Vote clears the way for Franklin Street project

Goodbye, University Square. Hello, 123 West Franklin.

The Franklin Street project, to be developed on land owned by a University-affiliated private nonprofit corporation, received approval for rezoning and special use permits at the Feb. 11 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting.

The unanimous vote cleared the way for a sweeping transformation of the 1960s-era shopping center into a modern mixed-use development with office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, public space and a parking deck. Cousins Properties of Atlanta created the design and presented the plan to the Town Council.

The $80 million to $100 million development is the first to offer rental apartments for adults within walking distance of campus. In addition to 300 one- and two-bedroom apartments, 123 West Franklin will also include 210,000 square feet of office space and 75,000 square feet of retail space, including room for an urban grocer.

“This is an exciting night for the University,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp, who introduced the presentation. “We are behind a lot of our peers in offering young faculty and staff and retired professors a place to live to be close to campus.”

The green space, larger than the Weaver Street Market lawn, and the potential of hundreds of additional downtown parking spaces available to the public at nights and on weekends, created the most discussion among council members and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. They expressed concern that promises made by Cousins about allowing the public to park in the deck or use the open space might not be honored by the next company to lease the property.

They also questioned whether the $90,000 being offered as a donation to the town’s affordable housing fund – a payment not required for rental property – was adequate compared to payments given by other recent applicants.

After a brief huddle with Cousins representatives, Thorp came back to the podium to seal the deal. He offered a payment-in-lieu totaling $250,000 ($50,000 a year for five years to be paid by the project) in his role as a board member of Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings, the property’s owner. The new figure was readily accepted by the council.

Supporters of the project outnumbered its detractors at the public hearing preceding the vote. Rosemary Waldorf recalled that, during her time as mayor in the 1990s, “This is the sort of mixed-use project that we dreamed about.”

Even a potential competitor with the new project spoke up in favor of it. “This development is just an absolute home run. It’s a great step forward,” said Peter deLeon, general manager of University Mall.

Published February 25, 2013.