It’s fairly common knowledge now that a new hotel is likely to come to West Rosemary Street later this year.
The town heard from developer OTO early in 2014 that they were interested in putting a hotel along the north side of West Rosemary between Church Street and Pritchard, and their final hearing is in front of the Town Council in September.
This is no bed and breakfast but a proposed 123-room hotel with pool, bar, restaurant and two-stories of underground parking by the Marriott subsidiary AC Hotels, a Spanish origin brand. The developer’s application seems to mirror the town’s interests, stating: “Hotel guests as well the local community will sense the hotel is part of the community. ... The hotel’s convenient location to Rosemary and Franklin Street and UNCs campus makes walking and alternative transportation accessible. The hotel is accessible to the community and the community is accessible to the hotel guest.”
This sounds great and as I circle the target block, have a beer at funky old Los Potrillos, admire La Residence’s (which is staying) fabulous streetside flower and vegetable garden and contemplate how the replacement of the three older houses-turned-commercial-space with this new, “urban and modern” hotel may alter what we perceive makes our town “special.” Will this four-story hotel at the edge of Northside change, enhance or chip away in some incomprehensible and subtle way at that illusive and highly subjective sense of place that makes people want to visit, linger and enjoy?
My rational inner city planner and tax-paying Chapel Hill property owner say “bring on the infill” and commercial development, increase the liveliness of downtown and bring the more reasonably priced hotel rooms the applicant promises. The three buildings slated for replacement are neither historical nor architecturally significant. They’re obsolete functionally as modern office space or restaurant space.
Years ago the former owner of La Residence, when it was where Los Potrillos is now, told me that a large female patron wearing spike heels punctured the already weak wooden floor. Meandering through recently I could feel the squishiness of the floor and discern dips and slopes beneath the carpet and tile overlaying that old wood. The bright ochre and red paint was peeling slightly. Window sills along the outdoor porch edge were near the end of life and those busted up vinyl fence pickets along the front need to leave. I paid under four dollars for a Tecate along with the chips and a respectable red salsa – a price point that is becoming rarer as Chapel Hill (and Carrboro) gain cachet and brew pubs. There was an undeniable air of sadness among the staff as they knew that this would be their last season at ‘The Colts’.
Next door is a broad-porched, two-story shake shingled building housing a law office, a local realty and some other small businesses. Wonder where they will go? You rarely see anyone advertising ‘Class B’ office space and with the exception of the old golden oak floors, floor-to-ceiling double hung wooden windows and central hall dominated by a staircase this is very likely ‘Class B’ in terms of wiring, lighting, heating, cooling, storage and the lack of various amenities found in modern office space. Travelling east find an narrow brick house with its tiny front porch and patterned squares among the conventional horizontal red brick. It was occupied most recently by local chiropractor Chas Gaertner, now relocated to Carrboro. I have never been inside and now likely never will.
Conversing with the OTO development company CEO Corry Oakes, it’s clear that the guy had really done his homework in assembling this compact yet serviceable parcel for the kind of infill that will definitely fill several needs in Chapel Hill. His company’s development application emphasizes walkability for guests. OTO’s design intent of including a visible fire pit and open lobby area says they want interaction with the street and for their guests to get out into the community. I liked that along with what I’d read of their commitment to energy and water conservation and recycling. I only hope they go with sound proof glass so their guests aren’t surprised or annoyed by the night noise downtown in a lively college town.
I told the developer that some of the renderings I’d seen made it feel like the hotel was closed off from the street and the design seemingly bland. He disagreed and noted their intent is to have a “relaxed modern blend of art and architecture.” He also indicated that they were attempting to donate as much of the old buildings’ pieces and parts to various possible users like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore before demolition. I hope that the actual design not only may incorporate some of the old buildings’ parts but perhaps even offer local artists some wall space.
Perhaps this AC design will be more imaginative and visually friendly than the non-descript 140 West across the street with its flat panels, lack of decorative detail and sterile exterior color scheme. As one goes west along Rosemary, the Shortbread Lofts exhibit a bit of design pizzazz, but again the lack of any sort of more decorative eye-appealing detail to soften the hard-edged modernism that seems to be taking over downtown leads me back to my contemplation of what it is that makes up our ephemeral sense of place and how these changes will affect what we think Chapel Hill is as it grows up and the core urbanizes.
You can reach Blair Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org