Chapel Hill could move Police Department to mall after UNC deal falls through

The town could now move the Chapel Hill Police Department to the University Place mall, after a pending deal with UNC fell apart.

Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development officer, reached out to mall owner Ram Realty a few months ago about building a new police headquarters at University Place. It’s important to find a new site, he said, because the current building is old and needs costly repairs.

At least 10 sites were considered before the town settled a few years ago on a university-owned site on Estes Drive Extension, he said.

Meanwhile, Ram, which bought University Place on South Estes Drive in December, is planning to redevelop the former University Mall with outward-facing storefronts, leaving the interior available for other uses and potentially adding offices and apartments to the site.

“We told Ram early on that we would like to think that we’re both at the [negotiating] table sincerely, because we would like to not have a false start again, and they felt like there was a possibility there,” Bassett said.

Last summer, the Chapel Hill Town Council and UNC’s Board of Trustees were in agreement about the joint development of 20 acres on Estes Drive Extension, near the former Horace Williams Airport. Construction would have begun this summer, town documents noted.

The town planned to develop roughly half the land for its new Municipal Services Center, including the police station, and fire and parks administrative offices. UNC would have reserved the other half for its future expansion.

Although the university still plans to someday develop the Carolina North satellite campus in that area, its focus for the next 15 years has shifted to the main campus. That reduced the value of the deal with the town to the university, said Gordon Merklein, associate vice chancellor of university real estate operations.

Negotiations broke down late last summer, at a time when town-gown relations were strained over the police response to the toppling of Silent Sam and subsequent protests. Chapel Hill police and Chief Chris Blue took most of the heat for how those protests were handled, although UNC Police and Chief Jeff McCracken were in charge of the on-campus response.

There is no connection between the failed deal and Silent Sam, town and university officials said.

“Zero correlation,” Merklein said. “You can quote me on that, there’s absolutely zero correlation to that. It’s coincidental.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger agreed, citing a change in the university system’s land lease policy.

The policy, which takes effect July 1, now requires campus officials, the boards of trustees and governors, the State Property Office, and the governor and Council of State to approve any land leases lasting longer than 10 years. It also requires UNC institutions to determine whether a state agency could use a parcel of land before leasing it.

“The Board of Governors said that UNC properties would no longer be available to sell or land lease,” Hemminger said. “They would prefer the universities to hang onto their properties or swap them for other potential, good properties.”

UNC asked the town to swap the Wallace Parking Deck on East Rosemary Street downtown or the town parking lot at North Columbia and East Rosemary streets for the land on Estes Drive Extension. Additional parking supports UNC’s vision of a stronger Franklin Street presence, including a more defined entrance to campus at Porthole Alley, near the Carolina Coffee Shop.

“It would be a way to go ahead and brand something as a UNC (parking) lot for Carolina Performing Arts or the Ackland (Art Museum), Hill Hall, all these public activities that occur on North Campus and can be difficult” to find parking nearby, Merklein said.

But the town values public parking downtown, too, and wasn’t interested in the trade. The corner parking lot already is identified as a future redevelopment site, and repairs and an expansion of the Wallace Deck is in the works.

Partnering with Ram

The town has partnered with Ram Realty before to redevelop a downtown parking lot, creating the 140 West Franklin complex, and more recently on plans for a large flood storage area behind Ram’s Fordham Boulevard apartment project near Eastgate Crossing.

The council supports the new negotiations, Hemminger said. She noted the municipal center could include community meeting space, and the mall would be a great location for that. It also would give police and the public easy access to the new department, Blue said.

The deal with UNC “just became untenable for us; it is not an acrimonious conversation in any way,” Blue said. The mall site “looks very, very promising,” he said, citing its central location, with good access to major roads, accessibility and visibility.

It also will increase the police presence in the growing commercial and residential area on that end of town, he said.

The town previously moved the Chapel Hill Public Library into the mall while renovating its building nearby, Blue noted, and a police substation, known as The Cop Shop, has operated out of a mall storefront for decades.

“I know that many people find their way into The Cop Shop, because they’re visiting that property already for something else,” Blue said. “They come in and ask a question, or report something, or otherwise just have a conversation with a police officer down there that they may not have had otherwise had they not passed that substation.”

Freestanding building and parking deck

The work with Ram is just getting started, Bassett said. An architect is redesigning the 72,000-square-foot municipal center plan to fit in the parking lot beside Silverspot Cinema, along Willow Drive. The freestanding building could be three to four stories tall with parking underneath. The plan also envisions an adjacent, two-story parking deck, which the mall could use outside of office hours, he said.

The town expected to pay $1 a year for 99 years to lease the UNC site. The terms of a lease with Ram Realty haven’t been discussed.

The biggest issue with the mall site is flooding, because its Estes Drive entrance lies in the floodplain for Bolin Creek, which regularly overflows its banks. Ram has talked about replacing its Estes Drive entrance with a green space or small park that could hold the stormwater runoff and slowly release it downstream, Bassett said. The town will complete a flood study as part of its prep work.

The town also wants to move the Police Department project ahead to address an old coal ash dump on the current site.

Lying just north of Bolin Creek on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the site provided fill dirt for construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the 1970s, the holes were filled with debris, rocks and coal ash. Town officials don’t know where the coal ash originated.

The town has owned the property since the early 1980s, but the coal ash only became an issue several years ago when the council started looking at selling or finding another use for the property.

It approved spending $246,000 in June to clean up a portion of the coal ash near the creek, and to manage and monitor the site over the next three to five years.

The estimated cost of completely removing and replacing the coal ash with clean dirt is up to $16 million, town staff have said. An alternate approach — removing some coal ash, building a retention wall and capping the rest — could cost up to $3.5 million, they said.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.