Pay attention

I never thought I’d quote Richard Nixon, but let me make one thing perfectly clear: UNC at Chapel Hill Foundation does not own the land all the way back to Cameron Avenue.

John McColl, executive vice president at Cousins Properties, the company redeveloping University Square, repeatedly told council members during his concept plan presentation Monday night that even though cutting a street all the way through from West Franklin Street to Cameron Avenue might be a good idea, he couldn’t make it happen. Because someone else owns those parcels along Cameron Avenue.

Cousins Properties has gone to great lengths to involve the community to ensure that the redevelopment will become what townfolk – the project’s future customers – want. Cousins has had multiple meetings to hear from the community and a suggestion box in the form of an interactive website. Cousins took to heart that feedback, and the resulting plan did an excellent job of incorporating those ideas.

Yet council members weren’t happy. McColl showed infinite patience in fielding their comments. A major concern pre-plan was that University Square was too far back from the street – a missing tooth, Penny Rich called it. Yet when McColl’s plan showed two buildings close to the street, akin to the approved 140 West Franklin project across the street, Gene Pease criticized the buildings for being too close to the street. (140 West was approved before he was on the council, he noted, and he would have voted against it.) The green space was too far back from the street, Jim Ward said, and wondered if grass could even grow in the shadow of tall buildings.

Sally Greene worried that the public wouldn’t feel welcome in green space that was so far from the street. But before the night was over, she was backing a suggestion for a permit to keep the space public lest tenants, feeling overwhelmed by the public using the space, try to limit access.

Rich wanted to know how much the parking would cost, as if an extra 25 cents an hour might be a deal-breaker. And would there be affordable housing? (The project is not required to provide affordable units.)

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt wondered who would want to live behind Big Fraternity Court. (That might solve Rich’s concern about affordable housing. Recall that parking for the affordable units at 140 West Franklin was planned to be a couple blocks away from the parking for tenants paying market rate. Why not have 123’s affordable units overlook Big Fraternity Court’s parking lot?)

McColl didn’t once bang his head against the wall. He remained professional throughout. Council members would do well to remember that his company has significant skin in this game. It’s not going to build something that the community will reject. It’s fine to look critically at a plan and ask questions about details, but please people, pay attention.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. John Kramer

     /  November 17, 2010

    Hey, guys- this is another chance to do a “case study” to see why it takes so long to build in Chapel Hill.

    Grass won’t grow in the shade? Really?

    Your description would really be comical were it not that the Council is playing with someone else’s hard earned money. That is a really tragic and embarassing.

  2. Michael

     /  November 17, 2010

    This circus doesn’t lack any clowns.

  3. Personally I don’t mind extra scrutiny; if it means we avoid another monstrosity like East 54 (lousy architectural feeling, bizarre pyramids on the rooftops to add “class”, that sort of thing). Granted, these guys seem much more legit than a Roger Perry project

  4. I attended all the outreach meetings on this project and agree that, to date, McColl and company have done a good job of integrating community comments back into the plan.
    I have commended UNC’s development staff on their choice of partners and publicly commented that I wish the Town had used the same care in finding professional talent to guide the Lot $$$5 project.

    As far as setback, I believe Gene is right – that putting the bulk of University Square fronting directly on Franklin St. is too much – especially when you consider the bulk and height of the Lot $$$5 plan. There’s an opportunity to create three connected public spaces – a frontyard, courtyard and backyard so to speak – on the property that will improve and encourage community access from all directions. Right now University Square’s configuration limits access and disconnects it from its surrounding neighborhoods. Cousins’ proposal does a good job of reintegrating University Square back into Downtown – creating a more continuous flow.

    Having attended all the outreach events, read all the proposals, seen the evolution of the plan as Cousins responded to community input, I also found Council’s responses a little exasperating. At one point I was wondering if two of them had even read that evening’s materials as the answers they sought were clearly outlined within. That said, I appreciate the extra scrutiny the Council is taking (though I wished some had shown the same level of concern about their own Lot $$$5 project).

    I agree with AB. Downtown doesn’t deserve another misfire especially if it is on par with East54.

  5. jondehart

     /  November 17, 2010

    Hopefully, Town Council will scrutinize the New IFC Sup the same way .

