CHAPEL HILL — Representatives from the town of Chapel Hill and Ram Realty Services gathered Wednesday morning for a ceremonial groundbreaking to mark the start of construction of a major mixed-use project in the heart of downtown.
The $55 million, eight-story 140 West development will include 140 condominiums, 26,000 square feet of retail space and a public open space above two levels of underground parking.
The project, which has been in the works for more than a decade, will go on what is now the town's Parking Lot 5 at the intersection of West Franklin and Church streets.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said it will knit together the two ends of the downtown business district by replacing the parking lot with a retail and residential gathering place.
"That surface parking lot reflected a missed opportunity to connect East and West Franklin Street, to generate economic activity 24 hours or at least 18 hours a day, to enhance the tax base, and to be place where residents and visitors could come to enjoy downtown," he said. "It added to the argument that Chapel HIll had missed the mark. It was an emptiness. Now, I'm excited that this project will fill that gap."
Pre-construction preparation of the site began last month, with the closing of the parking lot and the removal of trees. Construction is expected to take about two years.
When it is finished, one of the underground parking levels will be owned and operated by the town of Chapel Hill, which will pay Ram $7.5 million for it.
The 140 West project was the first of several big downtown developments to be set in motion during the past decade, although one of the others, the two-towered Greenbridge condos a few blocks to the west on Rosemary Street, got built faster and opened last year. Another major project, the renovation of the University Square shopping center directly across Franklin Street from 140 West, is in the planning stages.
The 140 West project has seen several delays and generated some opposition over the years. Critics have complained that it will be too big and out of character for the area, criticized the town's fiscal involvement, and worried about the project's effect on the nearby neighborhood across Rosemary Street.
No such doubts were in evidence at the groundbreaking Wednesday, though. Ram Chairman Peter D. Cummings said he and his company are committed to being good neighbors.
"I'm very pleased that, after several tumultuous years, some of which none of could have predicted, we're still standing and ready to proceed," he said. "When I started out in this business, an older developer once told me, 'You know, we're not selling toasters here' and I mean no disrespect to people who sell toasters or are in the appliance business 'and if the neighbors don't like what you build, it's not as if they can wrap it up and bring it back to the store.' I've taken that to heart my whole career, and our company reflects that."