Orange County

Big changes planned for University Place in Chapel Hill. Housing, high-rises possible

Hawkers restaurant at University Place

Orlando-based Hawkers Asian Street Fare will open a new location early in 2020 at University Place mall in Chapel Hill. Mall owner Ram Realty plans to add more restaurants and shops, with the potential for offices and apartments in the future.
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Orlando-based Hawkers Asian Street Fare will open a new location early in 2020 at University Place mall in Chapel Hill. Mall owner Ram Realty plans to add more restaurants and shops, with the potential for offices and apartments in the future.

Ram Realty wants to completely transform the town’s 1970s-era University Place mall.

A concept plan divides the 39.4-acre parcel into five areas, four focused on office and commercial use. The fifth area would also have residential space.

Buildings would rise five and seven stories on most of the property, with three-story buildings along South Estes Drive. The exteriors could feature architectural elements that reflect a more pedestrian-friendly space, said Ashley Saulpaugh, investment director with Ram Realty Advisers.

Existing buildings would be renovated and new buildings added, for up to 840,000 square feet of potential development — at least twice the existing square footage.

The plan shows up to 590 apartments and 250 hotel rooms. A parking deck is proposed along Willow Drive, and there would be improved bike, pedestrian and bus connections, as well as more driveways.

The developer also could ask for up to five drive-throughs, similar to what Carraway Village developers got from the town for the 55-acre project being built on Eubanks Road in northern Chapel Hill.

But the plan isn’t just about adding more pavement and roofs — impervious surfaces that are a concern in the flood-prone Estes Drive area. It also calls for replacing part of the mall with a green central gathering area and walkways connecting the buildings. Other plazas, green spaces and potentially a kids’ splash pad could be scattered throughout the property.

“We want to be able to have more events at the property, have regular programming there, like fitness classes and arts festivals,” Saulpaugh said. “Right now, the (Chapel Hill) Farmer’s Market is out in the surface parking lot with tents, so we want to find a fixed location for them that actually feels intentional.”

Public conversation pending

A concept plan is not an official application, but it does let the Town Council and the Community Design Commission give feedback to the developer. Neither board votes on concept plans.

An official application could be submitted by Nov. 1, Saulpaugh said. A rezoning is needed to allow for taller, more dense construction.

Until the project gets final approvals, the buildings, streets, potential uses and site layouts remain flexible, he said. Ram plans to ask for a conditional zoning permit, which allows the development team to talk more with council members and the public than a traditional special-use permit allows.

“Given the size and scale of the property, we think this is absolutely necessary to have full dialogue and be open-book and work through it together to get to a place where hopefully everyone’s happy at the end of the day,” Saulpaugh said.

Saulpaugh acknowledged a little trepidation about the concept plan’s release, because people may think “it’s this kind of North Hills, super-dense project.”

“The block plan is great because it gives you flexibility to do different things on different blocks, which we need just given the complexities of the property and the fact that we have 45 tenants there with different lease terms,” he said. “And things will happen just as they sort of shake out in the retail world, which could be different tomorrow than it is today.”

Hotels, apartments

University Place, built in 1973, includes the mall building and several outparcels: a vacant bank, gas station and SunTrust bank on South Estes Drive, a K&W Cafeteria on Fordham Boulevard, and a larger building with a Harris Teeter and Chapel Hill Tire on Willow Drive.

A hotel and apartments are possible where the K&W now sits. The Harris Teeter and Chapel Hill Tire could be redeveloped to include up to 90,000 square feet of commercial and office space. Up to 25,000 square feet of office and commercial space could be located on Estes Drive.

Another 150,000 square foot office building, more apartments, and potentially a hotel are slated for an existing parking lot on Willow Drive. That area is where Chapel Hill and Ram Realty are talking about moving the Chapel Hill Police Department and other town offices.

The largest piece would be the redevelopment of the existing mall. The plan shows up to a half-million square feet of commercial and office space, plus the potential for hotel rooms and apartments.

UPlace site plan
A concept plan submitted in late August for the longtime University Place mall in Chapel Hill shows multiple areas of commercial and office space, apartments and hotel rooms. The final plan is expected to change as the plan is further developed. Ram Realty Contributed

The goal is to “create improved gathering spaces, upgraded landscaping, and more modern facilities and uses which should be beneficial to the surrounding properties and the Town of Chapel Hill as a whole,” the plan states.

Marc Pons, co-owner of Chapel Hill Tire, said his shop and the newly renovated Harris Teeter have long-term leases with Ram Realty. Ram has a lot at stake and has been “great to work with,” he said. Pons noted he has “faith in their decisions.”

“If they put the money (forward) and they’re going to do the research and try to make sure whatever they do that there’s good demand for (it), I’m excited,” Pons said. “I’m excited about all the development in Chapel Hill, and I feel like it’s going to bring new energy, new opportunities, new innovations to town.”

Efforts to reach other major University Place tenants Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Blue Hill extension

Saulpaugh said Ram also sees University Place as an extension of the Blue Hill District, which lies east of the mall, from roughly Elliott Road and Franklin Street to Ephesus Church and Legion roads.

A form-based code outlines requirements for the size and appearance of buildings in the district, and how development relates to the surrounding landscape.

New buildings at University Place would echo that in some ways, such as putting new construction closer to the street and creating pedestrian connections. The plan notes that new construction also would be more energy efficient and do more to treat stormwater.

The mall’s previous owner built several bioretention basins filled with sandy soil and plants in the parking lot after a damaging 2000 flood. The improvements have reduced flooding in the mall’s parking lot during heavy rains.

Ram has since added floodgates, Saulpaugh said, and they also plan to reduce paved surfaces that produce stormwater runoff and raise some buildings to allow parking and stormwater to flow underneath.

“We will never be able to get a permit if we cause any rise whatsoever to the flood (levels),” he said.

University Place 2019-3.jpg
Ram Real Estate bought Chapel Hill’s University Place mall in December 2018 with plans to continue renovations started by the former owner. The next phase will add exterior entrances to several mall storefronts, including the vacant space shown in this artist’s rendering, Fine Feathers, William Travis Jewelry and Red Bowl restaurant. BB+M Architecture Contributed

Changes already underway

Ram has made a number of other changes over the last nine months, including the creation of outward-facing storefronts and the addition of new shops and restaurants.

The owners of Hawkers, an Asian street food restaurant, already are at work transforming a space near the mall’s main South Estes Drive entrance. The restaurant could open early next year.

Two adjacent retail spaces could be renovated later this year, although tenants have not been announced. The Frame and Print Shop moved recently from that end to a larger space in the mall, he said.

Saulpaugh has said the focus is on unique restaurants, alternative boutiques and stores. The area between Bartaco and Hawkers potentially could include a healthy, fast-casual restaurant and a yoga and pilates studio, he said.

“We’re not trying to compete with Southpoint or any of these larger, regional retail projects, and we can’t compete with them,” he has said. “We’re trying to bring in really strong local operators or regional operators that have 10 to 15 locations that have a focus on really high-quality design, and it becomes more of a destination for that reason.”

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