  6. Mark Marcoplos

     /  November 17, 2010

    Fronting East54 near 54 turned out to be a good idea. The courtyard area behind the building is great for concerts and public space, plus parked cars are not visible from 54. I think it’s a great addition to the community and elements of it could be adapted for downtown which has become just another car thoroughfare with generic retail.

  7. Mark, if you want to excuse the banal ugliness of East54 I can understand but you are incorrect about a few points. The car deck is clearly visible from 54. Reducing the minimum setbacks and frontage greenspace might have freed up interior space but, as per the projects design plans, the East54 face was supposed to be active – lots of drawings of smiling pedestrians sauntering along the boulevard (and safely crossing the street). That element was a bust. The interior space you laud is as public as the plaza in front of Southpoint Cinemas (a project you have said you detest). The developers lobbied to put the development as close to 54 as they could not to satisfy the philosophical bent of some on Council but, rather, to preserve the maximum additional high-value developable space adjacent to Finley golf course.

    Instead of creating a signature project as a gateway to Chapel Hill we have a pile of Atlanta-beltway tripe which, my opinion, is already an urban eyesore.

  8. Cam

     /  November 17, 2010

    Funny, Will, I don’t remember you (or anyone else) commenting on East 54 when it came before the council. As a matter of fact NO ONE said a word during the approval process.

  9. Cam, I commented early on in the process but not at the final approval. By that point it was clear that Council was going to shove it on through whether I fought it or not.

    As you know, a projects aesthetics, or lack of, is not grounds for denying approval especially if it is being built under the allowed zoning specs.

    Of course, East54, like a lot of projects you weighed in on, was not being built as per the zone and need a SUP with underlying variances to move ahead. It is at that point that the community has more than a casual interest in the outcome. This project required numerous variations which the Council approved arguing the “greater public good”.

    Now that the project is finished and we have had time to establish if some of the “public good” is being met, can you make the case that it is a net positive?

    If you’re at a loss of how to determine that, I suggest you start looking at tax receipts, the demographics of the affordable housing tenants, how “activated” pedestrian access to the 54 side is, accessibility and utilization of East54’s services from nearby neighborhoods as contrasted with folks who drove there, whether the LEEDs qualifications have met their goals, among others.

    Some of that would be tough for the average citizen to determine, that’s why I and others have asked Council to build in post-build metrics as a condition of approving these type projects. If you recall, you declined those calls repeatedly as a Council member.

    One metric that might become accessible is LEEDs compliance. USGBC recognized that followup was one loophole in the LEEDs process. For new projects, some post-build performance data collection and reporting is required. East54’s owners could agree to follow this new protocol but, as far as I can tell, have elected not to. If they did, we could see if some of the touted energy and efficiency goals used to sell the project are being met.

  10. Geoff Green

     /  November 22, 2010

    “how “activated” pedestrian access to the 54 side is,”

    I’m not sure East 54 the development has a lot to do with the fact that 54 the road, at that point, is a 6 lane speedway, with cars traveling at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, You’re not going to be able to make a Weaver Street-like open greenspace in front of any building on East 54 with that road there. Not a pleasant one, at least. I don’t think an alternate arrangement which would push open space between the commercial building/aloft stretch and East 54 would be any friendlier to pedestrians. It might be nicer to drivers speeding by on East 54, but not really to anyone else.

  11. I am pretty sure there is a gate at the back of the tall fence between the edge of the Granville Towers that opens directly onto the sidewalk on Cameron. Is that the part owned by someone else that would not be a suitable entry from Univ Square to Cameron? Some days that gate is open and some days it is locked.

  12. Nancy Oates

     /  November 22, 2010

    JS — Yes, there’s a row of lots fronting Cameron that are owned by others.

  13. Geoff, I wasn’t the one selling a vision of pedestrians leisurely strolling along and crossing Hwy. 54, it was the developer. Some Council members cited the reason for bulking development right on the road was to create an “activated” space along that road. That was the promise tendered, I’m just pointing out it was an empty one (of several).

  14. Elliot Baron

     /  December 1, 2010

    I vociferously argued against East 54 when it came before the council. Maybe you don’t recall anybody arguing against it was because it was called “University Village” at the time. At one meeting, I warned the council that the average citizen did not follow the planning phase, but they would be angry when they saw the results and would blame the council for having approved it. I guess I was right on that score. Here is a link to some of the written comments I provided. I notice that you name is on the heading, so I assume you received them.