Historic St. Paul A.M.E. Church to Build Affordable Housing in Traditionally Black Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood
It’s a rare proposal that has support from those on both sides of Chapel Hill’s growth debate.
by Chase Pellegrini de Paur for Indy Week
Since the Civil War era, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church has stood proudly at the junction between Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
The church has watched the towns around it grow and change. It saw the post-Reconstruction solidification of the white supremacist state, the Great Migration, and the Jim Crow era. In the past decade, it saw the saga of gentrification play out in the Greenbridge condos, the foreclosed modern towers of straight lines and glass panes just across the street.
As the towns around it have grown and changed, so has the building of the church itself. The original wooden structure has been renovated and expanded into a redbrick building with stained-glass windows and a steeple that watches over traffic flowing between Franklin and Main Streets.
Looking to the future, St. Paul has emphasized that the congregation isn’t going anywhere and has declined offers from developers who continue to eye its prime location between the two downtowns.
But it is time for the church to grow—just on a separate plot of land. This autumn, the members of the oldest Black church in Chapel Hill gained the town council’s approval to build an entire community anchored by 350 apartments.
“We attempted to develop a vision that would encompass not just the needs of the community but the church itself, and that would project as well into the future,” says Bernice Hackney, a board member of the St. Paul Neighborhood Improvement Development Association (NIDA), a nonprofit run by church members. In the 1960s, Hackney was one of the first Black students to integrate Chapel Hill High School.
Construction is set to begin on the St. Paul Village in the summer of 2024 and will take around two years to complete. With around 90 affordable units and 100 for seniors, the village will be built on faith, ambition, and roughly 20 acres in the historically Black Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood. The development will also include a recreation facility, a community center, space for retail, and a sanctuary to be used for Sunday services and other events.
Back in October, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved the St. Paul Village in a process that looked different from the usual tense ordeal in town hall. The developers, associated with the church, walked the precarious balance between the concerns of Chapel Hill’s pro-growth and slow-growth political factions and gained unanimous support from commentators, council, and candidates.
That support was far from incidental—the church, and individuals like Hackney, banked the goodwill they had earned through a long history of service in Chapel Hill.
Before St. Paul was founded in 1864, enslaved people “worshiped in segregated sections of Chapel of the Cross, University Baptist Church, and other churches run by white residents,” according to the website of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving Black neighborhoods and advocating for civil rights.
“But Black church-goers quickly moved to found their own congregations where they could worship independently as soon as possible,” the Jackson Center website states.
In the early 2000s, St. Paul started seriously considering expansion of the existing church. But plans to build its existing building up or out wouldn’t have provided enough space for one of the biggest drives behind the project: community service.
Looking beyond Franklin Street, the church bought several parcels of land on Rogers road for around $900,000, including interest on loans. Around the time of the housing crisis and financial crash in 2008, St. Paul realized that affordable housing was one of the greatest needs for a community like Chapel Hill.
In 2012, NIDA gained council approval for a development of 87 units with around 15 affordable. But the timing wasn’t quite right. The town hadn’t yet expanded water and sewage services to that area.
“Anything we built was going to be dependent on a septic system, and that’s a huge cost,” says Dr. Rose Snipes, a NIDA board member who presented the plan to the council. Snipes and Hackney raised money to pay off the mortgage on the land by 2016. Like the rest of the project, says Snipes, “we never got any funding from anybody. This is all self-funded.”
Snipes and Hackney raised most of the money from the congregation itself.
The project had a few other small bumps after the 2012 plan was approved. The architect and engineer both died before construction began. And then the world shut down in a pandemic. Suddenly it had been a decade since the approval, and Chapel Hill had changed, with a council and a public more comfortable with larger developments.
NIDA came back to the council this year with the new plan for 350 units. That jump from 87 units was not just about making a larger impact in the community; it was also a matter of “fiscal viability,” says Hackney. Large developments are generally less expensive to finance on a per-unit basis.
Right now, the site is a mostly empty field that used to be a small plantation—some descendants of slaves from that farm still live in Chapel Hill. But once construction ends, St. Paul Village hopes to be a “A Place for Everyone.”
“It supports a diverse community, it has a walkable community, it’s built with a pedestrian-oriented mixed use, it focuses on small businesses, as well as maintaining the culture and well-being of the local community,” said Snipes to the council in September.
In 2012, NIDA had been waiting for water and sewage to be extended to the neighborhood. Some residents of the neighborhood had been waiting since the 1970s, when the Orange County Landfill was built on Rogers Road with enough promises to fill a county dump truck: “Nearly 40 years ago, people living in the Rogers-Eubanks community agreed to allow the county to build a landfill in their neighborhood. They believed that in return they would receive basic necessities such as water and sewer hookup, storm drains, curbs, gutters, streetlights, sidewalks, a recreation center and green space,” the INDY reported in 2014.
There was also a promise to eventually turn the landfill into a park. But in 2023, it’s still a landfill, with toxins leaking into the ground, water, and air.
That history of broken promises was emphasized by members of Orange County Justice United (OCJU), an organization of faith groups, who showed up to the council meeting to push for approval.
“The project is led by community members whose families are among those who have been historically affected, in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, by long-standing and entrenched discriminatory practices,” OCJU member Kathy Kauffmann told the council. “St. Paul Village is an important step in the right direction.”
“This is God-sent,” added member Robert Campbell.
In October, several council members were embroiled in an election cycle full of local drama. The project, though, was unanimously approved. Emails of support came from residents who are typically skeptical of large developments, including then candidates for council Breckany Eckhardt and David Adams as well as CHALT (Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town) cofounder Julie McClintock.
And when the proposal was approved, most of the audience members stood to applaud and hug one another. Many of them were older, Black residents who have been hearing about the project for decades.
“Thank you,” council member Paris Miller-Foushee said to representatives and supporters of the project. “Thank you for imagining, thank you for dreaming, thank you for being persistent.”
“Go forth and conquer, we’re so excited,” added Mayor Pam Hemminger.
“If only they could all end that way,” said one council member, off-mic.