trade-offs. Abstract values and ideas only go so far. The rest is about detailed planning and execution – what I call “effective government.”
In the end, better development is an iterative process. Each new project is an opportunity to learn from the past and deliver better outcomes.