“Ephesus-Fordham” To Be Rebranded; Village Plaza Done In A Year

The crane has arrived and construction is under way on Village Plaza Apartments, the big project on Elliott Road that’s sparked an equally big debate this election season.

“Some of you may have noticed our crane showed up this week, the large crane that will start erecting the parking deck,” says Lee Perry of East West Partners, the developer behind Village Plaza (et al). “The deck will start going up this week, (and) we hope to have it done by early December.”

Village Plaza is the first major project in Chapel Hill’s revamp of the Ephesus-Fordham district. When it’s done, the complex will include 265 residential units and 15,000 square feet of retail – and Perry says it should all be finished in about a year.

“We’re pouring the podium slab now for the retail-commercial (units), and we expect to be delivering the first units of commercial space in August,” he says. “It’s tight, but we’re working towards meeting that goal – and then we’ll have a second phase that will complete the project (next) October.”

Village Plaza was the first project approved under Chapel Hill’s new development process for Ephesus-Fordham, a process called “form-based code.” The idea is to speed up the approval process by establishing development guidelines in advance and approving all projects that meet those guidelines – rather than having to examine every new proposal separately. Chapel Hill is trying the “form-based code” with Ephesus-Fordham, a district that town leaders have long argued is in need of major redevelopment.

Many local residents have objected to the guidelines, though – saying it allows for buildings that are too tall, doesn’t do enough to promote affordable housing or alleviate bad traffic, and doesn’t sufficiently address stormwater concerns in the flood-prone area.

That debate has been at the center of Chapel Hill’s 2015 municipal election, so Village Plaza has been something of a lightning rod. But construction is ongoing regardless – though Perry says when all is said and done, the project won’t be called “Village Plaza,” nor will the district be called “Ephesus-Fordham.”

“We’re going to be changing the name soon,” Perry says. “We’re waiting for the new branding of the Ephesus-Fordham district to mature a little further – there’s going to be a new name for the district and a new branding effort – so we’re waiting for that to take shape as we think about what we’re going to name the project.”

Village Plaza Apartments – or whatever it’s going to be called – is going up on the site of a former movie theater on Elliott Road.


Labor Shortage Hitting Local Construction

Even now that the recession is over, millions of Americans are still having trouble finding work. But experts say there’s actually a big labor shortage in the construction industry – and local developers say it’s causing some major headaches.

“We haven’t seen a labor shortage this dramatic since 2001,” says Holly Fraccaro of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties. Speaking Tuesday at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s annual Orange County Development Briefing, she shared the results of a recent survey of home builders nationwide.

“Seventy-four percent (of home builders) reported shortages in rough carpenter sub-contractors, 73 percent in framing crews, 69 percent in finished carpenters, 59 percent in bricklayers and masons – and the list goes on,” she said at Tuesday’s briefing. (The survey was conducted by the National Association of Home Builders.)

And Fraccaro says that shortage is having a big impact on residential and commercial construction.

“Sixty-one percent of the respondents (to the national survey) were forced to raise home prices,” she says. “Fifty-eight percent had significant delays in delivering their homes on schedule, and over a quarter of the respondents reported projects losing money.”

And Chapel Hill is not immune. On Elliott Road, construction has begun on the new Village Plaza apartments – but developer Lee Perry of East West Partners says the labor shortage has already caused delays.

“We were delayed about a month just getting the crane on site,” he says. “That crane just showed up from South Dakota, of all places – that was the closest place we could find a crane to begin the (parking) deck.”

Jobs in the construction business pay well, but Fraccaro says there’s not much in the way of training programs locally: Durham Tech, for instance, offers carpentry courses, but no certification program. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools superintendent Tom Forcella says the district has offered vocational classes at the high school level – but students tend not to take them.

So Fraccaro says the Homebuilders Association is launching its own program: the Construction Careers Building Institute, in conjunction with national and local organizations like the Homebuilders Institute, Skills USA, and El Centro Hispano.

“The institute will provide skills-based apprenticeship training for carpentry, HVAC, electric, plumbing and masonry,” she says. “Eventually we will offer programs for construction site supervision, applied building science, (and) English as a second language, just to name a few.”

Fraccaro says the institute will have a physical home down the road – but if you’re looking for a new career, she says it will start offering programs beginning next fall.


Big Changes Coming To MLK/Weaver Dairy Intersection

If you’ve been around the corner of MLK and Weaver Dairy recently, you’ve probably noticed a lot of construction activity – and what you’re seeing now is only the beginning.

Several construction projects are either ongoing or in the pipeline for that area of Chapel Hill – beginning with Charterwood, on the west side of MLK just south of Weaver Dairy.

