GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
By James Kiefer
The Chapel Hill Town Council voted Wednesday evening to approve a building some elected officials are calling one of the most important development projects in decades.
What was passed Wednesday permits the Wallace parking deck on the 1.5-acre parcel at 150 East Rosemary to be replaced with a 7-story office building and wet lab facility. Attached to the 238,000-square-foot structure will be three levels of underground parking and dedicated street-level space for retail stores and/or restaurants in addition to a public plaza at the corner of Henderson and East Rosemary Streets.
Town leaders hope the project, whose construction will cost an estimated $33 million, will attract new businesses to Chapel Hill’s downtown corridor. This was the fourth time the conditional zoning application appeared before the council; the three previous instances ended with the design being sent back to site developer Grubb Properties for revisions.
Revisions to the project design since council members last reviewed the project Nov. 17 include modifying a mechanical penthouse — a rooftop structure housing water chillers, HVAC equipment, etc. — to better conform to the top of the building, expanding parking and charging options for electric vehicles and electric bikes and relocation of a solid waste collection facility to an alleyway.
The developer intends to provide the builing’s lab spaces with the capability to handle a variety of biosafety levels. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are four BSL classifications “used to identify the protective measures needed in a laboratory setting to protect workers, the environment and the public.”
BSL-1 and BSL-2 classifications deal with infectious agents or toxins that are low-to-moderate risk to humans, according to DHHS. BSL-3 labs study toxins that could potentially be fatal and are primarily transmitted through the air and BSL-4 labs are certified to handle life-threatening toxins that currently have no vaccine or therapy available.
Building designer Michael Stevenson of Perkins-Eastman said that BSL-1 and BSL-2 classifications compose the great majority of life science lab space in commercial lab buildings and university campuses. He explained that they are relatively low-hazard and pose little risk to lab employees or the public. Examples he pointed to include facilities in the Durham Innovation District, Winston-Salem Innovation Quarter and labs within Research Triangle Park.
Stevenson added that a BSL-3 lab could potentially occupy space in the building, although it is exceedingly rare to locate one in a commercial lab building; a BSL-4 lab would not be placed in the facility on East Rosemary Street under any scenario. Local BSL-3 labs include one at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine and a lab contained within the UNC Medical School.
Council member Hongbin Gu raised the issue of safety within the potential labs. She asked about the appropriateness of siting a lab handling infectious agents within downtown Chapel Hill given that a BSL-3 tenant could house something potentially as infectious as the coronavirus that spawned the COVD-19 pandemic.
Grubb executive Joe Dye said that any lab within the facility is required to meet local, state and federal protocols for operational standards and that there are multiple wet labs already in Chapel Hill, as well as in other locations in downtown Durham and Winston-Salem.
Stevenson outlined his prior experience as lead architect on a consolidation project for the Food and Drug Administration, which had several BSL-3 labs. He said that Gu was correct about the nature of the BSL-3 classification but that the onus of meeting operating standards falls on the tenant, not the developer.
“All of those details and subtleties are not addressed in the base building design,” he said. “[The facility] can handle a wide range of things but we can’t anticipate the exact tenants that are going to be here and their needs. That comes later.”
Council members asked staff to explore creating a safety oversight committee to work alongside Grubb Properties as the building is developed, ideally something modeled after the Cambridge Biosafety Committee that utilizes city residents to ensure public accountability for safe biological practices. Town manager Maurice Jones said that could be presented in the spring.
In the public comment portion of the hearing, Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership, remarked that there is a strong economic incentive to build a wet lab downtown.
He shared part of a conversation he had with a lab developer who mentioned they often see UNC researchers working in RTP and Durham who would prefer to stay in Chapel Hill, but don’t have a local workspace.
“We know that wet labs can’t be done at home and it can’t be telecommuted,” Gladdek said. “This is a really important part of our economic development future for downtown.”
Besides providing unique office and lab space, the building holds the distinction of transforming Chapel Hill’s downtown skyline. Towering at over 130-feet, it will rival the height of several structures on the UNC campus.
Council member Amy Ryan predicted the overall design will work for the facility, although she was concerned about the Franklin Street facade looking incomplete.
“It’s a very big building that’s going to be a lot for Chapel Hill to swallow,” she said.
“You’re right at an iconic place on Franklin Street. It’s just really, really, really important to get this piece right.”
Councilperson Michael Parker said it was a good night for excitement now that the project is moving forward.
“It’s really going to give our downtown a huge shot in the arm and help Chapel Hill take its place,” he said. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is probably the most important single building to go up in Chapel Hill in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s that important, it’s that visible and it is what our community really will gravitate toward. You have taken on a huge responsibility.”
He further added that while no one can predict whether a BSL-3 lab will be in the building or not, between local and federal standards “whatever goes into that building will be safe.”
Mayor Pam Hemminger called the building transformative for Chapel Hill and said that it will help bring a different kind of energy needed to make downtown successful. She also noted that Durham has over 1 million-square-feet of wet lab space and in 10 years there has not been a single major incident.
The council approved the conditional zoning 7-1; Gu cast the single dissenting vote. The meeting ended in a closed session.
Other business handled in the hybrid council meeting and work session included:
- An overview of the five-year budget strategy;
- A presentation of the 2021 fiscal year audit and financial update;
- A concept plan review of the Trinity Court project;
- An update of plans regarding a community splash pad.