The Housing Gap at Carolina North

The Leadership Advisory Committee on Carolina North had an interesting discussion about housing as a part of Carolina North this afternoon.

Here are some prepared comments that I presented as a way of launching the discussion:

The housing problem at Carolina North is, in short, that the new workers at Carolina North will either live at Carolina North or they will live elsewhere and need to commute to the campus. There is not a great deal of vacant housing currently available within the Chapel Hill Transit service area (although there is some), so new employees will either have to occupy housing that is to be built in the Chapel Hill Transit service area, or they will have to live outside that service area and commute. Let's take a look at the scale of the problem:

The Ayers/Saint/Gross Development Plan commissioned by the University proposed to build the following:

Insititutional/Research space created: 6 Million sqft (per CN website)
Residential space created: 2 Million sqft (per CN website)
This should result in something like the following:
Carolina North created jobs: about 20,000 (1 per 300 sqft)
Carolina North created dwellings: at most 2,000
UNC employees housed there: at most 3,000 (likely too optimistic)
New UNC employees not housed at CN: at least 15,000 (conservatively)
New dwellings needed: at least 10,000 (very conservatively)

And these numbers do not take into account the number of additional households that will be attracted to the area by jobs indirectly created by Carolina North (for example, Kinko's will need many more employees).

Some people will undoubtedly argue that growth in residential areas of Chapel Hill and Carrboro will help to address this problem. Although there are relatively few undeveloped areas within the Urban Services Boundary (ie inside the Rural Buffer), there is a lot of development planned in the downtown areas of the towns. However, to understand how little that will do to address the problem, let's take a look at the proposed Greenbridge development in western downtown Chapel Hill. Greenbridge is planned to be a 109 unit condominium development. It would take 92 Greenbridges to address the housing gap in the ASG plan.

Obviously we are not going to build 92 Greenbridges, but to give a sense of just how improbable that would be, let's just take a look. The Greenbridge site is about 200x270 feet, so if each of the new Greenbridges were to be built along MLK boulevard between the entrance to Carolina North and I-40, then we would need to have 46 of them one right after another all the way from I-40 to Municipal Drive on one side and an additional 46 of them on the facing side. That is, the 92 of them would take up the entire distance on both sides. To accommodate 92 Greenbridges, you would have to cover an area of 92 sites x 200 feet x 270 feet = 4,968,000 sqft of land. This is roughly the same size as the all of downtown Chapel Hill from Columbia Street to the Carrboro Town line including both sides of Rosemary Street, both sides of Franklin Street and both sides of Cameron Avenue.

Alternatively, if the necessary growth were to happen in more of a mix of condominiums, townhouses and subdivisions, then the needed development would be about the size of the entire Town of Carrboro, something like a dozen Southern Villages, roughly half the size of the Orange County Rural Buffer. Another way to achieve this would be to quadruple the population of the Town of Hillsborough. Those are back of the envelope calculations, but they give you a sense of the scale of the problem.

And of course, even if the private market builds that much housing in the area, there is nothing to say that the average person at Carolina North could afford it. Currently downtown condominium space is selling at $200-$300 per square foot. New developments that are in the pipeline include proposals approaching $400 per square foot. That's $400,000 for a 1,000 square foot, 2 bedroom condominium. One would need to make $100,000 per year at the very least in order to buy a private market condominium in downtown Chapel Hill. I would guess that a very small percentage of UNC employees make that kind of money.

All of this points to the fact that, under the ASG plan there will have to be thousands and thousands of people commuting from outside the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area to Carolina North. Right now, if they are to commute from Chatham County, Alamance County or northern Orange County, there is no public transportation that would accommodate them (although there are park and ride lots just at the edge of the towns that could help). If these new employees live in Hillsborough, then they could hypothetically commute by the new (but still sparse) TTA bus route. If they live in Durham, then they might have some kind of access via TTA, although that service would need to be expanded dramatically.

But more realistically, most folks would drive most or all of the way. And that of course is entirely consistent with the 17,000 or so parking spaces that the ASG plan had proposed for Carolina North. Indeed, the ASG plan calls for essentially no public transportation at all (3000 employees residing + 17,000 driving = 20,000 employees).

