Orange County

Chapel Hill boards find University Place mall plans ‘exciting’ but not bold enough

Ideas for transforming a 1970s-era mall got a warm welcome Wednesday night and a few suggestions for fostering walkability and riding the bus.

The plan so far for University Place, the former University Mall, “is really, really exciting,” Chapel Hill Town Council member Rachel Schaevitz said.

“Love the path, with the idea of putting it on the inside of the mature tree buffer for shade and for connectivity to all of our other greenways,” she said. “This idea of the green space, the gathering space is spectacular.”

The developers’ concept plan is not an official application, but it does let the council and the town’s Community Design Commission give feedback.

Ashley Saulpaugh, investment director with Ram Realty Advisers, said the mall owner wants to create a vibrant, open-air town center with a better walkability on the 39.4-acre site. In the long term, the plan could add up to 840,000 square feet of retail, offices, hotel rooms and apartments, doubling the current square footage.

Part of the mall would be demolished in the first five years, creating a pedestrian plaza, Saulpaugh said. The main entrance off South Estes Drive would be moved, creating a green space lined with mature, existing trees. Two new office buildings — one potentially housing the Chapel Hill Police Department and other town offices — and a parking deck could be built along Willow Drive.

Beyond five years, Ram could look at redeveloping the area around K&W Cafeteria, Saulpaugh said. He did not share long-term plans for the area around Chapel Hill Tire and Harris Teeter.

UPlace exterior 10-3-2019
A “before” photo and “after” rendering show the changes that are planned for the University Place entrance across from Harris Teeter. Plans will be submitted to the Community Design Commission for approval this fall, Ram Realty officials said. Ram Realty/Ashley Saulpaugh Contributed

Alfredo’s moving, changes coming

Like other aging malls, University Place is struggling, Saulpaugh said, noting the interior space, which lost five tenants this year, is only 51% occupied.

Ram has continued work started under the previous owner to create outward-facing storefronts along the South Estes Drive facade. That work will continue next year at the building’s rear entrance, which faces Harris Teeter, he said.

Longtime tenant Alfredo’s Pizza Villa will expand into a new space, he said, and the Kidzu children’s museum’s outdoor space will move closer to its interior space. Ram also is working with the Chapel Hill Public Library to install a self-serve kiosk on that side of the building, he said.

Ram wants a conditional zoning permit for the larger redevelopment, which allows more conversations with council members and the public than a traditional special-use permit allows. An official redevelopment application could be submitted this fall.

Schaevitz and other council members urged Saulpaugh to scale back the proposed parking and add more green space, which could provide a permanent home for the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market and allow people to gather for concerts, classes and other events.

Ram also needs to show how existing and future transit would fit into the site, Schaevitz and council member Michael Parker said.

Chapel Hill Transit now has a bus stop near Silverspot Cinema, but a bus-rapid transit route on Fordham Boulevard is possible in the future, creating the need at least for a better pedestrian entryway, Parker said.

UPlace site plan 10-3-2019
A Ram Realty site plan shows the changes that could occur over the first three to five years of the redevelopment project at University Place in Chapel Hill. Ram Realty/Ashley Saulpaugh Contributed

Height, green space, land uses

The council was slightly more enthusiastic than the town’s Community Design Commission, which reviewed the plan Sept. 24. The commissioners wanted less paving and more green spaces, including an area that also could absorb stormwater along Estes Drive. They also suggested the developer take a bolder approach with taller, more dense buildings.

The concept plan shows Ram could ask for buildings ranging from three to seven stories tall. The new construction, Saulpaugh said, would be closer to the street and more energy efficient. The changes also would address stormwater on the site, which partly lies in the floodplain and has experienced flooding before.

Council member Nancy Oates, a liaison to that board, asked for more details Wednesday.

“I was excited about what could happen here, and I just didn’t see anything at the CDC presentation and I didn’t see anything here that really showed your vision, what uses, how tall. What you think this is going to be,” she said.

Ram’s vision reflects what the community would like to see, council member Hongbin Gu said, but it doesn’t do enough.

“It’s not the overall transformation that I think many of the people in this town would like to see,” she said. “They would like to see a center of the town that’s vibrant with commerce and lots of people gathering in places, and a bike-walk-transit hub.”

There are limitations, Saulpaugh responded, from being partially in the floodplain to having long-term leases that include parking. The larger plan will happen as those leases expire, he said.

“It’s not an appealing condition to have this large surface parking lot as your main feature,” Saulpaugh said. “We’re going to do what we can to soften it, but legally we can’t touch it otherwise.”

Chapel Hill Facebook group

What do you think of the plans for University Place? Join “Chapel Hill Carrboro Chat,” <> The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun’s Facebook group to discuss local government matters in Orange and northern Chatham counties.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.