Orange County

Can Chapel Hill handle a 5-story building, more traffic south of UNC?

The Columbia Street Annex plan includes two floors of retail and offices, topped with 39 condos and townhomes. The developer is offering to price six condos at an affordable rate, or pay $700,000 into the town’s affordable housing fund.
The Columbia Street Annex plan includes two floors of retail and offices, topped with 39 condos and townhomes. The developer is offering to price six condos at an affordable rate, or pay $700,000 into the town’s affordable housing fund. Contributed

A multistory building plan for South Columbia Street is raising a lot of questions about how a major road where cars already line up every weekday and on UNC game days could handle more traffic.

The Columbia Street Annex project could add housing, offices and retail to 4.2 wooded acres at the corner of South Columbia Street and the N.C. 54 West on-ramp. A single driveway allowing access to the site could be located across South Columbia Street from Purefoy Road and Merritt’s Store and Grill.

The N.C. Department of Transportation already plans to change the N.C. 54 on-ramp to accommodate traffic generated by the future Obey Creek development near Southern Village. Those changes would affect the Columbia Street project, but how the future intersection would look and how much land it would take haven’t been decided yet, said architect Phil Szostak, representing Raleigh-based White Oak Properties.

The developer thinks there will be a solution and is working with the state to plan the interchange and other road improvements, he said.

“As the neighbors will tell you, this is a bad intersection, and it’s a bad part of the road,” Szostak said. “If we need to condemn this project because of traffic, we need to condemn every project that the university, every project that the downtown, everything that comes in through this direction. It all contributes.”


Town Council members, after reviewing a concept plan for the project recently, still had concerns. Submitting a concept plan gives the developer an opportunity to get feedback before submitting an official application.

The town’s lack of control over surrounding state roads frustrates the conversation, council member Donna Bell said.

“I feel like we are patching things together ... trying to sort of make adjustments, and no matter what we do, we don’t seem to float to the top of this being an important intersection for our state,” she said. “I also don’t think that we can just develop property because we’re waiting for NCDOT to come up with a solution, and maybe not a solution that we’re interested in or excited about.”

Neighbors also are worried about increased traffic and particularly about the possibility that the developer will want to add a new connection to small, winding neighborhood streets to the north.

“Statistics don’t indicate how many squealing brake stops there are because of pedestrians trying to cross the road or someone’s trying to turn left out of Purefoy Road,” neighbor Nina East said.

Others fear the building would dwarf existing one- and two-story homes and businesses.

Five stories are proposed along the street, rising to seven as the building descends the slope. The additional height would come from two stories of under-building parking built into the hill.

Inside, the developer plans 39 efficiency, one- and two-bedroom condominiums and townhomes. The developer could sell six condos for less than market rate or pay $700,000 into the town’s affordable housing fund, Szostak said.

The council has multiple options for approaching the project if an application is submitted, senior planner Kay Pearlstein said. Besides the typical special-use permit and rezoning, the council also could negotiate a development agreement, similar to what the town used with the Obey Creek project.

A future option, which the council will continue discussing Wednesday, is a conditional zoning.

All three options would involve advisory board reviews and public hearings before the council decides whether to rezone the site and approve the project.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Project stats

Name: Columbia Street Annex

Applicant: Szostak Design (representing White Oak Properties)

Property owners: C.H. Hotel Associates; David L. Robert

Project Address: 1150 S. Columbia St.

Lot size: 4.2 acres (three lots)

Current land use: Undeveloped

Proposed land use: 58,870 square feet, including 39 apartments, 7,150 square feet of office and retail space

Parking: 68 spaces, including underground

Current zoning: Residential-2; Resource Conservation District

Proposed zoning: Mixed-use village