W. Franklin St. plans include mixed uses in multiple stories

Staff WriterSeptember 6, 2007 

— In 2003, Richard Gaylord and Bill Jackson bought the site of the China House Restaurant at Franklin and Graham streets and then waited "for that side of Chapel Hill to get some momentum," Gaylord said. Four years later, the partners are ready to cash in.

With hundreds of new condos, offices and retail space being planned within a few blocks, Gaylord and Jackson want to replace the China House and adjacent Estetica Silvia salon with three or four stories of offices, shops and maybe some condos.

Jackson is advertising the site as an opportunity for businesses to buy offices or storefront condos. He has also contacted surrounding property owners, proposing a collaborative mixed-use project.

"We would love the opportunity to plan with any of our neighbors," Gaylord said. "We could take a two-plus-two scenario and make it equal five."

"If we could add more property, it might be a good hotel site," said Jackson, who developed nine Comfort Inns back in the 1980s.

The China House land is in the Town Center-II zoning district, which allows a maximum height of 44 feet, or four stories, at the sidewalk and as much as 90 feet, or eight stories, in the interior of a city block. Jackson said the one-seventh-acre lot might be large enough for a such a step-back approach, like the one utilized at the new Franklin Hotel and the Bank of America complex on East Franklin Street.

"It would be better if it was combined with some property in the rear," he said. "The land prices have risen, and generally that means that the developer's likely to build the maximum height that's reasonably approvable by the town."

The partners paid $425,000 for the property four years ago. A piece of land a few blocks east on Franklin Street, the former McFarling's Exxon, recently sold for $1.7 million. It is about 2 1/2 times as large as the China House site.

John Sale, who runs Franklin Auto across Franklin Street from the China House, said rising rent in the up-and-coming West End may force his business out. "This whole area's going to change," Sale said. "We might be priced out of it."

Gaylord said their plans were spurred by the approval of the Greenbridge eco-towers on the other side of Graham Street and Ram Development's plans for the corner of Franklin and Church streets, along with "rumblings of other properties in the area being redeveloped."

Gaylord and Jackson are trying to piggyback on plans for redeveloping 300 W. Main St. in Carrboro, the site of the Cat's Cradle rock club and the ArtsCenter. They're planning more than 50 condos and 16,000 square feet of office space between the ArtsCenter plaza and the Libba Cotton Bikeway.

"We see a lot of potential in that transition area from Chapel Hill over to Carrboro, and we see what we think's got to be a resurgence of the appearance of Franklin Street up and down," Gaylord said. "What we've got now is small storefronts that just do not appear to be prosperous.

"You ride down Franklin Street, and the look that you get, it just doesn't fit," he said. "It deserves a first-class Southern-town look."

Staff writer Jesse James DeConto can be reached at 932-8760 or jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com.

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