Downtown plans shape up

Now, an NCSU expert says, 'the architecture really begins.'

Staff WriterFebruary 28, 2006 

Not to compare Franklin Street to "Sunset Boulevard," but proposals to redevelop two downtown parking areas are now, finally, ready for their close-up.

Town leaders have spent about four years and more than $1 million taking plans from vague brainstorms to the detailed drawings shown Monday night.

Starting this month, Town Council members will have to put on their hats as regulators and scrutinize the project they've spent so much time conceiving.

If they approve the project, it will pave the way for roughly $70 million worth of condominiums, retail outlets and public space.

"Certainly this is an exciting moment in this project," said Marvin Malecha, dean of N.C. State University's college of design, who worked for free reviewing potential designs and gave a presentation Monday.

Ram Development Co., the Florida firm the town commissioned to develop lot 5 and the Wallace parking deck, will submit a plan for review March 20. That will mark the beginning of nitty-gritty conversations about details, particularly what kinds of materials should be used.

"This is where the architecture really begins," Malecha said.

Town leaders are in an unusual spot because they also are one of the developers.

The town has outlined a deal with Ram in which, if the project gets town approval, the town would contribute $500,000 to cover some of the costs of constructing an underground parking deck at lot 5.

Ram would be in charge of construction and would have to pay for any cost overruns.

There would be about 230 residential units and about 30,000 square feet of retail space.

Malecha praised the proposed designs Monday night.

He held several sessions with the Ram design team to critique the structure of the sites.

Casey Cummings, Ram's president, said he was skeptical of getting Malecha involved in October. Town Manager Cal Horton suggested it.

"As a developer, the last thing you want to hear is there's a delay in your project to get advice from a dean of a school of architecture," Cummings said. "It's usually not a good idea. But I think, in this case, it was time well spent."

Malecha talked about designing a modern structure that didn't seem out of place among the Colonial Revival buildings prominent in Chapel Hill.

They've designed what he calls a "soft modern expression, contextual modernism."

He called the design at lot 5, which is bordered by Franklin, Church and Rosemary streets, "a building that has a lot of stories to tell."

Malecha said the project atop the Wallace parking deck, at West Rosemary and Henderson streets, could become a role model for other cities looking to redevelop drab utilitarian buildings.

"Right now, I would say this project has good bones," Malecha told the council. "There's a lot to work with."

Also Monday, the town approved spending $214,000 to hire six new firefighters using money recently acquired from the state.

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 932-8760 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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