It boiled down to trust, the discussion of whether to close Dawson Place, the alley that connects West Rosemary Street to the back of a row of businesses facing West Franklin Street.

The developers of Shortbread Lofts, a mixed-use building that came before Town Council as a concept plan in early 2006, need the Dawson Place right-of-way closed in order to connect adjacent parcels of land to create a plot large enough for their project. They do not want to proceed to the special use permit application phase without assurances that the Town Council will agree to revoke right-of-way and ultimately close the alley. The developers want to know how much space they have to work with before sinking about $100,000 into the SUP process. And who could blame them for their skepticism after the way council treated the developer of Aydan Court?

The Franklin Street businesses are pushing back. Though the developers have agreed to build a new access way before closing Dawson Place, the business owners are troubled by what they see as vague promises and a seeming reluctance on the part of the developers to sit down face-to-face with the business owners to work out details. People are more likely to stay accountable if they give their word while looking the other person in the eye.

One of the developers white-knuckled a public apology to the business owners at last night’s council meeting for any prior miscommunication and had gone in to Mediterranean Deli to meet with that business owner briefly.

Council members were divided. Although the language of the resolution looked innocuous, the lawyers on the dais were a little uneasy, and the distrust between the developers and business owners was palpable. The right-of-way issue was only the first of many that would come up during a lengthy construction process of a large building. And things could get ugly if each party were lying in wait for the other to make a wrong move.

Town attorney Ralph Karpinos assured members that voting for the resolution as worded wouldn’t mean they were committed to approving Shortbread Lofts. He agreed to come up with more comprehensive wording but asked for the matter to come back in two weeks. That would give him time to wordsmith and, more important, give the disputants time to sit down face-to-face and work out their issues and build some trust.

The matter returns to council Oct. 26, a special Wednesday meeting.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Nancy, as far as right-of-ways and access, you don’t have to ride the wayback machine too far to recall what a mess resolving disputes – even of a few inches – can be. Does Eastern Federal ring any bells?

    “In its 70-year history, Eastern Federal Corporation developed movie theaters in dozens of municipalities in the Southeast, and Chapel Hill’s development process is the longest, most cumbersome, most expensive and most subjective that I can recall,” Meiselman [CEO of Eastern Federal Corp] wrote in an e-mail message.

    The Town Council approved the theater but made Eastern Federal reapply for another permit because a dispute arose over who should pay for the widening of a shopping center driveway. Meiselman said he thinks staff should have settled the issue.

  2. George C

     /  October 11, 2011

    I think Eastern Federal was just looking for a scapegoat to justify their backing out of the project. At the time of that approval attendance at mega-screen theaters had been dropping off at about a 6% a year rate for several years. It was questionable from the beginning whether Chapel Hill could (would) support such a mega-screen project. I believe it started out as 10 screens and had already shrunk by several screens at the time of approval. And the developers didn’t like the idea of spending additional money to make the parking lot safe for pedestrians. I think they figured out they would be better off staying in newer, bigger urban markets where the parking lot amenities were already in place.

  3. George, I actually wouldn’t have approved the project as EF proposed due to the configuration next to Booker Creek (which we still are treating like a glorified drainage ditch but that’s another story). And I agree that by the end of the EF saga, it seemed that the driveway issue served more as an excuse to back out of a deal than anything else (with the result of having a nice big commercial hole on Eliot Rd.).

    That said, the Council actually approved the permit. It was the nasty back-n-forth on the driveway that I was highlighting as an issue. The Dawson Place right-of-way issue needs to get amicably resolved before moving forward. Given the Town’s record in mitigating or assisting in mitigating negative construction impacts with the two big projects Downtown, I can well understand why the business folks on West Franklin are quite skittish.

  4. George C

     /  October 11, 2011

    I would bet that if the Council hadn’t approved that project they would have been labeled anti-growth, anti-developers, anti-prosperity, etc. It seems like it’s a no-win situation for Council. And I bet that if they tell the Shortbread Lofts folks that they can’t build without an agreement in place regarding the alley they’ll also be labeled as “hostile to developers”, putting impediments into the review process, etc. Unfortunately the media looks for the quick quotes or headlines without digging into the details that often go into a suitable review of a project. Our review process can certainly be made more efficient but the developers have to take some responsibility as well in making it so.

  5. George, if Council invited the folks at the Irish restaurant losing $30K per month due to W140 or Antoine Peuch who is dealing with W140 next to his office building or the funeral home owner who had debris from Greenbridge punching holes in her roof or any of the other business folks who have had difficulties dealing with these projects Downtown to advise them on how they think the Town should best deal with these impacts then I think that it would be more difficult to claim that they are “hostile” to business. So far, the perception (and reality at times) is we’ve made these folks come to Council, hat in hand, to beg for relief.

    If Council wants to continue pushing big and tall Downtown then they need to be proactive in dealing with the impacts of construction. I pushed them to firm up a collaborative construction impact analysis and plan of action before we did our Town’s own West140 and they resisted. Apparently, any problems were to be dealt with on a per issue basis. Instead of looking at other communities process for managing construction in constrained Downtowns or creating a framework of productive engagement, we’ve had to play catchup and “catch as you can”. Luckily, the Downtown Partnership and Town staff has been able to scramble to deal with some of these issues – still – after the fact – in reactive mode.

    With University Square’s redevelopment on the horizon, now is the time to change the way we deal with construction and development impacts to business Downtown. Council’s role can’t be strictly restricted to approving a project sans plans for dealing effectively with its attendant issues. This right-of-way issue is small enough to try a new process of fostering cooperation amongst all the parties to resolve the problem. We certainly don’t want to wait to trial a better way with a line of concrete trucks backed up around the block at University Square.

  6. George C

     /  October 11, 2011

    “This right-of-way issue is small enough to try a new process of fostering cooperation amongst all the parties to resolve the problem.”
    Will, I agree.

  7. Anita Badrock

     /  October 12, 2011

    when it’s something as important as a right of way that serves multiple business locations, it seems only prudent to have a plan and an agreement in writing, not just some vague notion of what might be put together. The town should want that too. I think it’s eminently fair to ask the developer to get this piece figured out up front. AFter all, we have existing businesses that depend on that alley way—it seems to be a very business friendly approach to look out for their needs too. The developer is not the only business with needs in this situation.