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Column: The blight of historic preservation

A single-family home next to an apartment complex in the Cameron-McCauley Historic District is pictured on Oct. 29.

Let me preface this by saying that I love history. 

I wouldn’t be writing a history column if I didn’t. Not only can learning about our past reveal clues for solving future problems, but reading old newspapers, records and stories is just a great deal of fun. 

Similarly, as an urban studies student, I understand the importance of the built environment. Every individual thing that we introduce to our cities and towns — every tree, every light, every bit of pavement — has a particular importance. Things can be seemingly minor, but not necessarily frivolous. 

With all of that being said, I think the way we have sought to preserve parts of Chapel Hill in amber for generations has had — and will continue to have — devastating consequences for our shared home.

Let me explain.

The Town of Chapel Hill is currently home to three Local Ordinance Historic Districts: Franklin-Rosemary, Cameron-McCauley and Gimghoul. 

All are either located on or near Franklin Street. If you ever walk through these neighborhoods, you will quickly understand why they were preserved. The houses within are easy on the eyes and have a lot of character.

This character is absolutely not some product of an organic process; the town government has published a nearly 180-page document detailing maintenance and appearance standards for structures in these districts. Restrictions include paint colors, foundation maintenance, deck construction and a host of other things that are deemed important to maintaining the district's aesthetics. 

Now, as Chapel Hill has grown in population — by around 4,500 people since 2010 alone — it has needed more places to house people. There are a variety of ways that developers and administrative officials are attempting to do so. 

The first is one many of us are familiar with: the mixed-use developments that line the western half of Franklin Street, like Carolina Square. The second is large apartment buildings like Union and the Lark. The third is low-density, single-family housing, which becomes more common as you stray from the main arterial roads in town.

Which brings us back to the historic districts. Like I said earlier, these areas ring Chapel Hill’s central core, including both Franklin Street and UNC’s campus. As pretty as these buildings are, their continued existence has led to some uncomfortable problems. 

They offer a complicated challenge to the town’s affordable housing problem; if housing can’t be built in these neighborhoods, where can they be built? 

As of late, the answer seems to be communities like Northside, a predominantly African-American community immediately north of Rosemary Street. According to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, an area advocacy group, the number of investor-owned rental properties has exploded in Northside over the past several decades. 

This gentrification and the construction of other housing complexes show that there is a demand for housing that isn’t being satiated. Meanwhile, the preservation of large tracts of land in central Chapel Hill could be making this crisis worse. According to the Real Estate Board of New York — where more than a quarter of all buildings are preserved — the area's overzealous preservationism “may be making it much more difficult to create new housing, particularly affordable housing.” 

What we need in many places in Chapel Hill — regardless of a particular neighborhood’s designation as “historic” — is commonly referred to as “missing middle” housing. This is the type of residential space that fits between the goliathan student housing projects we have seen so far and the low-density single-family homes that make up a significant portion of Chapel Hill’s housing stock. This “missing middle” housing can take many forms, including townhouses, du- and triplexes and low-rise apartment buildings. 

And if the physical “character” of these neighborhoods is the concern of their inhabitants, then they can rest assured denser housing doesn’t necessarily have to be a jarring departure from the surrounding environment. Take the Graham Court Condominiums in the Cameron-McCauley Historic District, for example. Built in 1928, the two 3.5 story buildings blend in well with the neighboring houses, while also allowing for more inhabitants on a small piece of land than, say, a single-family home. 

While keeping a standard as intricate as Chapel Hill’s historic district would render new projects unattractive to developers, maintaining some sort of form-based code while also allowing denser development could open the door to more affordable housing. By loosening some of our town’s zoning regulations and historic preservation restrictions, we can have a middle ground between gigantic apartment complexes and small, single-family homes. 


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