Town council moving forward with Life Sciences Building project on Franklin Street

Courtesy Town of Chapel Hill.

GOVERNMENT; GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT

By Adam Powell
Correspondent

On the evening of Wednesday, November 29, Chapel Hill’s Town Council moved forward with a new large-scale commercial project along Franklin Street.

The approval of a proposed Life Sciences Center at 306 Franklin Street is the culmination of a two-year effort on the part of Longfellow Real Estate Partners, the proposed developer of the primary, to find a solution that would be palatable to local officials.

The Life Sciences Building project initially came before the Town Council in October, but the board chose to defer a decision on the proposed development until some specific changes were made to the site plan.

The formal request made to the council on November 29 was to approve a conditional zoning of six parcels of land, totaling 1.99 acres, located at 214 and 306 West Franklin Street, as well as parcels at 311, 315, and 321 West Rosemary Street, to satisfy the purposes of Town Center-3 Conditional Zoning District (TC-3-CZD).

The conditional rezoning is intended to allow a wide range of uses on the property, including research activities, general business, and office business, among others. The Life Sciences Building is anticipated to host retail space on its ground level and office and research space.

The town made a couple of key modifications to its LUMO (land use management ordinance) to accommodate the Life Sciences Center project. Specifically, the town modified its maximum setback height to 140 feet and the maximum core height of the building at 165 feet.

Upon its completion – likely sometime in late 2025 or 2026 – the Life Sciences Center will tower above downtown Chapel Hill as its largest building. It is anticipated that the project will break ground and officially begin construction sometime in 2025.

As part of its commitment to comply with town building codes and ordinances, the developer, Longfellow Real Estate Partners, agreed to attend Chapel Hill community design commission meetings to present design principles at the initial stages of construction, ensuring the project will be properly vetted by community stakeholders. Longfellow Real Estate Partners also agreed to meet with town staff and urban planners as needed to collaborate on the project.

Highlights of the amended project presented to the council in late November included expanded green space and pocket parks surrounding the facility, ADA-compliant connectivity between Franklin and Rosemary Streets, active, transparent frontages throughout the ground level and proposed retail space, hidden parking, and the movement of the building’s main entrance to the interior courtyard, which the developer says adds a “more inclusive feel and functionality.”

“I think what’s very important is that in terms of design assurances, there are design principles that are quite specific that are written into the ordinance that we will be following,” said Michael Stevenson of Perkins Eastman, an international architecture firm based in New York that is assisting Longfellow Real Estate Partners with the design work on the project. “And that we’ll be presenting as we present designs as to how we’re fulfilling those. We’ve updated the view somewhat. We’re still in very early stages. This will continue to evolve and get refined as we go forward.”

Multiple council members expressed excitement that the project was finally coming to fruition on an official level with the council’s approval.

Michael Parker, who recently concluded his tenure on the council, spoke about Longfellow Real Estate Partners’ existing building in downtown Durham and how a similar building rising up in downtown Chapel Hill will add to the overall vibrancy of Franklin Street.

“As most of you know, this is my last business meeting on the council. And I really would have a hard time thinking of a better way to go out the door,” said Parker. “So I’m really excited about this project. This is what our town needs, and it’s been needing for a long time. I’ve seen your building in downtown Durham. This is just really exciting. And I’m really pleased that we’re able to move this forward.”

“I think this will be a game changer for downtown,” added Chapel Hill’s new mayor, Jessica Anderson. “This is just a really, really exciting project. So thank you for bringing it [before the council], and also thank you to the [outgoing] mayor [Pam Hemminger] for championing it and making sure that it happens.”

“I remember when this project came before us at our Council for Committee for Economic Sustainability, and I was super excited. And I’m still super excited,” added council member Paris Miller-Foushee. “And I’m looking forward to supporting this project. I’m so excited to vote yes for this.”

Although she wound up enthusiastically supporting the project in the end, council member Amy Ryan publicly addressed the council’s desire to see more green space and walkability surrounding the commercial development and connectivity to nearby Rosemary Street.

Ultimately, those requests were woven into the modified site plan from the October to November meetings, which the council ended up approving.

“This is going to be a really big deal for Chapel Hill in our downtown,” Ryan said. “When we come back with design guidelines, we’ve got to figure out a way where we are actually making sure that everybody’s agreeing, and we’re not running the clock out. We need to figure that out. On the front plaza, I just want to make sure that it feels like a real pedestrian space. I know you have to have that emergency access, but it shouldn’t feel that way. It should feel comfortable. I’m still not feeling like the activation on that Rosemary [Street] site is there yet. So as you proceed with your design, whatever you can do there [would be appreciated].”

Council member Adam Searing cast the lone “no” vote on the proposed project, citing the recent downturn in commercial real estate that has happened nationwide coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last meeting [in October] when we discussed this project, I went through a bunch of the reporting in the business press about how lab space like this and multiple communities around the country has fallen vacant, is being built on spec [without a designated tenant] and not being filled. And that’s from college towns to larger cities to our own RTP,” Searing stated.

“The last story that just came out last week was one in the Boston Globe. Lab vacancies in Boston areas climbed to a 10-year high,” Searing continued. “Local biotech companies are slashing jobs and facing dwindling investments. It appears now that the long red hot real estate market for Life Sciences space in the area is continuing to follow a similar downward trend.”

There’s more than 5 million square feet of unclaimed (commercial) space now in the Boston area. This project could be something that might work, (but) it’s in an industry that is experiencing an extreme downturn. And having a large empty building on Franklin Street is not going to create a vibrant downtown,” Searing concluded.

Despite Searing’s objections, the approval of the Life Sciences Building project will be one of the final legislative feathers in the collective caps of outgoing elected officials such as Parker, Tai Hunyh, and former mayor Pam Hemminger.

“I’m just grateful that the town spent the time trying to figure out what our niche was, and then figured out a way to send that message out,” said Hemminger following the council’s approval of the project. “You [Longfellow Real Estate Partners] apparently received it and decided we were a good fit. I do know that the extraordinary research that goes on at the UNC campus is phenomenal and will continue. They’ve done great things and they will continue. But we want to keep them here and nurture them here, grow them here.”

“We as a group from the Downtown Partnership and entrepreneurship group said how can we make this a reality, and you’re helping us do that and achieving those goals,” the former Chapel Hill mayor continued. “We had not taken the steps to move us along, to move us to a 12-month economy. Our downtown was struggling. Businesses were struggling. This really is a game changer for our downtown in general.”

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