In this respect, the ASG plan needs to be entirely discarded. The number one transportation solution needs to be housing; the number two solution needs to be bike/ped access; and the number three solution needs to be public transportation. Therefore, I would like to put forward four proposed housing principles:

Proposed Principles Related to Housing at Carolina North:

1. Carolina North should not exacerbate the crisis in housing affordability already existing in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area.

2. Therefore, housing built at Carolina North should be affordable to a range of incomes, with a housing-cost distribution that reflects the income distribution of University employees generally, in each phase of development at Carolina North.

3. Further, the number of dwelling units built at Carolina North should equal the number of new households that will be attracted to this area by the jobs created at Carolina North.

4. However, (non-undergraduate) housing created by the University of North Carolina in other parts of the Chapel Hill Transit service area should be counted toward the accomplishment of the above goal.

I am not proposing that UNC be held to a higher standard than other developers. I am proposing that a well-planned, carefully thought-out campus must include housing both as a way of protecting the environment and as a smart business decision. If we asked the Trustees of Stanford University what they would most like to go back 50 years and change about their planning, I believe they would say that they wish they had done more to plan for employee housing. And I imagine the story would be the same at Berkeley, Harvard, San Diego State, and dozens of other universities. But they can't go back in time. The good news for UNC is that we can; we can think about this problem now and we can make good decisions where others made poor ones. Because right here today we have the chance to look 50 years ahead and ask ourselves what are the wisest investments that Carolina can make. Shall we spend our limited resources on roads? Parking lots? Buses? Housing? Which one is the smartest investment when we look 50 years into the future?


“Further, the number of dwelling units built at Carolina North should equal the number of new households that will be attracted to this area by the jobs created at Carolina North.”

Perhaps Mark and his Carrboro colleagues would be receptive to a modification such as “Further, the number of dwelling units built at Carolina North should equal the number of new households that will be attracted to this area by the jobs created at Carolina North” AND by the number of those who wish to live in affordable housing in close proximity to their workplace.

I'm sure that some of the people who will work at CN will indeed want to live in a more rural setting. However, just because they might not avail themselves of close-in housing shouldn't be construed as a free pass to drive all the way to the CN campus and park their vehicle there.

3. Further, the number of dwelling units built at Carolina North should equal the number of new households that will be attracted to this area by the jobs created at Carolina North.

If I understand what this item says, you expect the university to provide housing for all faculty and staff at CN as well as employees associated with new businesses that locate here as a result of CN. If that is what you mean, doesn't that put the university in direct competition with commercial real estate developers? Isn't that illegal?

"Further, the number of dwelling units built at Carolina North should equal the number of new households that will be attracted to this area by the jobs created at Carolina North."

What makes people think everyone wants to live that close to where they work?

I, for one, enjoy have a certain amount of distance between my office and my home. It allows me to make a transition from one part of my life to the other.

That the old Ayers/Saint/Gross plan is off the table was asserted again by UNC staff at today's meeting (which Dan was unable to attend). But Dan is right to point out that the above statement was the product of the entire Carrboro delegation's internal discussions (ie Dan, me, Randee Haven-O'Donnell, Allen Spalt and James Carnahan).

Will, the "old" ASG plan, we were told as recently as Oct 5, is off the table. But, as far as we know, the intentions behind it (square footage, projected uses, phasing, etc) are still out there. BTW, as you probably know from the 10/5 LAC, ASG is quite busy already on the new CN plan.

Mark, excellent analysis. The video appears here usually a day or so after the meeting (I look forward to watching it).

Fred, I suggest you ask the folks over on Mason Farm Rd. how that works.

Mark - goog job. This was probably the most interesting sessions to watch on the TV thus far. Question is, what assumptions are being made about the pace of the build out and employee flow by year? The flow puts Dan's comment into a context that might produce different answers.

Also, do you think that there are people who might leave our towns when the building starts? I remember the laughter when I suggested to Tony Waldrop during one of his briefings a couple of years ago that UNC might look at trying to buy my neighborhood! :-)

Hmmm Dan, that sounds familiar. Is the 17K ASG plan creeping back in?

Mark, I suspect you are "not proposing that UNC be held to a higher standard than other developers" who might intend to build 8 million square feet of mostly commercial/institutional use in the heart of the community.

Mark neglects to include that his work above represents the consensus position brought by the Carrboro delegation to today's Leadership Advisory Council meeting.



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