By Susana Dancy
A mixed-use project proposed by Trinsic Residential Group for the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, if approved by Chapel Hill Town Council, would transform a former 15-acre tree farm into a mixed-use node along the town’s proposed North-South Bus Rapid Transit corridor.
The project, named Aura, is envisioned by the developer as a “third place,” which in community building is the social place separate from home (first place) and work (second place). Examples of third places are churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores and parks. The designers for this project have focused on parks and public spaces, restaurants and small convenience retail, thereby creating a significant “play” component in the live-work-play trio.
While fear about existing traffic congestion on Estes Drive has dominated discussion and has resulted in pushback from some of the nearby residents, multiple engineering firms — two working for the town and one for the developer — say the intersection will function better than its current condition once the state-funded and proposed developer improvements are complete.
Both the town model and the developer model predict that the queuing along westbound Estes Drive, which currently can back up more than 2,200 feet at certain times — as far back as the schools — should be reduced to under 600 feet after the roadway and intersection improvement are completed. For perspective, Somerset Drive is about 1,600 feet from MLK Jr. Blvd.
The site plan designed by CiDesign includes an urban plaza for outdoor coffee, drinks or dining; a central park for flexible outdoor gathering space for leisure enjoyment and community cultural events; and The Woodlands, a larger park with trails and improvements to an existing small stream. The development would include 361 apartments, up to 59 for-sale townhouses, 15,000 square feet of neighborhood retail, plus more than 3.5 acres of recreational space mentioned above.
As part of the NCDOT project, the town is getting construction bids for a combination of sidewalks and multiuse paths on the north side of Estes Drive from Estes Hills Elementary School to Somerset Drive and sidewalks and bike lanes on the south side of Estes Drive from the Caswell Drive stoplight to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. As part of its development, Trinsic would build bike-ped infrastructure along its property on Estes Drive and MLK Jr. Blvd, install a push-button crosswalk to connect to a possible future YMCA entrance on Estes Drive and construct the trailhead and first section of the town’s planned north-south greenway along a Duke Energy easement.
The combination of town-built and developer-built ped-bike infrastructure would be the first significant facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists along Estes, enabling children and their parents to walk or bike safely from the elementary and middle schools to the YMCA and Amity Church, or perhaps for an ice cream cone or bagel at Aura’s village center.
This project also provides many amenities that Chapel Hill says it values:
- 47 affordable rental units guaranteed for 30 years
- For-sale affordable housing
- A significant public art component
- Easy access to a proposed Bus Rapid Transit station
- National Green Building Standards, at minimum achieving Bronze-level certification
- A mixture of housing types and prices, ranging from one-bedroom apartments for rent to three- and four-bedroom townhouses for sale
- Multi-modal transportation hub, connecting greenways and sidewalks in the surrounding neighborhoods to the BRT station at the corner of two of Chapel Hill’s primary corridors
- 20 electric vehicle charging stations with wiring to expand to more than 20 percent of all parking
- State-of-the-art stormwater system with underground storage vaults, along with one acre of underground subterranean parking, free up land for recreational space rather than stormwater ponds
A top goal for Aura’s placemaking team has been to provide exceptional public spaces, designed for people first. This priority has shaped nearly every design decision on this project. There will be sidewalks, greenways, shade trees and bicycle parking. Aura will provide destinations to walk to, such as restaurants, a weekly farmer’s market and cultural activities in the parks.
Further, as a mixed-use transit hub, Aura will make it safe, convenient and enjoyable for its residents and those living in surrounding neighborhoods to grab a cup of coffee before boarding Chapel Hill Transit’s fare-free NS bus to downtown, campus or UNC hospital. Indeed, Aura will set a new standard for quality, place-based real estate development in Chapel Hill.
Susana Dancy, owner of Rockwood Development Group, has more than 20 years of experience using principles of placemaking to create value in real estate development and investments. She works as a consultant for Trinsic Residential Group.