“It’s a 14-acre site (with) quite a bit of activity underway,” says Bill Christian, the developer who initially proposed Charterwood to the town of Chapel Hill. “They’re now building 154 (residential) units and 18,000 square feet of retail – and it looks like they’ll have the first two buildings ready for leasing by the middle of next year.”

Christian says “they” instead of “I” because Charterwood is no longer his project: Christian sold most of the site to Zimmer Development back in 2013. (Nor is it technically called “Charterwood” anymore: Christian says it’s now been renamed “Resolve 1701.”)

Christian himself still owns about five acres just to the south, which he plans to develop as well. (No official plan yet, but he says it’ll likely be about 48,000 combined square feet of office space, retail space and residential units.)

Meanwhile across the street, East West Partners (of Obey Creek fame) is about to get underway on another commercial project called Weaver Crossing.

“We’ve started site work there (and) we’re hoping to get our building permit any day,” says developer Lee Perry. “This will be a new Walgreens and a new 25,000-square foot UNC Health Care-leased building on the corner.”

Perry says if all goes well, they’ll have those two buildings done by the middle of next summer.

And that’s not all: also on MLK just north of Weaver Dairy, another developer, Northwood Ravin, is moving forward on another mixed-use project called Carraway Village – formerly known as The Edge.

“There’s still some pieces coming together (and) we’re trying to unlock the potential of it,” says Jeff Furman of Northwood Ravin. “We are negotiating with retailers and very excited about that project.”

The Edge, or Carraway Village, will be located on Eubanks Road between MLK and I-40 – pending the development process, of course.

And while all those larger projects are still in the works, you might also have noticed big changes at the already-existing development near MLK and Weaver Dairy: a major facelift at the Timberlyne shopping center, plus a new Goodwill out in front.


Carrboro Students Talk Development, Aid In NYC

Last week, Carrboro High School teacher Matt Cone led a group of students to New York City for a three-day visit to discuss global aid and development with some of the world’s leading experts.

The students were from Carrboro’s Global Health Club. The trip was organized in conjunction with Pope Francis’ visit to New York, but also in conjunction with the Global Citizen Festival, which brought leading development experts together from around the world. (Bono, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and Beyonce were also on hand.)

From Thursday through Saturday, the students met with about a dozen experts, including author William Easterly and Wagner School of Public Service professor Sonia Ospina, discussing a variety of approaches to global development from microloans to national aid programs.

Matt Cone and students Hope Anderson and Lucia Lozano-Robledo stopped by WCHL on Thursday and shared their experiences with Aaron Keck.


Redevelopment Plan Could Push Out Eastgate BP

Chapel Hill could bid goodbye to Eastgate BP if a new redevelopment plan is approved by town officials.

Federal Realty Investment Trust has submitted a request to demolish the service station on Fordham Boulevard to make way for a 7,600 square foot, multi-tenant retail complex.

Though area is zoned for up to seven stories of mixed-use development, the proposal only calls for a one-story building.

The plan would also close the service road that runs parallel to Fordham Boulveard. The developer is offering part of that land to the town for use as a future bike or pedestrian path.

Because the property lies within the recently rezoned Ephesus-Fordham district, the project does not need to come before the Town Council.

Instead, it will be reviewed by the Community Design Commission and town staff to see if it meets the requirements of the district’s form based code. The final decision could come in 45 days, or 15 days after the CDC grants approval, whichever comes later. The CDC is scheduled to review the proposal on Tuesday, August 25.

This is the fourth project to be proposed for the Ephesus-Fordham district since the council adopted the form-based code last year in a bid to spur redevelopment in the area.

Village Plaza Apartments is already under construction. Plans for a free-standing CVS pharmacy and a new retail building at Ram’s Gate Plaza are currently undergoing staff review.


Town Approves Obey Creek

Developer Roger Perry has been waiting on approval for Obey Creek for six years. And Monday night, he finally got his payday. The Town Council voted seven to one in favor of an agreement that would allow a 1.5 million-square-foot development to be built across from Southern Village.

The development will include housing, retail and commercial space, and it’s been a point of contention at town council meetings over the past several years. That tension was palpable Monday night as resident Arthur Finn spoke during the public hearing before the vote.

“How can a person who makes a living putting up 90-foot buildings talk about what’s good for Chapel Hill?” Finn asked.

The town has been working with an independent consulting firm and a council-appointed compass committee to vet the development agreement. But despite these efforts, many citizens at the meeting, like Esther Miller, shared lingering concerns about size, building heights and traffic mitigation.

