Chapel Hill's downtown projects stir varied feelings

Staff WriterMarch 21, 2006 

Jonathan Whitney, chairman of the town's community design commission, said most members of his advisory board are "both excited and nervous" about plans to develop two downtown parking areas.

Such was the mixed reaction at a public hearing Monday on the proposal to build condominiums and retail units at lot 5, off Franklin and Church streets, and the Wallace parking deck, off East Rosemary Street.

Old-school residents think the projects change too much too fast, while proponents say it will give downtown an economic and aesthetic boost.

The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership wrote a letter supporting the projects, while a prominent downtown business owner spoke out against them -- a sign of the split on the matter.

Scott Maitland, who owns the prominent Top of the Hill restaurant in the heart of downtown, said the town "isn't prepared" for nine stories of development. The interior building at lot 5 is slated to be that high, 110 feet.

Many share Maitland's concern. "They're too tall, too big and too imposing," Donald Stanford Jr., a Chapel Hill lawyer, wrote in a letter to the town council. "The architectural design seems to be that of generic office parks. Most of all, nothing about them says 'Chapel Hill.' "

Town leaders have spent years discussing these plans with a hired consultant, but now must become the regulator. The town owns the two parcels, and is partnering with Ram Development Co. from Florida to build on them. Plans call for a total of 223 condos and 30,000 square feet of retail space.

Council members will have to weigh concerns aired Monday in making a decision.

Maitland said he's worried the town already is too invested, having spent about half a million dollars on consultants and studies.

"The perception is, this development is going to happen as is," Maitland said.

Council member Cam Hill, though, said he also worries about the project.

"The project is scary to me because it's a big departure from what we've done," he said. "At the same time, I'm very enthusiastic about many aspects of this."

Council members took turns asking questions such as how difficult it will be to access the underground parking garage at lot 5, and what kind of retail outlets will go there.

Susan Tjarksen, Ram's senior vice president for development, said safety will be an issue when cars cross the sidewalk on Franklin to enter the parking garage through an alleyway.

She also said no big-box stores will go in the retail centers. The largest likely will be a restaurant as large as 3,500 square feet. A small grocery store also is a likely tenant, Tjarksen said.

But aesthetics perhaps will play the largest role in whether the council and the community accept the end product.

Hill got in the quip of the night in discussing his concern that cheap and unattractive materials would be used. He pointed to a conceptual drawing that depicted stroller-pushing users of the outdoor plaza at lot 5. In a dry, sarcastic tone he said, "Look at all those happy people in the public space. How can it be bad?"

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

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