Orange County

Bigger isn’t better. Chapel Hill apartment complex design prompts concerns

Ram Realty Services has proposed a central motor court for pickups and dropoffs and a pedestrian passageway (white area) bisecting a single Fordham Boulevard Apartments building. Community Design Commission members suggested creating two smaller buildings with a more obvious pedestrian cut-through instead.
Ram Realty Services has proposed a central motor court for pickups and dropoffs and a pedestrian passageway (white area) bisecting a single Fordham Boulevard Apartments building. Community Design Commission members suggested creating two smaller buildings with a more obvious pedestrian cut-through instead. Cline Design Associates

There’s little love for another Alexan-style apartment building off South Elliott Road, say members of the town’s Community Design Commission.

The Alexan — now Berkshire Chapel Hill — opened this year between Whole Foods and South Village Plaza. The multi-story building and parking deck comprised the first dense development in the town’s Ephesus-Fordham district. Most strip malls and buildings around it are single story.

Now Ram Realty Services wants to replace a Days Inn and vacant lot on the corner of South Elliott Road and Fordham Boulevard with the 273-unit Fordham Boulevard Apartments. CDC members had some praise for the project Tuesday, but they also noted similarities to the Berkshire and its parking deck, which some citizens have said are too big and unattractive.

The proposed building is about 26,000 square feet smaller than the Berkshire, with eight fewer apartments, and also sits on three acres. At six stories, it would be slightly shorter than the seven-story Berkshire but still tower above a one-story strip mall next door. The parking deck, like that at the Berkshire, would be exposed to passers-by.

CDC member Christine Berndt argued for taking the time to systematically weigh information from staff, a consultant developing new district design rules, and the rules that guide district redevelopment. The commission is not required to make a decision before Nov. 17.

“I’d like to suggest that we take the time to get this right,” Berndt said. “We can learn from the first building that was done in Ephesus-Fordham ... and get this building right, because it’s in a very prominent location, and there’s been a lot of citizen concerns about the first building — it’s not your fault, but it needs to be done right in a design sense.”

Q. What is the Ephesus-Fordham district?

New construction in the district — between East Franklin Street and Ephesus Church Road, and between South Elliott Road and Legion Road — must meet special “form-based code” rules for how buildings should look and be placed on a site, and how they relate to the surrounding streetscape. The town’s goal is encouraging developers to replace aging, one-story shopping centers with more dense office, retail and apartment construction.

Q. How do projects in the district get approved?

The CDC typically reviews major Ephesus-Fordham district projects at least twice before voting on a Certificate of Appropriateness. The town manager also must approve district projects, but the Town Council does not review or vote on them.

The CDC will hold a work session on Thursday, Aug. 24, to work through specific issues surrounding the Fordham Boulevard Apartments. A vote could come as early as Sept. 26.

Q. What does the CDC review in the Ephesus-Fordham district?

The exterior appearance and architectural style of buildings and other structures; how a project looks from public areas; the landscaping and types of plants used; and how above-ground stormwater measures look, such as ponds. It also considers materials, textures and colors used in designing walls, windows, doors, fences, screening and other fixtures.

Q. What were some CDC concerns about the project?

▪  Road frontage: The developer offered to follow district rules that make it more pleasant for you to walk by the building, which is not typically required along Fordham Boulevard. However, that would require tall canopy trees that conflict with existing power lines.

The developer wants permission to plant shorter trees but CDC members suggested talking with the North Carolina Department of Transportation about planting canopy trees along the highway and smaller trees near the building, creating a tree-lined pedestrian path.

▪  Building breaks: Town rules require projects to include an alley or street cut-through at least every 450 feet. The developer proposes a motor court and a pedestrian passage to partition the building. That needs CDC approval, but members were worried about pedestrian safety.

Members Susana Dancy and Lucy Davis suggested an open walkway between two smaller buildings instead.

“What it would allow is this sense of being able to see into what’s there,” Dancy said. “The Booker Creek Greenway path, all of that, there is a lot of nature back there that by having the visual connection to it, I think it could enhance the aesthetic of your project and your site.”

▪  Parking deck: The developer wants to hang vinyl art banners on the parking deck facing Fordham Boulevard to create visual interest. CDC members did not support that idea.

“The banners may be fig leaves, but they’re not hiding anything,” member Volker Mueller said.

▪  Other requests: CDC members asked the developer for more information about a retaining wall separating a pocket park behind the building from a future Booker Creek Greenway.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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