“Traffic is bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” Miller warned.

The council members who voted for the agreement expressed a shared belief that Obey Creek had been thoroughly vetted and would provide needed housing and retail.

“I believe that the balance has been struck between a really dynamic wonderful, new area of Chapel Hill that supports many of our goals that have been mentioned, including new housing,” Councilwoman Sally Greene said.

Councilman Ed Harrison was the only member voting against. He said Obey Creek was a well-designed development, but still had concerns about traffic and size. He also felt several changes to the document made during the meeting had not been sufficiently reviewed.

“Even if I don’t agree with every point they’ve made,” Harrison said, “I would like someone to represent the folks who have had concerns about this that haven’t been alleviated. And I’m willing to do that. If that means I vote tonight then I do. In that case, I can’t vote for this. I certainly can’t vote for it if I haven’t seen the whole contract.”

While Harrison did not vote in favor of the development agreement, he did vote in favor of other provisions that allow Obey Creek to go forward—namely, the creation of a zoning amendment that allows for a development agreement to be used, the actual rezoning of the Obey Creek site and a land-swap between the town and the developer.

Several other council members shared a desire to see the final draft of the agreement, but were comfortable adding an article that would give the town until July 1 to make minor changes.

Perry says he isn’t certain when construction will begin, but it probably won’t be this year.


Chapel Hill Town Council Delays Obey Creek Vote

The Chapel Hill Town Council chose not to vote on the approval last night of the 120-acre Obey Creek development near Southern Village. Instead, the council used the meeting to hear further public comment and pushed the vote until next Monday.

The council’s decision not to vote seemed to come as a shock to Obey Creek’s developer Roger Perry.

“Damn! I got all dressed up,” Perry said.

Town staff had recommended the council approve the rezoning and development agreement, which would clear the way for construction to begin. But at the meeting, the council said it needed more time to review recent information from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The town spent last week in negotiations with the DOT over Obey Creek’s impact on traffic.

“There’s been a lot of questions from all of you, back and forth with the staff, getting and  seeking clarity,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. “And so I think that having worked with these folks for a while, I think that they need to stew. And I think it’s reasonable because, much of what some of us have heard and learned, and the clarity we’ve sought on some issues, was hours ago.”

Despite successful negotiations with the DOT, some residents who spoke at the meeting expressed concern that the development agreement doesn’t ensure adequate traffic calming measures for south Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill resident Susan Lindsay said she wanted a stronger commitment to such measures for her area.

“You can’t get much more direct than the impact that Dogwood Acres Drive will feel from this development,” she said.

A few residents at the meeting also reiterated concerns about design, the amount of retail space, and a desire for an overall smaller footprint. Monte Brown was one proponent of a scaled-down development.

“To me it’s clear: You either value the life of the southern Chapel hill residents and your various boards, or you value the bunch of investors from Maryland,” Brown told the council.

Several council members signaled their support of the project at its largest scale: 1.5 million square feet. Councilwoman Maria Palmer said she supports a larger footprint because it means more housing for more people.

“We actually need housing in Chapel Hill. We need places for people to live. We have thousands of people commuting to Chapel Hill because there is no adequate housing for them. We have a lack of certain types of apartments, of housing for older residents, of affordable housing, of everything that is going into this development,” Palmer said.

The council plans to resume discussion and come to a vote on Obey Creek at its meeting next Monday night.


Officials Break Ground on New Southern Village Hotel

After seven years of planning, the Southern Village neighborhood will get a new hotel.

Developers and elected officials leaned on golden shovels Thursday to break ground on the five-story Hyatt Place hotel. The facility will include 110 guest rooms as well as indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Though many were on hand to celebrate the occasion, the road to get to that point was at times rocky. When developer D.R. Bryan first suggested building a hotel in the heart of Southern Village back in late 2008, residents of the neighborhood responded with such vehement dismay that the proposal was tabled.

Fast forward five years and the concept of a hotel in the mixed-use village resurfaced, though this time at the edge of the development instead of at its center.

This change made all the difference, as those residents formerly opposed to the plan lined up before the town council to support it. It was unanimously approved in October, 2013, but negotiations over construction pricing delayed the start of the project.

Once the hotel opens in the summer of 2016, business owners on Market Street hope it will add a third retail anchor to the area to complement the Lumina Theater and Weaver Street Market.


Carrboro Residents Request Conditions for Development Permit

Three to four commercial buildings may be coming to 501 South Greensboro Street in Carrboro.

As the Carrboro Board of Aldermen considers rezoning and granting a permit to Woodhill LLC for building the restaurant and retail development on six acres, neighbors want the town to make sure certain conditions are met.

