The Town Council unanimously approved a Nobel laureate’s plan Monday to bring Turkish culture and visiting scholars to a cultural center on East Franklin Street.
The Sancar Turkish Cultural and Community Center and its guesthouse will be landscaped with fruit and canopy trees, flowers and other plantings, said Gwen Sancar, co-founder of the Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation. The center will be available to the community for holding classes and for holiday and other events.
Aziz Sancar, a native of Turkey, is a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who has worked at UNC since 1982. Gwen Sancar is a UNC professor of biochemistry and biophysics.
“We believe it will be an asset to this town and will serve as yet another symbol of the fact that Chapel Hill is an open community that values diversity and values inclusiveness,” Gwen Sancar said.
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The plan features a 9,700-square-foot community hall with classrooms, offices and 38 parking spaces on 1.7 acres accessible at 1609 E. Franklin St. A two-story scholars guesthouse will be located at the rear of the property, with driveway access and four parking spaces off Velma Street.
The center will share overflow parking with its neighbors, Psychology Associates and the Ballet School of Chapel Hill.
While the plan faced little criticism when proposed earlier this year, some residents recently came out against a 20-foot driveway from the commercially zoned site to Velma Street in the Coker Hills neighborhood.
Town staff worked with the foundation to modify the plan and offer two options: Approve a guesthouse restricted to only center guests, limited to seven-day stays and with no parking on Velma Street, among other conditions, or separate the lots and approve a residentially zoned duplex with a 10-foot driveway.
Neighbors critical of Velma Street access rejected both, saying they want to protect the neighborhood’s 60-year architectural and botanical history.
“Right now, I think it is true that most of the people in the neighborhood support the work that the Sancars are trying to do and more than ever they need to do at this point,” Jill Blackburn said. “The sticking point though is that what we have right now is East Franklin Street property, zoned now commercial, asking for access into our historic neighborhood.”
The driveway is among several concerns, added Gigi McDonald, who also cited noise and lights from Franklin Street and the center, how access to commercial land might affect home values, the precedent it might set and what would happen if the property is sold in the future.
Council member George Cianciolo said he doesn’t expect parking problems or commercial spillover.
“It’s not a hotel, it’s not a Starbucks, it’s not a Target,” he said. “It’s a place where people come together, it’s a community gathering place, and it’s something that I think really will fully show the values of Chapel Hill.”
Tom Henkel, vice chairman of the town’s Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board, noted all advisory boards endorsed the project, which meets and exceeds energy conservation and other standards. The sloping land makes it impossible to access the guesthouse from Franklin Street, he added.
Others urged the council to consider how the project can enhance the town’s reputation and promote cultural ties.
“I believe the establishment of a Turkish cultural center here in Chapel Hill is something that will be an important event not just for the town, but for the entire region and even for the state of North Carolina,” Jordan Scepanski said. “There may be other such centers in the U.S., but none that I’m aware of having quite the ambition and the reach of the proposed facility and certainly not the commitment to such as evidence by Aziz and Gwen Sancar’s foundation.”
The Sancars have run the nonprofit Carolina Turk Evi (Turkish Center) at 743 E. Franklin St. since 2007, hosting scholars and researchers, and promoting understanding between Turks and Americans. The new center will be built at a time when anti-American rhetoric is on the rise in Turkey.