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Chapel Hill's Critical Choice: Embracing Gray or Green

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Artistic rendering depicting gray luxury apartments versus green middle-income housing

Local elections always matter, but this one is significant. Chapel Hill is at a crossroads, with one path very gray and another more intentionally green.

Our current path is the gray one. Look around and count the number of high-rise apartments and concrete parking decks that have shot up over the past few years. Look at the towering growth downtown and plans for more. Read Chapel Hill’s new land use ordinance (LUMO) to understand the town’s plan to “infill” single-family neighborhoods with more units. Growth is needed, but despite all these new structures and plans, the town has not added a single park in nearly 15 years.

The town offers a solution, a Complete Communities strategy, of which greenways are a cornerstone. In theory, greenways will connect us so we can bike and walk instead of driving around in cars. As former vice chair of Chapel Hill’s Parks, Recreation and Greenways Advisory Commission (PRAC), I love this idea. Advocating for more greenways was a reason I joined the PRAC in the first place.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical—a mile of paved greenway costs between $1M- and $1.5M. My experience at the PRAC taught me an important lesson. Chapel Hill doesn’t spend much on parks or greenways. Despite years of promises to build greenways, we still only have 17.6 miles of them. Our most recent greenway piece was completed back in the summer of 2021.

This past year, there were some critical park funding actions, such as using one-time federal funds (ARPA) to address some of the town’s most urgent park needs and passing a “Pennies for Parks” tax increase to generate approximately $1M a year for park projects in the future.

$1M per year sounds solid, right? It certainly did to me as vice chair of the PRAC because it is over four times what the town had spent on park projects for years.

However, $1M per year is not enough to cover a mile of paved greenway, not enough to re-turf three soccer fields, not enough to resurface six tennis courts, and not sufficient to build new pickleball courts.

In short, a budget of $1M per year can only cover basic repairs and minor projects. When we can barely find money for our basic park needs, even when given one-time federal funds and raising taxes, how will we see millions of dollars for new greenways?

The town might note it has recently received a $1M federal grant for greenways. However, again, $1M is not enough to cover even a mile of paved greenway. Nor is this money intended to be spent constructing one. This grant is for greenway planning and design, not construction.

Let’s pretend the town finds the millions of dollars needed to build the approximately 25 miles of greenways in the Complete Communities strategy. Well, the strategy still has a significant problem: where are the parks? The design references Chapel Hill’s 2013 Parks Master Plan and discusses “linear parks.” It’s hard to see how “linear parks” can meet the needs the 2013 Parks Master Plan outlines. Those needs, from 10 years ago, include spaces like 6-8 new soccer fields, 3-6 new tennis courts, a splashpad, and a community park for the eastern side of Chapel Hill. Where is the land for these spaces? Without land or money for parks to support our growth, Chapel Hill’s path is looking even grayer.

There is a greener path.

Look around Chapel Hill and decide whether you want gray or green. I chose the greener path, so I support Adam Searing for Mayor and David Adams, Breckany Eckhardt, Elizabeth Sharp, and Renuka Soll for Town Council. Without new leaders with a greener vision, I fear the town will go gray. And once the concrete goes in, it is tough to get back out.

Once the concrete goes in, it is tough to turn it green.

Leah Boucher is a long-time Chapel Hill resident who served with Renuka Soll on the town’s Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Advisory Commission for three years. She is currently serving as campaign manager for Renuka Soll.

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