View of Newman Machine Works across Fulton Street. This view and use doesn't seem to threaten College Hill residents.

Yesterday’s banner headline in the Greensboro News & Record was slightly sensational but it grabbed your attention as it proclaimed in 76 point type that “College Hill will fight housing for students.” 

Although some parts of it are seedy, College Hill is, for the most part, a quaint neighborhood adjacent to UNC-G.  It has several homes dating from the early 20th century, yards with large oak trees, and all the charm of a community where people walk and ride bikes. 

Rezoning notice posted beside chain link fence with barbed wire. "Beware of dog" sign is just off frame.

But, according to the article, 76% of the homes and multi-unit structures are rental properties, a statistic that surprised me.  As in all college and university towns, investors buy properties to rent to students.  The 24% who own their homes have chosen this neighborhood knowing that it was adjacent to an established and growing university.  They also knew that the southern part of the neighborhood contained industrial uses that were, to use nontechnical but understandable terms, ugly and nasty.

Another view of the current use that sits adjacent to College Hill residents. How successful would a rezoning be that proposed something that looked like this?

A company from Ohio has proposed redeveloping the Newman Machine Company site (and some other properties) for a ten-acre student residential community, cleaning up decades of environmental contamination in the process.

Neighbors are appalled and shocked that a large-scale university development could replace an ugly, industrial part of the neighborhood that is highly unlikely to be redeveloped for anything but university use.

As with most zoning cases, the interesting comparisons are with scenarios that do not exist.  What if, for example, this ten acre site were completely undeveloped and existing residents were given a choice: the existing, ugly, environmentally contaminated Newman Machine Company site or a new, brick, nicely landscaped residential housing development for students.   Most residents would protest that this dichotomy is false, claiming that they would prefer a third choice instead — a residential development of a much smaller scale.

But scale raises issues of university needs and economic return to the housing developer.  Somewhere there is a pro forma that tells the developer how many housing units it needs merely to recoup its hard costs.  Anything less than that becomes a proposal for bankruptcy.  And somewhere there is a plan that outlines the university’s growth trajectories and its plans to meet them.  Third options don’t always exist.

Newman Machine Works adjacent to College Hill residences

Several dynamics are at work, the most common being a general resistance to change in the neighborhood that surrounds most rezoning requests.  As humans we don’t like change that we cannot control or envision or that alters our daily routine, especially when the change is not organic but the result of outside forces coming onto our turf.  Change by outsiders creates feelings of invasion. 

 If the university itself were building the complex, sentiments would be different.  The university is already a neighbor.  The company from Ohio is not. The end result may be identical, but when “them” becomes “us” we make different decisions about the need to gird loins for battle.

But another dynamic is resentment that the university — the very magnet that drew many people to this community for work or study or ambiance — must grow to remain strong.

Every zoning battle has its unique factors, but neighborhood resistance to growing college campuses and college life is common. 

People choose to live a few blocks from college campuses for all the obvious reasons, then resent the lights of the football stadium at night or the fraternity parties on weekends.  They love walkable access to symphonies in the university concert hall but oppose the new parking deck that the concert series necessitates.

This is little different than folks who knowingly choose to buy a home near a landfill then complain about odors, or who move to a subdivision “in the coutry,” a convenient mile from the city where their jobs and stores are located but who scream when a developer proposes another subdivision in their area to serve the town’s growing population.

UNC-Chapel Hill has had similar “town/gown” growth issues for decades and recently, in my humblest opinion, bowed too far to accommodate the competing interest groups who wanted to control the design of university growth for its new campus on long-held university property north of town.

 High Point University has, in the last five years, undergone a complete cinderella transformation, becoming one of the few growth industries in town and bringing with it a transformative creative class badly needed by a city whose  manufacturing muscles have atrophied.  But occasional neighbors shout so loudly that the city council sometimes seems to hear only the bumps and grinds that any growth would create, and the local paper has become a forum for myopic villification of one of the greatest things happening in the community. 

Although all change and all rezonings are not good, even good change is seldom comfortable.  But the alternative to change in an urban environment is stagnation.  Every city you can name that is vibrant for residents and enjoyable to visit is a city that has embraced and become excited about change.

Some places change easier than others, and diverse populations and economies make change much more difficult to manage.  But fear of change because all people aren’t happy can lead to least resistance, vanilla-flavored decisions.  Communities that stifle all but the easiest changes do so at their long term peril.

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