Orange County

What could $1 a year buy Chapel Hill? Turns out a lot.

The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Campus trustees have given UNC-Chapel Hill’s facilities office permission to lease university owned land on the south side of Estes Drive to the town government for use as the site for a new police headquarters, but that doesn’t mean the idea is anywhere close to getting a final OK.

Officials on both sides say the proposal has to navigate multiple reviews, involving at the least the town government, the UNC system and Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet.

But so far at UNC-CH, campus leaders think they’ve done their part by securing the trustees’ support late last month for signing a $1-a-year, 99-year-lease with the town.

“Given that we don’t have any particular program or need, we’re letting the town manage the process,” said Gordon Merklein, the university’s associate vice chancellor for real estate, who stressed it doesn’t have any construction plans of its own for the property.

The recent trustees vote came six months after Merklein confirmed the board was willing to see the university pursue a “joint use” development with the town, and after the Town Council also publicly signaled its interest in a property Police Chief Chris Blue has singled out as perhaps the best of all choices for a new headquarters.

Along with wanting to replace the existing headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, town officials think the prospective “municipal services center” may have to provide office space for the administrative arms of Chapel Hill’s fire and parks departments. All told, they guess it’ll be a $25 million project, but caution that both its price and scope could change once designers actually go to work.

To date, the only sketches of the project exist to show that it’s theoretically possible to put about 215,000 square feet of buildings on the 20.8-acre site, which is across Estes from a campus park-and-ride lot and the Horace Williams Airport.

Perfect site?

Early this year, Blue told the council that officials are looking for a tract that’s roomy, easily accessible and, to meet his department’s needs, centrally located. The university’s property “meets all those interests as well as any site I can imagine,” he said then.

But Chapel Hill being Chapel Hill, neighborhood opposition is more than just possible. The property adjoins the Elkin Hills neighborhood, which has resisted earlier development proposals for it from the university.

At least one resident, Carmen Elliott, is tracking the town’s new efforts and on Wednesday said she’d prefer seeing its re-use the existing police headquarters site on MLK, even if building there costs more thanks to the need to clean up a coal-ash dump there.

“Why come here just because it’s cheap?” she said.

Using the Estes site is likely to exacerbate drainage and traffic problems, particularly if the town follows the existing sketch that would leave the property “hugely overdeveloped,” Elliott said.

“When there’s economic advantages for the town, it’s so hard for people to acknowledge and accept responsibility for what they’re damaging,” she said. “We’ve seen this happen again and again.”

Public meetings

Town officials have already met publicly with the neighbors once, and figure to do so again on Sept. 7. Presuming their schedule holds, they’d update the council on Sept. 27.

Existing timelines indicate town officials ideally would likely to start construction of the municipal services in the middle of 2019 and wrap it up by the end of 2020. But that assumes the review and design process goes smoothly.

On UNC’s end, Merklein is anticipating the town and university will negotiate, in addition to a lease, a “development agreement” covering the necessary land-use permits. The lease itself will stipulate that UNC-CH reserves the right to use up to half the floor space that ultimately gets approved.

“It’s our way of trying to get a win-win,” Merklein said. “It’s a win for the town in the sense that they needed a location for a new police station. It’s a win for the university in that the town gets what they need, and we don’t give up any potential use of that land. It’s a mechanism that works well for both parties.”

Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochran added that from his point of view, the lease is “a great example of town and gown working together.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg