Developer Talks Wet Lab with Town Council, New Affordable Housing on the Way


By Carl Blankenship

CHAPEL HILL — A Boston developer came before Chapel Hill Town Council to discuss the early stages of its controversial research lab project Wednesday.

Longfellow Real Estate Partners, a major developer of laboratory space, wants to build a new wet lab and commercial building at 306 W. Franklin St. The concept plan review precedes the company submitting any applications for the project, which would require rezoning for added height and density.

The developer presented the 320,000-square-foot, nine-story concept to the board, but noted the design is in early stages. If the lab comes to fruition, Longfellow would offer a mix of small lab space build-outs for and leases for entire floors of the facility. The first floor is intended to be commercial space and could accommodate a mix of businesses, including a full restaurant.

The presentation was brief, and Longfellow’s representatives noted the possible addition of The Bicycle Chain property adjacent to the existing site would result in a redesign.

There were 21 public comments from a mix of students and permanent residents, voicing the same concerns they had when the project went public in the fall: the project could displace the popular cafe The Purple Bowl and that the lab is inappropriate for the downtown area.

The building also houses Chimney Indian Kitchen and Blue Dogwood Public Market. But the comments largely focused on the inclusive environment fostered at The Purple Bowl. The cafe has started its own campaign as well, publicly posting a flier on its website outlining talking points for people who want to support saving 306 Franklin St.

Council member Tai Huynh asked what has been communicated to the building’s tenants.
Nathan Zeidler, a Longfellow project manager, told the board the question would be for Longfellow Managing Director Greg Capps, who did not attend due to “illness.”

“I have not been part of those communications, but we’re excited to work with all our current and future tenants,” Zeidler said.

Hyunh followed up by asking if there has been communication with the current tenants, which Zeidler confirmed. When the board raised other issues of community engagement, Zeidler deferred to Capps.

Council member Paris Miller-Foushee asked if the developer is considering the civil rights history of the area surrounding the site.

“We’re so early on that we haven’t really had a chance to explore that very much,” Zeidler said. “I know one of the things that Greg mentioned is definitely community art programs, local artists, things like that, but there’s other things we can do.”

UNC Student Body President Teddy Vann, during public comment, told the council the developer’s response to the question left her feeling an “enormous pit” in her stomach.

“I think that for me, that community is something so important, that’s been so critical to my experience as a Black student here and being able to connect with our mentors,” Vann said. “And I think about the history of gentrification in our country, but also with Chapel Hill specifically, and have some major concerns about what the creation of this space would mean for the Northside community.”

During the council comment portion of the review, members expressed their appreciation for the willingness of students to be involved in public debate but also spoke about why the town has been courting projects like the lab.

Member Amy Ryan noted why the town is interested in projects like the Longfellow lab: Students may be good customers, but they leave in the summer and downtown businesses struggle until the fall semester begins. The idea behind projects like the Longfellow lab is to bring more people downtown year-round who will spend at other local businesses.

“I don’t think it’s an either or, I think we can have change, I think we can support our small businesses, I think we can do both of them,” Ryan said.

Trinity Court redevelopment

A property languishing in Chapel Hill’s HUD portfolio is expected to get new life in the coming months.

Trinity Court, a 40-unit public housing property closed in 2018 due to structural issues, will be rebuilt as a 54-unit project under the purview of nonprofit developer Community Housing Partners.

CHP is expected to break ground on the development this fall, about five years after the town applied to convert the project. The firm will manage the construction, property management, and resident services.

The new stock will include 14 one-bedroom units in addition to 40 units replacing their two and three-bedroom counterparts in the old property. The site will include a playground, covered picnic areas, community room, business center and a connection to the Tanyard Branch Greenway. Three bus stops will be located on-site.

The project carries an estimated cost of $14 million but has been awarded a $10 million low-income housing tax credit by the state. The town anticipates providing $1.175 million in funding which it approved in November and an additional $1.5 million yet to be signed off on.

The agreement includes an option for a ground lease, but a few steps remain. The nonprofit must pass through the permitting process and secure the remaining financing, both of which are expected to be completed by the summer. The lease would carry a nominal cost of $1 annually and go into effect before construction begins.

Town Public Housing Director Faith Brodie said redeveloping Trinity Court will improve the town’s annual U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development portfolio assessment and bring it to the department’s occupancy standard of at least 96%.

CHP has 94 other projects in its portfolio, totaling 5,876 units.

In other news from the meeting:

● The town allocated $4 million from its FY 2022 fund balance on a long list of one-off projects staff identified because the funding will not be recurring. Council Member Adam Searing was the lone objecting vote, expressing his preference to consider using some of the funding for impending expenses like the replacement of emergency vehicles.

● The town approved a special use permit for the Dunkin’ Donuts location at 1509 E. Franklin St. to add a drive-in window along with traffic management additions.

● The town approved a conditional zoning application for the Tri Pointe Townhomes development at 2217 Homestead Road.

● The town denied a conditional zoning application for Aspen Chapel Hill at 701 Martin Luther Jr. Blvd. The issue tied at the previous meeting and the mayor voted to deny it during the Wednesday meeting, granting a majority against.

Disclosure: Adam Searing is a former member of The Local Reporter’s advisory board and a monthly donor.

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