A short note on the American Legion property
There has been a great deal of community conversation recently about the Legion Road property. But generally missing from these conversations is an important – even the most important – piece of information about this issue. We all want a park on the American Legion property. Community members. Advisory boards. Electeds. Staff. How often does that happen? Let’s take a moment to celebrate this shared interest and commitment. Yay!
The fact that Council and community members agree that there should be a park on the Legion Road property should be the headline of any and every communication. And yet, our agreement is often being left out. That is unfortunate and causing confusion in the community.
While everyone agrees that a minimum of twenty-some acres of the Legion Road property should be made into a park, there is disagreement over whether the entirety of the 36-acre property should be transformed into a park or whether there should be multiple uses of this Town-owned land. (And no, it is not currently a park. It is a parcel of Town-owned land.)
The answer(s) to that hinges on two questions:
1) How should the Town pay for the sizable costs to turn the property into a park?
2) Can this property also be used to meet some other critical Town needs?
Paying for the land and a future park:
From the start, the property was purchased with the intention to create a park AND explore other, non-park uses. The 2016 Council resolution that authorized the property purchase states, in part:
"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Council affirms its intent that the American Legion property be used for a mix of purposes, both public and private, consistent with the guiding principles approved by the Council in June, 2016 and that Council expects the Town will recoup a portion of the purchase price by making some portions of the American Legion property available for private development."
The property was paid for in three installments:
· The first installment came out of 2016 excess fund balance (which is surplus funding that we sometimes have at the end of the fiscal year).
· The second and third installments, totaling $4.6 million, were paid for by diverting several million dollars of funding that the voters had approved in a bond referendum for a cultural arts facility.
As a result, we don’t have the arts facility nor do we have funds to create the kind of park we would all like to see there. That is the key reason behind the proposal to sell a small portion of the property, as the Council intended in 2016.
Other Town needs:
As with all Town-owned parcels, the American Legion property is also being considered for possible affordable housing development, per Council policy. I have advocated and written extensively about Chapel Hill’s housing shortage, especially for affordable housing, so won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the Legion property is also an excellent location for affordable housing (centrally located near transit and amenities), and Council is committed to greatly reducing the costs of developing affordable housing by providing the land needed. This would be done through partnership with an affordable housing provider, as we have done at, for example, Jay Street, Homestead Gardens, Greenfield Place, and Greenfield Commons. I have seen some questions about the Town’s strategy and effectiveness in this area – I would direct you to the Town’s Affordable Housing Dashboard and the FY22 Annual Affordable Housing Report that is being presented to Council at this week’s meeting to learn more about our investments and successes to date.
Those are the facts before us. There is much to agree on and celebrate – a path to a park on the east side of Chapel Hill, a long identified need. In addition, this is an excellent location for affordable housing – a desperate and growing need, exacerbated by the pandemic and rapidly escalating housing prices. The crisis of housing insecurity is all around us and the impacts on our neighbors are increasingly visible around our community.
The end goal of this process is to both create a terrific community park and meet critical Town needs centered on our acute housing shortage. There are many discussions ahead: how do we do this in the most fiscally responsible manner? What kind of park amenities do we want? Trails or open green space? Tennis or pickleball? And these discussions will be had (hopefully in a civil way). The goal of the pending Council petition is not to deprive the Town of a new and needed park, but to get moving on creating it. I look forward to hearing what Town staff have learned so that we can move forward with making plans for the Legion property.