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Shelton Station makes sense

Patrick McDonough
Over the past few years, the cold economic winds blowing in our nation have postponed or scuttled multiple development projects in Carrboro. We are fortunate to have under consideration a mixed-use project that will positively impact Carrboro in terms of the environment, economic activity and, most importantly, social equity. That project is Shelton Station.

Located just a few blocks north of the heart of downtown, Shelton Station and the residents of its 96 apartments will create a considerably smaller carbon footprint than if those same units were built on the edge of town. Why? Carrboro – and particularly downtown – is built to encourage the most environmentally friendly travel behavior in the state. As of 2009, Carrboro has a higher percentage of bicycle and public-transit commuters than any other North Carolina town. In the part of town with the most transportation choices, Shelton Station residents will be able to take advantage of these options.

Economically, the presence of another 125 to 170 residents so close to downtown will boost local business activity, in addition to generating construction jobs in the short term. Some worry that Shelton Station does not have enough commercial space included, but those individuals should consider the common adage in commercial real estate: “Retail follows rooftops.” In order to achieve the worthy goal of doubling commercial space in our downtown by 2020, we will need also to expand the local market of residential shoppers to support that commercial space. With that in mind, the significant residential component of Shelton Station should enhance the market viability of downtown commercial space in future developments by putting more customers close to downtown shopping opportunities.

The most compelling reason to support Shelton Station, however, is on equity grounds and the need to sustain a place for the middle class in Carrboro. In November 2011, the public-interest journalism nonprofit Pro Publica published the illuminating “Income Inequality Near You” tool on its website that distressingly demonstrates that Orange County has become one of the worst counties in the nation in terms of income inequality. In fact, 98 percent of all U.S. counties had a more equitable distribution of income than Orange County. By comparison, 67 percent counties were more equitable than Durham County, and 54 percent of counties were more equitable than Wake County.

Lest it be misconstrued that this is a county-only problem, American Community Survey data I analyzed on The Village Project blog in April 2011 tells a related story within Carrboro. In the year 2000, 69 percent of Carrboro households had incomes of $50,000 or below. By 2009, the percentage of Carrboro households with incomes of $50,000 or less had fallen to 59 percent. During the same time period, Carrboro added approximately 900 households earning more than $100,000 a year and experienced a net loss of roughly 90 households earning less than $100,000 a year.

When you look at numerous data sources, a simple story emerges: The central reason behind this loss of middle-class residents in the county and our town is the lack of affordable housing. If Carrboro does not want to become a town where only the wealthy can afford to live, then the town must approve more housing. That housing should be developed on Carrboro’s terms, in accordance with Carrboro’s values and priorities. As Shelton Station developer Ken Reiter has proposed pursuing green features in the building design, providing covered bicycle parking and renting 10 percent of the units to be affordable to workers at 60 percent of the median income, there is evidence that Reiter has thought carefully about ways to reflect Carrboro values in Shelton Station’s design.

Recently, The Carrboro Citizen published some outgoing wisdom from longtime Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Joal Hall Broun, who said, “I think that Carrboro should work hard so that we don’t price ourselves out of diversity.” I could not agree more. Fortunately, a lot of hard work has gone into developing the plans for Shelton Station, and the resulting proposal is one that is likely to bring economic and environmental benefits to Carrboro while expanding the housing stock, thus reducing the price-out pressure facing Carrboro’s middle-class residents. I encourage the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to move Carrboro forward on all three dimensions of sustainability by approving this project.

Patrick McDonough is a Carrboro resident and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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