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Proposed Aura development draws comments over traffic and affordable housing concerns

There has been discussion surrounding a new proposed development on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive. Some of the conversation about the development has revolved around traffic concerns in the area.

Aura Chapel Hill, a mixed-use development planned for the northeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Estes Drive, has been facing scrutiny from local residents at advisory board meetings over the last several weeks.

The development plans to combine apartments and townhomes with retail spaces, restaurants, office spaces, work spaces and green spaces.

Chapel Hill's advisory boards are considering if they want to recommend the project before it is sent to the Town Council for a final decision. If approved, the development is scheduled to be completed and occupied by the end of 2023.

Residents have raised concerns over potential increased traffic and the amount of affordable housing it will bring to the Chapel Hill community. Signs sighted near the proposed development read “say no to Aura” and “luxury housing is not what we need.”

Who’s against Aura?

Members of 14 neighborhoods near the development site have formed a group called Estes Neighbors. Julie McClintock, a member of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, who is involved with Estes Neighbors, said the group was created in early January as a response to the continued progress of the Aura development.

The organization’s Facebook group, created in mid-February, has almost 80 members. A petition the group made asking the Town Council to block Aura Chapel Hill has received over 300 signatures.

McClintock said the signs seen near the development were put up by members of this group, though they had recently been taken down. She said they would continue trying to make others on Estes Drive aware of Aura and its potential effects.

“I just think a ton of people who use Estes Drive don’t know about this yet,” McClintock said.

Traffic concerns

The current Aura Chapel Hill development plan includes 650 parking spaces and two access points from both adjacent roads. It will be served by the North-South Bus Rapid Transit system.

Fred Lampe, a retired engineer and a member of CHALT, said the development would suck up the traffic capacity of the surrounding area.

“There’s only three east-west corridors in the whole town: Franklin, Estes and Weaver Dairy,” Lampe said. “And so that’s why those of us that ever have to use these roads, which is almost everybody, are so concerned. I mean, for all practical purposes you can’t get to Carrboro without going across Estes.”

But Ryan Stewart, Carolina region managing director of Trinsic Residential Group, the developers for the project, said the development would help to alleviate some of the current traffic concerns for the area by improving surrounding infrastructure.

He said the developers have met with Town engineers and their own consultants to resolve the traffic issues, and that they are 100 percent in agreement with the community.

“It’s hard to understand that a project on this scale can contribute to the solution, but in fact it does,” Stewart said.

Affordable housing

The current Aura Chapel Hill development plan includes 314 market-rate apartments and 47 affordable apartments, as well as 47 market-rate townhomes and five affordable townhome lots. Around half of all the affordable units will be set aside for residents at 65 percent of the area median income, and the other half at 80 percent of the area median income, Stewart said.

Area median income is the midpoint for the range of incomes earned in a given area and is used as a measure of how affordable a housing unit might be. Chapel Hill’s AMI was an estimated $73,614 as of 2019.

Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment, Inc., said while including units for residents at 65 percent AMI is appreciated, 60 percent AMI would have been ideal.

"For nonprofits like EmPOWERment who work with people at that 60 and below, none of the folk that we work with would be able to afford that 80 percent,” Bailey said. “But still the developer can call it affordable. So the schism is, affordable to who?”

The affordable rental units are planned to be spread throughout the complex and indistinguishable from market-rate units. Stewart said this will be the first rental development in Chapel Hill not to have the affordable housing component separated from standard housing.

A Chapel Hill ordinance requires that for development projects with five or more units outside of the town's center, 15 percent of that project's for-sale units must be set aside for residents at or below 80 percent AMI.

Bailey said some developers who have set aside apartments for renters at 80 percent AMI have had a hard time finding low-income residents who can afford that price.

“When developers put affordable housing into their rental projects, they’re trying to check off the box,” Bailey said.

Developers said they are still in talks with Community Home Trust about what kind of affordable housing will work for this project.

The Town Council will have a public hearing on the project at their April 21 meeting.


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