Irregularities at 123 West Franklin

December 1, 2014
Mayor and Council,
We bring to your attention both a recent determination made by the Planning staff and a very unsound decision by a developer, which, if not questioned and stopped, will bring most unfortunate consequences for our Downtown.

We believe the decision to allow a major change in the S.U.P., adding 40,000 sq   feet of residential instead of the approved 40,000 sq feet of office space for 123 West Franklin, cannot be treated as a “minor modification.” This action undercuts your intentions in approving the redevelopment of University Square. Staff has taken it upon themselves to classify this as a “minor modification” and there are a number of reasons that this change should not be agreed to. Instead, you should instruct staff to continue discussions to ensure that 123 W. Franklin results in a development that not only provides positive benefits to the community, but one that follows a firm policy that the Mayor and Council establish.

We have learned that the primary reason this change is sought is because the applicant is having trouble pre-leasing the proposed office space. This change affects the fiscal impact basis on which you gave your approval. It is neither council’s nor the public’s responsibility to insure that a development garners an immediate profit for the developer. Your goal in approving development has been to improve the balance between residential and commercial development. Lately, developers have tried to ignore that necessity and increase the residential component of their proposed projects. Allowing 123 West to do this would set a precedent that we do not believe you want to set.

The goal of increased residential development downtown has been satisfied by 140 West, Greenbridge, The Graduate, Lux, Shortbread Lofts, and by the original 300 units approved for 123 W. Franklin. A critical mass of residents has been reached; the crucial next step is to provide services for them. The Council’s original vision (and 2020’s) emphasized the strong need for a supermarket downtown in order to capture more trips, increase economic activity, and concur with the Comprehensive Plan. A supermarket is the linchpin of urban design necessary to make downtown a walkable, sustainable and vibrant part of Chapel Hill. Despite that, over a year after receiving approval, the commercial development representative for 123 West stated that “it will be difficult to get a grocery in this complex” because of how trucks would have to negotiate the property.

Urban supermarkets are being built all over the Triangle, state and country – the Harris Teeter at Raleigh’s North Hills is a perfect example – and there is no doubt that it can be done, especially because the developer will be starting from scratch. 123 West should be constructed to overcome any design flaws necessary to achieve that goal. However, it would appear that the 123 West developers have decided that instead they will build what they want to build.

The Council has emphatically promoted the increase of the commercial tax base and promised that the wave of dense development would support that goal. Because of that, the modification requested by 123 W. Franklin should receive a public appraisal and not be rubber-stamped by staff.   It is critical that you direct staff to respect the foundation that you are laying for downtown revitalization. I hope that you will see to it that that happens.

Thank you,

Elisabeth Benfey             Tom Henkel          David Schwartz   Terry Vance
Maria de Bruyn              Jane Kirsch           Jan Smith            Diane Willis
Arthur Finn                    Fred Lampe          Alan Snavely       Don Evans
Deborah Finn                 Ann Loftin             Del Snow           Joyce Brown
Suzanne Haff                 Kristina Peterson   Nancy Oates


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