Orange County

Can a building be tall and attractive, too? Chapel Hill wonders what you think

The seven-story Berkshire Chapel Hill was the first building of its size in Chapel Hill’s Blue Hill form-based code district. Living Kitchen will be returning to the building Aug. 16, and a new bar and beer market is planned for another corner space.
The seven-story Berkshire Chapel Hill was the first building of its size in Chapel Hill’s Blue Hill form-based code district. Living Kitchen will be returning to the building Aug. 16, and a new bar and beer market is planned for another corner space.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about why you don’t like a tall building than how it could be better.

“I think personally that I would like to see a skyline, a little foliage, trees. I tend to like shorter buildings, for sure,” Chapel Hill resident Zach Goldstein said while on his way to work around the corner from the seven-story Berkshire Chapel Hill building on South Elliott Road.

“If I wanted tall buildings, I’d go to New York or something,” he said.

The Berkshire is now the tallest building in the town’s newly named Blue Hill District (formerly the Ephesus-Fordham district) along Fordham Boulevard and Elliott, Franklin and Ephesus Church roads.

A second, seven-story apartment building has been proposed for the corner of Elliott Road and Fordham Boulevard, but the district is predominantly comprised of one- and two-story construction.

A town-approved form-based code launched the changes in 2014, part of an effort to update the district’s older, suburban-style shopping centers and busy roads with more walkability, economic activity and residents. The code is a guideline for how new buildings should look and fit into their surroundings.

The latest step is refining the district’s vision and adding the long-awaited Design Guidelines called for in the form-based code. The Design Guidelines won’t address height — that’s covered in the code — but it will address ways to make buildings seem less massive, including design details such as balconies, colors and materials, rooflines with varied heights and wall and floor setbacks.

The goal is to help property owners understand what makes Chapel Hill’s urban environment special, town officials said, and also to help the town’s Community Design Commission better weigh the appropriateness of a proposed project. The CDC and the town manager approve development in the district; the Town Council does not discuss or vote on those projects.

Multiple floors of the seven-story Berkshire Chapel Hill and its parking deck rise behind the one-story Elliott Square shops on South Elliott Road. The Berkshire continues to be a target of criticism for its size and height, which is an anomaly in the new Blue Hill (Ephesus Fordham) district. Tammy Grubb

Lee Perry, East West Partners development director, said the most-common criticism he heard about their Berkshire project was that people generally didn’t want tall buildings. He noted the mid-rise building’s upper floors sit back from the ground level and use a lighter-colored masonry that lessens its visual impact.

But “our building right now is obviously going to stand out, because it’s the only building that approaches anything that tall,” Perry said. “The goal would be over time, as things redevelop, the whole district develops in a similar fashion, and five, 10, 20 years out, the whole district is more mid-rise.”

His concern, he said, is that the town might create too-restrictive design guidelines or change the district code in a way that slows down redevelopment.

Consistency is important, local architect Josh Gurlitz said, but it doesn’t mean everything is always the same. Most attractive areas develop and redevelop over long periods of time, and defining the character of that future development is a “tremendously hard” challenge, he said.

“I would like to meet the person who could actually put their finger on it,” he said. “It has to do with creativity, the creativity that you develop in any profession, and it’s hard to define.”

DUR_ 0825-tallbuildings1
Residents often mention The Franklin hotel on West Franklin Street when asked about tall buildings they think are attractive. Architect Josh Gurlitz said it’s the little details that make the five-story building blend with the surrounding one-story and two-story buildings, like the windowless niches on the side, the balcony railings, and light-colored plaster on the lower floors that is scored in a way that reflects the building’s window frames. Bernard Thomas The Herald-Sun

Residents often point to the Gurlitz-designed Franklin hotel on West Franklin Street as an attractive but deceptively tall building.

Carrboro resident Elizabeth Gregory said she likes the hotel but never realized it was five stories. Larger buildings often lack the feeling of accessibility that you find on Franklin Street, she said, even though they are a more efficient use of space.

“I would say (I like) more on the innocuous side of architecture, rather than the ostentatious,” Gregory said. “The Greenbridge (on West Rosemary Street) is ugly to me, trying to make it into something that doesn’t fit with the feel of the town is wrong to me.”

DUR_ 0825-tallbuildings2
Many residents have called the Greenbridge Condominiums building on West Rosemary Street ugly and out of place since it was built several years ago. The 11-story building has led a transformation of Chapel Hill’s western downtown skyline, which now includes several other tall buildings and developments. Bernard Thomas The Herald-Sun

The Franklin benefits from the small details, Gurlitz said.

Railings add character, for example, and niches create the impression of windows on one side, he said. There’s also a contrast as the building rises from light-colored plaster accentuated by scoring to traditional red brick pushed back from the street.

That can take a bigger investment up front but makes a lively building, affecting your perception of its size, Gurlitz said.

“Developers need to make a living, but what they need to do is balance the short-term financial pop of building something with the long-term value of what they’re building,” he said. “The long-term value will be dependent on community reaction. (People) have to like the building and they have to like the business.”

Tall, mixed-use buildings can be a “really nice” way to use a limited amount of land, especially with “a different usage of materials and even landscaping,” said Paul Taylor, a recent Chapel Hill transplant from Denver, Colorado.

“You can have gardens on top of a roof and terraces that have umbrellas or outdoor seating — a little cafe kind of thing — on the third floor, so you have mixed use even vertically as well,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Join the conversation

Winter and Co. consultants are working with the town to collect public comments and draft the Blue Hill District (Ephesus Fordham) Design Guidelines, which could be posted for public review later this year.

You can find more information about the effort and take a survey about what you’d like to see through Sept. 10 at

The Town Council has tentatively scheduled a discussion of the Blue Hill District and Design Guidelines work for Sept. 27. Public workshops also are planned for this fall.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun