David Schwartz and I are driving through Little Ridgefield, Schwartz’s wooded, quaint neighborhood on the northern edge of Chapel Hill, directly across the street from Ephesus-Fordham, a 190-acre swath of low-slung, somewhat dingy shopping centers bound for a town-pushed makeover in the next decade.
Campaign signs, most of them for candidates supported by the organization Schwartz co-founded last year, the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, sprout like gaudy, poster-board mushrooms. Sure, a poll released last month by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling showed the incumbent mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and three incumbent council membersDonna Bell, Jim Ward and Lee Storrowwinning, along with CHALT-backed local blogger Nancy Oates. But it’s the signage that really matters, he says. “Anyone can put their signs in the right-of-way. These are in yards. We’re not in the minority.” (Besides, as CHALT supporters have noted on social media, PPP director Tom Jensen appears to support Kleinschmidt over the CHALT-endorsed Pam Hemminger.)
Schwartz, a Duke and UNC researcher and lecturer, is almost a Chapel Hill native. His family settled in the rolling college town in the 1960s when he was less than a year old. He was raised in the local school system. When he returned from Michigan, where he was earning postgraduate degrees, in 2003, Chapel Hill’s population had quadrupled.
Over the next several years, Chapel Hill leaders approved several significant high-rise projects, including Greenbridge, 140 West and East 54. The latest, Village Plaza, is a 90-foot-tall mixed-use complex with 266 apartments and more than 15,000 square feet of retail space. When it is finished, it will serve as a testing ground for redevelopment in the rest of Ephesus-Fordham.
Schwartz is none too pleased with what he’s seeing. To him and his fellow CHALT members, this project is further proof that Kleinschmidt and the Town Council are irrevocably mucking up this town, turning what was once a charming college vista into a gentrified, bourgeois mess.
“They think they can use development as an ATM,” he grouses.
Schwartz has a penetrating stare, a quick wit and an abiding but frustrated love for his hometown. His coiled-whip performances in this year’s candidate forums have many in CHALT, Chapel Hill’s third-ever political action committee, thinking he’s primed to lead a revolt.
In Schwartz’s view, the town has become too willing to accommodate developers, accepting unwieldy projects like Village Plaza that will undermine the town’s unique character. In the process, he argues, Chapel Hill is losing local businesses and drowning townies like him in a wave of well-heeled college students and UNC alumni seeking urban-style, off-campus housing.
The election for mayor and four seats on the Town Council is three weeks away, and for many residents, Nov. 3 can’t come soon enough. This campaign has been unusually venomous by Chapel Hill standards, with malicious attacks, Internet trolling and a bitter wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, all in a town that, historically, tends to agree with itself more than it doesn’t.
As an example, this summer, an anti-incumbent troller created a fake Facebook profile for Kleinschmidt’s former assistant, Mark McCurry, casting him as an out-of-touch buffoon who played on social media during business hours, apparently an attempt to heap scorn on anyone associated with the mayor. (McCurry wasn’t Kleinschmidt’s assistant at the time.) And of late, Schwartz has taken to blaming the entire Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment on Kleinschmidt’s bitterness over the closing of an area Volvo dealership where he bought his car. The accusation, Kleinschmidt says, is “ridiculous.”
“I think that the truly negative energy that’s being used is really disappointing,” says Kleinschmidt, a civil rights attorney and former Town Council member who won the mayoralty in 2009. “Lots of trolling on Facebook and web pages, attacks coming into my office from CHALT supporters. It’s just unworthy of some of the people who are expressing the views.”
Incumbents’ supporters have been just as bristling.
Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, taunts that the “C” in CHALT is silent. “It’s pronounced halt,” he says. “The group that is the core of CHALT has a long history of opposing all kinds of development, all growth.”
The bickering has grown so vituperative that even some CHALT-supported candidatesmayoral candidate Pam Hemminger and council candidate Jessica Andersonhave distanced themselves from the PAC.
“I’m not for polarization,” says Hemminger, a former Orange County commissioner and school board member. “I’m for healing.”
Schwartz blames all of this acrimony on Kleinschmidt and the three other incumbents running for re-election, Bell, Storrow and Ward. He describes the council as an ineffectual, self-centered board, hell-bent on transforming Chapel Hill into an urban jungle no matter the public consternation.
And he thinks that, like him, the town’s residents have had enough. “To me, it ain’t even close,” Schwartz says. “What I see is people eager for a change.”
Mark Kleinschmidt is putting on his academic hat.
“If you think about politics and how to unseat an incumbent,” he explains, “the strategy is to make your campaign as virulent as possible.” Hence, the rancor in Chapel Hill, something relatively new to this mannered bastion for eggheads and progressives.
Virulent or not, there’s no denying that CHALT has quickly become a force in local politics. In the money racespending in this year’s campaigns has already exceeded the total in 2011, when the same seats were up for grabsCHALT’s slate is holding its own. Hemminger, in fact, has outraised Kleinschmidt, pulling in a healthy $12,400 to Kleinschmidt’s $7,883, according to campaign finance reports released in late September.
