Must the Greens Hate the Rich? Class War in NC


Image credit: Sami Grover
Protesters Attack Luxury Green Apartments
Recently fly posters have been appearing around my town - "Greenbridge: Classism Applied Liberally"; "Greenbridge is Racist", and my personal favorite "Greenbridge Only Cares About One Thing" (Illustrated with a pile of dollar bills). The target of all this anger is Greenbridge Developments - a construction of high-tech, LEED Gold certified apartments that is being built on the edge of downtown Chapel Hill. The project has gotten much flack in activist circles for its prices (most apartments cost between $300,000 and $1,000,000) and its alleged role in the gentrification of a neighboring historically African-American neighborhood. But I can't help feeling these posters are missing the point.Disclaimer time: I should note at this point that since my interview with Tim Toben - co-founder of Greenbridge - we have become friends, and I brew biodiesel at a co-op based on Tim's farm. Anything I write is inevitably colored by my personal experience of Tim.

There are undoubtedly legitimate concerns that some in our community can afford $1 million penthouses while others struggle paycheck-to-paycheck only streets away. But isn't blaming Greenbridge for this disparity is a little like knocking Tesla because people drive expensive cars? Greenbridge has gone to great lengths to consult the local community, and has made numerous (hugely expensive) concessions, including losing two stories of their highest-cost apartments so as not to loom over a neighboring church. They even reoriented the building 90 degrees so as not to cut off the Northside neighborhood from nearby Franklin Street (the town's main shopping street). This latter decision will not only effect the bottom line, but also the environmental performance of the building - losing a natural daylighting advantage in favor of increased social equity.

Add to this the fact that the development includes 15 affordable 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom LEED Gold in-town units for under $100,000 (that are being subsidized by the more expensive market cost dwellings) and protesters anger seems to feel a little misdirected. What would be better? That the rich keep buying McMansions in gated communities? That expensive condos without all the cutting-edge green tech went up instead? Or that the plot be used for a big box store or multiscreen cinema? All being well, the folks behind Greenbridge may make some money from their investment, but if they had wanted to strike it rich, they would have invested in regular condos. or tar sands, or napalm, or clean coal...

At the end of the day, building at the cutting edge of sustainability is expensive, and the first-wave of modern green architecture will undoubtedly be out of most of our price range (just as the Tesla was not built for you or I). If purchasing a 1000 sq ft apartment downtown complete with a Zip Car fleet, green roof and a rainwater harvesting system becomes the new symbol of social and economic status, then I'll take that future over further residential sprawl (or a proliferation of the rural green elite like me!).

Of course we need affordable housing downtown. Of course the culture and integrity of existing communities needs to be respected. And of course economic and social disparities need to be addressed. People have a right to question whether Greenbridge serves these ends, or whether the planning process was robust enough (I would argue that on balance it does and it was) - but these posters simply paint the folks behind Greenbridge as cartoon-like baddies and money grabbing racists, rather than presenting a coherent argument for something better. If we can just blame an elite for all our social woes, then we don't need to address how each and everyone of us contributes to social divides and environmental destruction.

It seems to me that these protests are based more on a resentment of capitalism in general than on any specific problem with Greenbridge. Protesters might do better challenging the political forces that lead to social disparity, offering up a viable alternative to the status quo, and creating a plan and a timeline for getting us there. Preferably before climate change makes such arguments moot.

Tags: Activism | Architecture | Economics | North Carolina | Urban Planning

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