Driving to the assisted living facility where my dear bride Betsy was to reside was a breeze in the weeks before she moved in. One drove south on the wide highway for about a mile, then jogged left to join a quiet, two-lane street paralleling the highway on its east side. A few blocks later, at the end of this road, one turned left, and the assisted living home was right there.
But then the orange barriers and the detour signs went up, and now the trip takes one on a slow, circuitous tour of one of Chapel Hill’s most inviting and beloved neighborhoods.
The end of World War II swelled the populations of university towns across America as returning military veterans sought educational benefits supported by the GI Bill of Rights. Chapel Hill’s population grew by 250 percent from 1940 to 1950. That’s when W. D. Carmichael, president of the University of North Carolina, tapped the shoulder of local contractor William Muirhead and asked his help in creating a development to ease the demand for affordable housing.
Muirhead and colleague Leif Valand designed Glen Lennox’s 70 acres with wide, curving streets, preserving many of the area’s trees and planting plenty new ones. They built 314 modest apartments as one-story cottages to start, then added another 126 three years later. Glen Lennox, just a mile east of the UNC campus, became hugely popular for young families after the war. Its “alumni” include many successful physicians, lawyers, athletes and educators who lived there while studying at the university.
Today, this shady sanctuary faces the inevitable bulldozers of change. In 2014, the Town of Chapel Hill approved a development plan for the cherished neighborhood that could take 20 years to complete. Early changes include a 215-unit apartment building, a five-story parking deck and a 6,793-square-foot clubhouse and pool. Eventually, the project will include about 1,500 new apartments, 150 new hotel rooms, 150,000 square feet of commercial space, and about 600,000 square feet of office space.
You can imagine how residents of this beautiful historic neighborhood feel about this.
Such change is inevitable, I suppose, as populations and their needs shift with the passing years. I understand this but struggle to accept much of the ugliness and scale that take the place of beauty. I hope that the new Glen Lennox will be beautiful in its way. Until then, I’ll enjoy that slow, sweet drive through the neighborhood to see my bride.