And there’s little doubt this election will be close. Four years ago, Kleinschmidt picked up almost 80 percent of the vote. Nobody expects that to happen again. Instead, this campaign could turn on his support for the controversial Ephesus-Fordham renovation.
Redeveloping these underutilized shopping centers near the Durham border was a key component of his most recent term. To accomplish that goal, in 2014 he pushed through a new planning tool called form-based code. Technically speaking, the code eschews traditional land-use methods, instead assessing how a commercial district meshes with its surrounding neighborhood and emphasizing walkability, easy access and familiar architecture.
That all sounds pleasant, but its most controversial component allows town staff, rather than elected officials, to approve building proposals in the district based on a simple checklist of goals, rather than asking the Town Council to vote on a project-by-project basis.
The streamlining is meant to speed transformation in this aging commercial sector, which includes a number of vacant grassy lots and, somewhat infamously, a BP gas station fronting the Eastgate Shopping Center.
But the town’s plans set off a firestorm. CHALT was furious, preferring a more modest design that caps buildings at two stories if developers are not willing to set aside affordable housing or follow green building standards.
The group also prepared a laundry list of demands for Ephesus-Fordham, including the requirement that town staff prepare an analysis of every project to ensure it has no impact on the town’s budget over the next 20 years.
This is a frequent complaint by CHALT candidates. On her blog in January, Oates called Village Plaza the “Roj Mahal,” a play on town manager Roger Stancil’s name. She claimed the residential-heavy building would drain the town’s finances, as residential projects, unlike commercial developments, are thought to cost more in public services than they put back into town coffers.
“Council members need to get as incensed about this as their constituents are,” Oates says.
“No one was going to rain on [Kleinschmidt’s] parade” for Ephesus-Fordham, adds Schwartz. “But we started raining on it, and he didn’t like it.”
Kleinschmidt casts most of CHALT’s criticism as sour grapes. In some cases, he says the group’s lobbying paid off, pointing to increased stormwater regulations for the oft-flooded region. In other waysnamely, building heightits ideas did not make the final code, which includes a seven-story limit. And that is why the group is so upset, he says. “You don’t define success by having 100 percent of your agenda adopted. It’s their way or the highway.”
Aside from Village Plaza, Kleinschmidt continues, three of Ephesus-Fordham’s first four development proposals are expected to be smaller in scale. “Reality is problematic for them,” he snipes.
To Schwartz, that’s typical of the mayor. “I voted for the guy three times,” he says. “And I have been very disappointed with how closed-minded he is.”
The insurgent candidates offer any number of reasons for voters to chuck the status quo. Hemminger, for instance, charges that the town has failed to cash in on UNC as an economic incubator, live up to its affordable-housing commitments (the town has the highest rents in the Triangle) and assist the Rogers Road community, a low-income neighborhood plagued by the health and economic impacts of housing the county’s now-closed landfill.
But there’s one criticism that rises above the rest: the state of the local tax base. More than 80 percent of the county’s taxable land is occupied by residential development. That means homeowners in Chapel Hill shoulder an unsustainable portion of the tax burden, one that would inevitably end either with residents being taxed out of town or Chapel Hill’s well-regarded public services taking a hit.
Nearly all can agree Chapel Hill needs more commercial development. Agreeing on what kind of development is another matter entirely.
Kleinschmidt and the Town Council have aggressively pursued mixed-use and higher-density projects over the last five years. The idea is that developments like Obey Creek and Ephesus-Fordham will assuage both housing prices and a sorely underperforming commercial sector. (While the developments are expected to include hundreds of affordable units, Ephesus-Fordham does not fall under a 2008 inclusionary-zoning ordinance requiring developers to set aside 15 percent of residential units for affordable housing. Since that ordinance was passed, the town has created more than 300 new affordable-housing units.)
But CHALT counters that the push, particularly in Ephesus-Fordham, is only driving out local businesses. Some business owners in the region have publicly complained that they won’t be able to afford the higher rents that go along with redevelopment.
“I think some people run for office out of hope,” says Nelson, the Chamber CEO. “And I think some people run out of fear, to stop things from happening. They run because they’re afraid that, without them being elected, something terrible will happen. This election is casting the difference of those who are hopeful for our future and those who are fearful for our future.”
This is a often said of CHALTthat the group is merely a pack of wealthy homeowners swollen with nostalgia for a long-past Chapel Hill. “This is the problem today in Chapel Hill,” says Kleinschmidt. “It’s politics at its worst when you decide your opinion by asking, what does my foil think? Whatever they think, I think the opposite.”
But Jessica Anderson, a CHALT-endorsed council candidate, says that while CHALT’s style may rub people the wrong way, the group’s members deserve to have their voices heard.
“A lot of people who are not part of CHALT agree with part of, if not all, of their platform,” she says. “And regardless of whether people are actually being ignored, if people feel like they’re being ignored, that’s a systemic problem.”
That’s an important point, Schwartz says. CHALT isn’t composed of a gaggle of ornery, not-in-my-backyard kooks, he insists. It’s a groundswell of people determined to unseat each and every allegedly unresponsive incumbent on the Town Council.
Crazier things have happened, Schwartz says. “I don’t think people see us as quixotic today as they did two years ago.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The insurgents”