If someone blindfolded you, spun you around and dropped you on a street corner somewhere, how would you be able to tell you were still in Chapel Hill once the blindfold had been removed? Council member Sally Greene hopes it would be the distinctive architecture of our quaint burg, or that’s the implication, anyway, from her comments about the Hultquist IP office building proposed for 701 West Barbee Chapel Road.

At last Wednesday’s public hearing, during the concept plan review of the proposed building set high on a hill in Meadowmont, visible from N.C. 54, Greene struggled to keep her lip from curling. “It looks like it could be from Charlotte or Raleigh,” she said of the clean lines of the modern-style building.

“Is that a bad thing?” Matt Czajkowski asked.

“Yes,” Greene said, “because this is a gateway building to Chapel Hill.”

Which got me thinking about what greets us, architecturally speaking, when we enter town from other directions. Perhaps Greene was hoping for something to counteract the rather ordinary office buildings across the street, or the tree-challenged East 54 complex on the next block.

Every direction into town has its distinctions and challenges. Come in from the north on MLK Jr. Boulevard and you see a shopping center anchored by Harris Teeter and an Exxon station. Continue south a ways, and you do see distinctive 1970s architecture of the fire station built mostly underground. The vacant lot to your left has little to recommend it, though.

Another north entrance is from U.S. 15-501. Granted, the aesthetics bar is set pretty low after crossing through the intersection of New Hope Commons and Patterson Place. But the notable Blue Cross Blue Shield building offsets the string of car dealerships and chain stores that follow.

There’s no way to come to town from the west without going through Carrboro, an authentic small town that segues nicely into Franklin Street, where we have Greenbridge. Distinctive for Chapel Hill, yes. But at 10 stories, with neither cupola nor column, it comes dangerously close to something you might see in Charlotte.

Enter from the south along U.S. 15-501 and you do have a narrow, tree-lined road, but not for long. DOT has plans to raze the stone walls and add another 3 lanes to handle the traffic. Whatever goes up in Obey Creek will have to be pretty un-Raleigh-ish to counter that. We’ll keep that in mind as plans for Obey Creek move forward.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. ActLocal

     /  January 24, 2011

    Gawd… is Obey Creek still a possibility? I hated East 54 and this proposal is twice and long and twice as tall. Roger has made enough already. Let him go ruin some other town.

  2. Duncan O'Malley

     /  January 24, 2011

    “Never trust a building if it looks like it could be from Charlotte or Raleigh.”
    – Mark Twain

  3. Tonight the current and former chairs of the Planning Board will be calling for a refresh of the Comprehensive Plan.

    By 2004 it was obvious that the generic quality of many of the plan’s aspects were not achieving the goals which generated the original work for the plan. Anyone who has reviewed development applications over the last decade will note how the same language in the plan is copy-n-pasted into those applications to justify wildly divergent developments.

    In 2005 there was an effort to get the Council to refresh the comprehensive plan in light of the many changes going on in Town – one of which was the changing character of the gateway areas (I did a petition on this back then – the Planning Board started an effort also).

    There was a lot of “rah rah” we got to do this apparent acceptance of the idea but….

    By 2006 the Planning Board had made a series of recommendations on the refresh:

    That effort was submarined by the Mayor Foy and a block of like-minded Council members.

    Over the years since there have been several attempts to resuscitate that effort (I made a plank of my runs for office but my fellow candidates, etc. didn’t really engage in that discussion).

    Most recently, March 2010, part of the Sustainability Task Force called for an effort to not only review some of the tenets in the plan but to look at introducing a further level of refinement to help define objectively measurable goals, acknowledgement of constraints to growth, etc.
    ( ).

    That call helped kick-start Council’s interest in redoing the plan. Just like 2005, there was a whole “rah rah” we got to do this fervor which, unfortunately, waned within moments of the SCTVF’s suspension.

    Now, nearly a year later, it appears the Council is ready to move forward. Beyond tonight’s Planning board presentation, refreshing the Plan is part of the Council’s retreat. I’m a bit concerned that Council will factor out the public and rely on internal staff efforts and consultancies to drive the process – we’ll have to see.

    It’s interesting how some of our elected folks have reacted to the pattern of development at the gateways of the Town – several of them approved the very projects that now seem offensive to their sensibilities. In the end, though, it is the lack of any measurable standards within the Town’s Comprehensive Plan or design goals that have led to what we have today.

    Maybe that will change if the Council authorizes a new refresh.

  4. Ed Harrison

     /  January 25, 2011

    “Enter from the south along U.S. 15-501 and you do have a narrow, tree-lined road, but not for long. DOT has plans to raze the stone walls and add another 3 lanes to handle the traffic.”

    The second sentence is erroneous.

    The consensus plan of the Town, adjoining residential neighborhoods, and NCDOT, has been for almost a decade to add sidewalks, bike space, and turn lanes. South Columbia will be a *totel( of three lanes. It will be a 21st-century Complete Street instead of a two-lane early 20th century road. If a former UNC medical chancellor had gotten his way, South Columbia Street would have been four lanes plus a median plus turn lanes. That could have resulted in DOT plans “t0 raze the stone walls” of the historic district. Kevin Foy and I fought that at the regional and state level, with the help of the Council and of many citizens.

  5. Ed Harrison

     /  January 25, 2011

    Typing correction on my part: should be “total” of three lanes.

  6. Joe Capowski

     /  January 25, 2011

    Ed is correct Nancy, and there are decades of history on the widening of South Columbia,
    a continuous tension among the town, the DOT, the UNC Hospitals, and at times, depending
    on who was chancellor, the main part of UNC. Just one quick anecdote to illustrate:
    In 1990 the Town Council, by a 6-3 vote, walked away from 4.3 M from the DOT to widen
    S. Columbia to a five-lane without median cross-section, just like MLK at Town Hall.

    Since 1990, the town has negotiated with UNC and DOT to get the town-desired cross-section constructed. Preliminary work actually started until the state budget crisis
    hit two years ago and put it on hold.

    There have been two constants here: DOT wants to move traffic fast, and UNC Health Care wants 12 lanes to the bypass, 4 on Manning, 4 on S.Col, and 4 on a to-be-built road
    through the Mason Farm neighborhood.

  7. Joe, glad you brought up Mason Farm Rd. as an example. That expansion was like a phantom that couldn’t be exorcised – appearing and disappearing on various proposals for years. There’s a more modern analog – the north/south access road at Carolina North which, though verbally banished, kept reappearing on various site proposals. Though that seems to have been finally put to bed, it’s interesting how UNC requested and got a realignment of that corridor that verges on the conservation areas.