Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Around town

In a discussion on Orange Politics of the Lot 5 proposal etc., Laura Shmania posted a link to her photographs of East and West Franklin Street. Is this where I live? came the thought more than once. These remarkable pictures are collected in a gallery she calls "A Sense of Place." See her "Southern Part of Heaven" for two more equally beautiful tours of Chapel Hill.

The question she raises is a fair one: now that downtown Chapel Hill is growing up, as the Daily Tar Heel aptly noted, is it in danger of losing its character? The surest answer is that time will tell. The best way to make certain that doesn't happen is to be conscious of the question as we work to shape the development proposals that are already upon us.

I don't think height in downtown Chapel Hill has to be inconsistent with "character" or good design. Rather, I think increased density is a responsible and logical next step in a town that is steadly growing while it is also committed to an urban services boundary and to other principles of sustainablity. Last night I watched the Planning Board's first hearing of the Greenbridge proposal, a high-density mixed-use project that, perhaps even more than Lot 5, raises difficult questions not just of scale but of equity: the project, while so admirably green--with William McDonough himself at the helm, they're aiming for a LEED gold certification--is going to be very high-end, right there in the face of Northside. Without a doubt, it will change the neighborhood dramatically. But as my colleague Cam Hill has said, unless we take drastic measures to keep people from wanting to move to Chapel Hill, it's not a question of whether to grow but how.

Here's what Sen. Ellie Kinnaird said about the Greenbridge proposal in the Chapel Hill News:

As a newcomer in 1964, I was amazed to see the unified colonial style of commercial buildings. I was amused to see colonial gas stations, bus stations and grocery stores in the 20th century. Eventually the style became the semi-official vocabulary of the town.
But just as historic is the expression of each generation's aspirations reflected in their architecture. We are fortunate to have an expression today that reflects our great love for and stewardship of our environment.
Our goal of preservation now is our planet's preservation. What could better epitomize this than a completely green building, and one of magnificent architectural design? Even if one were concerned over mimicking late 20th century architectural design, Rosemary Street has never had distinctive buildings. Greenbridge is a rare opportunity to show the world we are serious about our leadership in carbon reduction through building and living our ideals.

There will be lots of questions asked about Greenbridge, ultimately by the Council. A particular concern I will have will be their plans to include affordable housing. In principle, though, Sen. Kinnaird has it right: "preservation," to our generation, has to have a new meaning.

But back to the present moment, and the past: Much of Chapel Hill's historic "character" is to be discovered in the new book The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975, by Ruth Little, published by UNC Press for the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. One of the neat things about the book is the amount of attention the town's distinctive mid-century modern architecture gets. Chapel Hill experienced a major growth spurt after World War II, part of which involved the founding of the four-year medical school. The homes these newcomers built reflected some of the best architecture of the period.

Among the buildings featured is the old Chapel Hill Library building, now the Chapel Hill Museum. Here's an update on where the town is in the effort, which I initiated, to give an easement on that property to Preservation North Carolina: tentative dates, public hearing February 12, consideration of approval March 5.

The old library building is one of the stops on the Preservation Society's 2006 "Holiday House Tour" coming up this weekend.

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