Orange County

Is a 5-story, mixed-use building too big for Chapel Hill’s East Rosemary Street?

An architect’s drawing shows how a five-story Rosemary East might look on the lot next to the Daily Tar Heel building on East Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill.
An architect’s drawing shows how a five-story Rosemary East might look on the lot next to the Daily Tar Heel building on East Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. Submitted

While big buildings have popped up on the downtown landscape in recent years, the architect for the five-story Rosemary East concept plan found a skeptical audience recently.

Paliourus Enterprises LLC first offered its concept plan last year for 157 E. Rosemary St., between the Daily Tar Heel building and a gravel lot at Henderson and East Rosemary streets. The two-story building now there has housed popular dive bars over the years, including Bub O’Malley’s and Country Fried Duck.

A concept plan, while not an official application, gives the town an opportunity to offer feedback. Architect David Ripperton used feedback from the Chapel Hill Town Council and Community Design Commission last year to revise the original eight-story project.

The latest plan is five stories with ground floor retail, second-floor offices, and three floors of apartments. Two of 17 proposed apartments would be affordable housing, and parking – 20 underground spaces instead of none in the original plan – would be sold separately to tenants.

Rosemary East would be the second-tallest structure on East Rosemary Street, requiring the council to rezone the site from Town Center-2 to Town Center-3 to allow for a larger building. The TC-2 zoning would allow 27,934 square feet of development vs. 58,808 square feet for TC-3.

The CVS Plaza, which covers the block from East Franklin Street to East Rosemary Street, would be the tallest building at six stories.

Rosemary East pic3
An architect’s drawing of the proposed concept plan for a five-story Rosemary East building at 157 E. Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill. David Ripperton Submitted

That isn’t acceptable for a third of an acre, officials with the neighboring Phi Mu sorority said last week. Council members agreed, while expressing support for a mix of uses.

Council member George Cianciolo didn’t rule out rezoning the site, but the developer hasn’t shown a need for a building that big.

“What they did show is that there could be a big mass. That certainly didn’t work,” he said. “If they showed something that didn’t have that mass, something that actually had some architectural features that might speak to the neighborhood, I think I could be a little more interested.”

Neighbor concerns

Council member Sally Greene found the Phi Mu concerns “compelling.” Phi Mu attorney Lee Ann Brown noted the town made its decision about the future of East Rosemary Street when it applied the TC-2 zoning to the site.

Zoning changes aren’t made “because somebody wants a taller building, a bigger building or a different zoning,” she said. There has to be an error in the current zoning, changing conditions in the area, or support from the town’s comprehensive plan, she said, none of which were shown.

Brown and Phi Mu alumna adviser Monica McCarty asked for a plan that meets the current zoning and resolves worries about privacy, spillover parking and trespassing. A huge mixed-use building beside the town’s Franklin-Rosemary Historic District also is concerning, they said.

“When potential new members arrive on campus and prepare for recruitment, they visualize what it would be like to live in each of the sorority houses,” McCarty said. “Phi Mu is deeply concerned about the impact of the proposed structure on the charm and ambiance of our Preservation Chapel Hill-designated historic home.”

The developer ignored advice from the CDC last year to consider a three- to four-story building that meets the existing zoning, she added. It also would align more with the town’s West Rosemary Street development guide and the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District, she added.

The developer was encouraged again to look to the new AC Hotel on West Rosemary Street as an example.

“I would say that one of the biggest things I think you didn’t do was meet with the neighbors,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said. “The AC Hotel spent a lot of time meeting with the neighborhood and talking about what the values (were), so … people have been accepting and actually interacting about it and excited about it.”

Another big concern, council member Nancy Oates said, is the plan to send spillover parking to the Wallace Parking Deck across the street.

“One of the things we’ve wrestled with is there’s not enough parking, and we’re already looking at perhaps spending a million dollars to add another level to the Wallace deck just to accommodate the businesses downtown now that don’t have parking,” she said. “I’m a little concerned that you’re thinking any of the overflow would be absorbed by what we already have.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb