University Square Demolition To Start This Month

Big changes are coming to Franklin Street’s University Square starting this month.

“The construction fencing is going up as we speak, and it will look like there’s not much activity for several weeks,” says Meg McGurk, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. “Then those three buildings in the front that are closest to Franklin Street will come down, and construction of the new buildings will begin.”

For decades the downtown strip mall just west of Colombia Street was known as University Square, then later called 123 West Franklin.

The new Carolina Square, as it will now be known, will include 246 apartments, 159,000 square feet of office space and 42,000 square feet of retail as well as one acre of green space and a parking deck with 880 spaces.

McGurk says it’s the largest downtown redevelopment in Chapel Hill’s history.

“It’s going to be a dramatic change for our downtown, a vast improvement and a better use for that site, bringing a lot of new businesses and people living and working downtown,” says McGurk. “So it’s really exciting.”

The $120 million project will consist of two six-story buildings and one ten-story building. Construction will start once the trio of buildings currently on the site is torn down. Demolition begins this month and will last through October.

Despite the complexity involved in tearing down what’s already standing, McGurk says you’re not likely to see any large scale explosions on Franklin Street anytime soon.

“I have begged to be able to blow up those buildings, but it will not be a massive explosion, even though I think that would be fun to see. It will be a typical deconstruction with machinery.”

The property is owned by Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings, which is the real estate arm for UNC.

Developer Northwood Ravin will manage the residential side, while Cousins Properties will oversee commercial leasing.

To date, UNC has already committed to leasing 62,000 square feet to accommodate the Carolina Population Center and the School of Public Health’s Biostatistics and Epidemiology groups.

There are no changes are planned for the student housing complex Granville Towers, which shares the 11-acre lot with Carolina Square.

The full project is slated for completion in summer of 2017.

Costs Up, Partnerships Down, But “People Want To Live Here”

Affordability, taxes, housing, solid waste, economic development, and the future of Carolina North and Rogers Road: all longstanding hot-button issues in Orange County, and all requiring strong partnerships between the local municipalities as well as UNC.

Orange County leaders say the time is now to make those partnerships stronger.

“One of our major issues is to renew the strength and vitality of our partnerships with the municipalities,” says Barry Jacobs, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “I think we’ve lost touch to some degree.”

At the center of the conversation is the eternal question of affordability: how to manage the cost of living while preserving a desirable community, in a space with little room to grow.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says that’s often an issue in college towns – and it’s certainly the case in Chapel Hill.

“University towns are very, very highly sought after,” she says. “I try every day to recruit faculty and staff and students…of course they’re concerned about price of living, (but) mostly we hear that people want to live here. So I think we are still on the positive side of this equation: this is a very high-choice place.”

But with that desirability comes a number of challenges – including, perhaps most notably, the cost of housing. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says those costs are worth it: “I sometimes look around (my house) and think, wow, for this price I could be in a much bigger place in Durham,” he says, “but I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.”

And while higher property values still mean Chapel Hillians are paying more dollars in taxes, Kleinschmidt notes that Chapel Hill’s property tax rate is actually lower than many of our neighboring communities.

Still, the cost of housing is a strain, one that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to live in Chapel Hill. And not only Chapel Hill: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the affordability question is affecting his community as well.

“We’re seeing rising costs (too),” he says. “It’s a little bit less expensive to live here, so we’re finding families move out (of Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and folks wanting to be in Hillsborough – (but) as prices go up, we’re finding a lot of our families are moving to Mebane.”

The housing crunch has driven local leaders to explore creative policies for developing more affordable housing in all of Orange County’s municipalities.

But as Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle points out, housing is not the only factor driving the cost of living.

“We’ve studied extensively the interplay between transportation costs and affordable housing,” she says. “A typical income earner spends anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their income on transportation – owning a car, taxes, insurance, and so forth.”

That, she says, gives local leaders a strong incentive to develop housing downtown – so residents don’t need vehicles to get to and from work. Kleinschmidt adds that he’s equally proud of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, which also keeps the cost of living down.

Taxes too are a primary concern – and local leaders are quick to point out that they’ve managed to maintain services while avoiding tax increases, even through the long recession. (Lavelle says she expects Carrboro to maintain that streak this year too.) But Barry Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to preserve the services that make Orange County a desirable place to live.

And the most important of those services, he says, is education.

“We’re proud of public education (and) we’re going to fund it to the best of our ability,” he says. “Going through the recession, and then having a state legislature that’s attacking public education, we have actually raised the per-pupil funding…and in the last 20 years we’ve built 14 schools in this county. And three of them were high schools. Those are expensive suckers…

“And that’s part of what makes this an attractive community. That’s what draws people here. It’s a double-edged sword, to use a cliché.”

But Jacobs adds that the need for education spending must be weighed against the concern for affordability – particularly the fact that many Orange County residents are seniors on fixed incomes.

And so the question returns to partnerships: town, county, and UNC officials working together to promote efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve the standard of living. Local leaders agree that’s already happening (if slowly) on the issue of Rogers Road remediation, and Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt says he’s confident it will also happen on the issue of solid waste: “I think we’re going to come together with a solution,” he says, “(and in) four, five, six years, we’re going to have a site for a transfer station that we’re all going to use.” (Kleinschmidt says there are several attractive candidates for that site in the northern part of Chapel Hill, including one off Millhouse Road.)

It’s also happening on the question of economic development, where UNC is actively partnering with the towns and county on projects ranging from the LAUNCH entrepreneurial incubator to the redevelopment of 123 West Franklin, the former University Square – though Chancellor Folt says little is happening right now when it comes to Carolina North. (“We’re really not having any active plans there right now,” she says. “It’s really not at the top of the list.”)

In the end, though, while local leaders seem to agree that municipal partnerships have been stronger, there’s also a shared commitment to strengthening them in the months and years to come.

“How we should go forward is together,” says Jacobs.

Folt, Jacobs, Kleinschmidt, Lavelle, and Stevens made those comments during the “Town and Gown” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum; they were joined on the panel by outgoing UNC student body president Christy Lambden.

Thorp: Be Confident In Future Of Town-Gown Relations

Pat Evans opens Thursday’s meeting of the Friends of the Downtown.

CHAPEL HILL – Outgoing UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp has long been recognized for having ushered in a new era of improved town-gown relations in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.

With his time at Carolina coming to an end next month, local leaders have expressed some concern about the future—but Thorp says he has every reason to believe that incoming chancellor Carol Folt will pick up right where he left off.

“So far Carol Folt and I have not had a conversation where we disagreed about anything,” he said at Thursday’s meeting of Chapel Hill’s Friends of the Downtown. “I believe she’s an academic first…she’s worked on behalf of Hanover, New Hampshire (while serving as interim president of Dartmouth College); she knows that the relationship with the community is important, and I have no reason to believe that she will change that.”

Thorp and his wife Patti were the guests of honor on Thursday: dozens of local officials and downtown leaders gathered at the Franklin Hotel to recognize their work to improve the town-gown partnership, both before and during his time as chancellor.

“They have done so much for the town,” said Friends of the Downtown chair Pat Evans, “working with the University and the Town together in a way that ‘town-and-gown’ has not been done before.”

Signs of that partnership include closer collaboration on real-estate projects like 123 West Franklin (the soon-to-be-former University Square); joining forces to promote start-up businesses with projects like LAUNCH Chapel Hill; working together to address the student-housing crunch and its effect on nearby neighborhoods; and—perhaps most notably of all—sharing responsibility for the ongoing Carolina North project, as well as the infrastructural improvements that project will require.

And amidst all his accomplishments as chancellor, Thorp says he’s particularly proud of that improved relationship.

“The work that we have been able to do with this community and on behalf of the town is among the most rewarding things that I’ve been able to do in my career,” he said Thursday.

And while his departure next month will mark the start of an uncertain new era, Thorp says it shouldn’t be hard to sustain that close partnership—since at the end of the day, ‘town’ and ‘gown’ are really one and the same.

“The first thing about university-town politics that people who work in the University needs to understand is that in a town like this, if the University is at odds with the elected officials in a college town, that means they’re also at odds with their own people,” he says. “This is obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t get that…

“It’s a false thing to say ‘the University is at odds with the town,’ because if you’re saying that, then the University is at odds with itself…so the first thing you have to do is not treat it as though ‘the University’ and ‘the Town’–especially here–are two separate things.”

Holden Thorp’s tenure as UNC chancellor comes to an end on June 30; in July, he’ll take over as provost at Washington University in St. Louis.