GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
By Adam Powell
Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council held a legislative hearing to consider a proposal to construct a new Life Sciences Center on a 1.99-acre site at 306 W. Franklin Street during their October 25 session.
The Chapel Hill Life Sciences Project is a proposed state-of-the-art research lab and office facility constructed at the site of a current one-level strip mall of local restaurants and businesses. Businesses currently located there are Chimney Indian Kitchen and Bar, Bella Nail Bar and Blue Dogwood Public Market.
On October 3, the Town of Chapel Hill held a public information meeting on the proposed Life Sciences Center. The town also submitted a survey to the public to gather local input about the proposed development.
Greg Capps, Regional Managing Director at Longfellow Real Estate Partners, represented the developer in the October 3 public information session. Longfellow currently has multiple properties in Durham within its portfolio and has constructed in the past on the Duke University campus. Longfellow is applying with the Town of Chapel Hill for a Conditional Rezoning District to allow for the proposed new facility. On the same day, Chapel Hill’s Planning Commission unanimously recommended town leaders approve the conditional rezoning.
“We try to support local businesses. We don’t have any big national chains that lease space from us in any of our developments,” Capps said. “One of the first assets that we bought here in this [Triangle] market was in downtown Durham. We have Duke University leasing a lot of lab space from us. And that’s been a great partnership over the years. We look forward to doing something similar over here with UNC.”
Michael Stevenson, an architect with Perkins Eastman, a firm working with Longfellow on the design aspects of the proposed Life Sciences Center, indicated that “thoughtful consideration” is being placed on ensuring that the facility is properly connected with the surrounding area and that it flows with the existing landscape to create aesthetic and practical harmony to a busy area of Franklin Street, which is often congested with a mixture of students, diners, and tourists.
“Franklin Street downtown doesn’t have a lot of public green space,” Stevenson explained. “There’s McCorkle Place at the University, and there’s some small, small places in other areas of town. But we think this part of town will benefit from having an open space that people can use and gather in. Having a pedestrian connection between Franklin and Rosemary is very important. It’s a very long block from church to Roberson, about 1600 feet. So people cut through.”
The site plan calls for an eight-story lab and office building with underground parking for approximately 100 vehicles, along with a landscaped plaza with walking and sitting spaces for guests, as well as a dedicated pedestrian walkway connecting downtown with areas north of Franklin Street.
The anticipated length of construction is 28 to 30 months, with completion taking place sometime in 2026.
“The idea is to make a very nice, safe, well-lit, pedestrian passageway connecting Franklin Street with Rosemary and the neighborhoods to the north [of downtown],” Stevenson added.
According to Longfellow, the anticipated economic impact for Chapel Hill for the one-time construction of the Life Sciences Center is approximately $180 million. The project is anticipated to create 1,700 new local jobs, with ongoing annual operations providing a projected economic impact of approximately $379 million.
Casey Angel, Director of International Corporate Communications for Longfellow, expressed the firm’s commitment to environmental social governance (ESG).
“We’re doubling down on our firm-wide commitment to ESG building here [in Chapel Hill] with LEED Gold [construction standards], and targeting Fit Well certifications for the Chapel Hill project as well. In addition to that, on the other side of the coin is social sustainability – not just sustainable building, but sustainable practices within our community to make sure that the communities that we invest in, that we build in, are better for it.”
Following the developer’s presentation and public comments at the October 25 session, council members spoke about the proposed project, which will come back before them on November 29 for a formal vote.
Town leaders did not appear united on the proposal, as some members expressed disappointment that they weren’t provided a specific design plan at the legislative hearing.
Others seemed more excited about moving forward with a plan that will add significantly to Chapel Hill’s future business prospects.
“Our downtown is transforming,” said board member Paris Miller-Foushee. “When I look at Raising Cane’s and the challenges they face in trying to uplift our aging buildings in our downtown corridor on Franklin Street, it made clear how a project like this that can bring in up-to-date, coded retail space will lower some of those barriers for new retailers to come in, and not struggle as much with that permitting process. We are really expecting something nice and spectacular (with the Life Sciences Center) that is really going to bring us into the future.”
“This is how we support existing small businesses, and also support all the businesses downtown,” added fellow board member Jessica Anderson. “I think this is a great opportunity. I love the green spaces (proposed in the project), and the engagement with the Northside community.”
“I’m really excited about this. It’s going to give the western part of our downtown the shot in the arm that it really needs,” added council member Michael Parker. “I understand the concerns that have been raised about the viability [of such a building]. I spent 40 years in the healthcare and life sciences industry. While there have been some blips, it is a sector of the economy that has not only grown in lockstep with the GNP [gross national product], but has actually exceeded it.”
“I think this is as close to a low-risk kind of building that one can build in our downtown, given the importance of healthcare and life sciences to our overall economy,” Parker continued. “You [Longfellow] have certainly demonstrated to my satisfaction that you know how to design excellent buildings. I look forward to seeing what comes back at the end of November. We talk a lot about supporting our local businesses. And it’s exactly this.”
“I’m a bit more skeptical than my colleague,” said fellow board member Adam Searing following Parker’s comments. “Not having an idea of what the design looks like for a building that’s 165 feet tall – nearly twice as tall as the current zoning that’s already allowed here, which is substantial – I mean, this building is going to really transform the look and feel of our downtown. And to approve it without having a really good idea of what it looks like. Boy, this is a huge leap of faith to approve something without knowing what it looks like.”
“I support this project. I think it will be great for downtown,” added board member Amy Ryan. “I do have some concerns about the level of detail we’re getting and the schematics. I don’t need to see building elevations. I don’t need to see planting plans. I do trust the designers. As council, we have an oversight role. And we have a duty to fulfill to the community, to ensure we get the projects that fit and the benefits the community needs.”