Resident Rob Joyner spoke on behalf of the Roberson Place Home Owners Association at Tuesday’s meeting, asking “that the establishments that play outdoor music be restricted to playing 10 am to 8 pm.”

The Roberson Place HOA also requests that the connection between the Roberson Place Subdivision and South Greensboro remain as a bike and pedestrian connection, and not be developed into a road; that waste pickup and deliveries to businesses be restricted to 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays; and that commercial properties use directional lighting which would not shine onto residential properties.

“I do have significant concerns that, no matter what we do, we’re going to be looking at a neon sign illuminating a business,” said Tommy Koonce, who lives with his wife Robin Koonce in a house adjacent to the proposed development.

Koonce asked the town to codify a requirement to screen bright signs from his house windows, not only for aesthetics, but also to protect property value.

Runyon Woods, a partner at Woodhill LLC, feels the council should not regulate certain things, like when a business can receive deliveries.

“A restaurant comes in. They want fresh seafood for Saturday night,” said Woods. “So they want a small seafood truck to come deliver Saturday morning. That condition would make that illegal.”

Instead of following a hard rule, Woods said his team would work with individual residents to meet their needs.

Alderman Damon Seils stressed the importance of building specific conditions into the permit.

“If we put a condition on the permit, that’s what allows the town to engage in an enforcement activity,” said Seils. “And so if it becomes a problem, then the town has the authority in that circumstance to actually start enforcing the rules.”

In addition to the residents’ concerns, the aldermen discussed many others, including the development’s potential to intensify flooding. And the aldermen said a proposed roundabout at the intersection of South Greensboro Street and Pittsboro Road should not be built on private land.

The public hearing will continue on May 26. At this point the board may decide to approve “conditional use rezoning” and a “conditional use permit” for this project.


Chapel Hill Development: What’s Working, What’s Not?

It’s been a decade since Chapel Hill leaders began to push for more commercial growth to balance the tax base. But David Schwartz, co-founder of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, says in that time, the town has failed to move away from residential development.

“We cannot make up for a deficit in commercial by doubling down on the amount of residential that we build,” says Schwartz.

Town Council Member Maria Palmer says that’s not a fair assessment.

“You can’t say we’re not building enough commercial if every commercial proposal that is put forward is attacked by the same folks who have organized the group you represent,” says Palmer.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce President Aaron Nelson takes that idea even further.

“We’ve moved beyond NIMBY in our community,” says Nelson. “NIMBY stands for ‘not in my backyard.’ We’ve gotten to NOTE: ‘not over there either.’ And so, it is a challenge when you both want to protect your neighborhood and prohibit it from happening in other appropriate places as well.”

Schwartz is also critical of the town’s new form-based code, in which the council sets specific parameters for development, then hands over the approval process to the Town Manager’s office. He argues the town isn’t asking enough from developers.

“The problem we have with our form-based code is that we didn’t ask for anything,”says Schwartz. “We asked for basically nothing. We said OK because we are so eager to get some kind of investment in here, any kind, even if in fact, it is the wrong kind in terms of what the town needs, that we are going to basically ask for nothing.”

Last spring, the Town Council rezoned 192 acres near Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard using form-based code in a bid to spur redevelopment in the area. Ben Perry is with East West Partners, the development company that submitted the Village Plaza Apartment plan, the first project under the new rules. He takes issue with Schwartz’s assertion that the town asked for nothing.

“We paid a very significant payment-in-lieu to Parks and Recreation for open space to develop that somewhere else. We paid a transit fee to Chapel Hill Transit which is not a requirement anywhere else in town,” says Perry. “It’s not that the town didn’t get the things they wanted and usually expect, they just told us what they want and we didn’t haggle. We just did it.”

Now, a little less than a year after adopting the form-based code, the Town Council is considering a laundry list of adjustments to tweak the code based on public input and planning staff feedback.

Southern Village resident Jeanne Brown said she’s happy to hear there’s room for change.

“One of the concerns in the community is that we’ve gone up significantly in height and density- that changes character,” says Brown. “That’s something we’ve got to address and understand, that not everyone is feeling good and comfortable with that.”

Dwight Bassett is the Town’s economic development officer. He says building dense residential developments like Village Plaza Apartments can help draw commercial investment, a strategy he ultimate expects to benefit the whole town.

“From my perspective I think we’re headed on the right path and we’re going to wake up one day and look back at that district and say that was a great decision because it helped create something that was missing in Chapel Hill.”

You can hear more debate on the changing face of Chapel Hill here.