By Charles Coble
Binkley Baptist Church is located on the corner of Willow Drive and Fordham Boulevard, immediately adjacent to University Place.
Binkley was founded in the Civil Rights era that was beginning to dismantle the Jim Crow laws in Chapel Hill and across the country. Our founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Robert Seymour who led the church for three decades, firmly established Binkley as an advocate for civil rights, social justice, and the acceptance of all, regardless of sexual orientation. Succeeding pastors, including our current pastor, Rev. Dr. Marcus McFaul, have built upon and strengthened the social mission and outreach of Binkley over time.
When University Mall was developed on land adjacent to Binkley in the early 70s, Rev. Seymour embraced the development as an opportunity for Binkley to serve as “The Church in the Marketplace.” He delivered a sermon by that title in September 1973, in which he reminded the congregation that the person we follow, Jesus, went to where the action was, and the Town of Chapel Hill has delivered the action to our doorstep!
Similarly, When Binkley began learning about the transformation of University Mall into University Place and that it would have large residential housing units, we saw this as an opportunity for Binkley to become an even greater asset to a new community that was to be built up around us. We applauded (and still do) the conversion of the inward facing mall into an outward facing commercial and residential community that we want to be a vital part of.
When the concept plans for University Place were published in the N&O (The News & Observer) and made available in other ways in April 2021, it was noticeable that the only area of the mall that had no identified use was the old K&W Cafeteria land, directly adjacent to our church property. The plan showed traffic flow changes that would restrict access to Binkley. Having received no notifications, we scheduled meetings with Town of Chapel Hill officials and with Ram Realty representatives on back-to-back weeks in June 2021 to discuss our concerns.
In those meetings, the town was sympathetic to our access issues, and it was our understanding that a drive-thru would not be built on the K&W site. The following week, Ram representatives said that a multi-story, multi-use building would be the most likely building constructed on the K&W site. Ram agreed to a stipulation of a 3- to 4-story maximum. We were not aware that a “special use permit” would allow Ram up to six drive-thru lanes for different businesses. However, given Chapel Hill’s restrictions on drive-thru restaurants, we doubted a drive-thru restaurant could be built on the University Place property.
We asked in both of those June meetings if we could be kept informed of changes to the plans that directly impacted Binkley. That did not happen, so we were shocked to learn in an N&O story on March 11, 2022, that a double-lane Chick-fil-A was planned next to Binkley Church.
While we are not opposed to a dine-in/take out restaurant, we are opposed to a drive-thru next to our church. Even though Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, Binkley is not a Sunday-only church; we have indoor and outdoor programming seven days a week, including evening hours. Binkley’s daycare and its preschool children for low-income families, the teachers, and caregivers will all be exposed to elevated concentrations of pollutants from idling cars, from morning to night six days a week.
In addition, the constant noise generated by a double-wide drive-thru will make outdoor programming virtually impossible at Binkley’s Peace Plaza next to where the drive-thru lanes will be constructed. Additional nighttime lighting would be an unwelcome intrusion onto our grounds.
The planned Chick-fil-A basically land-locks Binkley. Without better access to the church via University Place, Binkley is effectively walled out of the community and frustrates our desire to be more visible, accessible, and integrated into to the new University Place community.
Jeff Kurtz, Ram Realty’s vice president of development, had a nice quote in the August 25th N&O, “Over the next few years, we hope to transform this property into a walkable neighborhood where people can live, work and play.” To which we would add “And pray in Binkley’s St. Francis Garden, meditate while walking our labyrinth, talk with friends and enjoy the carefully-tended flowers in the Peace Plaza, frolic with children in our playground, or come inside for inspiration and hope.”
Charles Coble is a member of the Task Force on University Place at Binkley Baptist Church.
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