Orange County

Not thrilled with Blue Hill? See how Chapel Hill will try to make it better

The Blue Hill District Design Guidelines encourages developers to combine multiple architectural features in a single building to create strong visual interest or architectural creativity. A single method of building articulation is “typically insufficient,” it states.
The Blue Hill District Design Guidelines encourages developers to combine multiple architectural features in a single building to create strong visual interest or architectural creativity. A single method of building articulation is “typically insufficient,” it states. Submitted

It’s been nearly four years since the town established a special district to encourage dense redevelopment, create walkable spaces, and boost the local economy.

In that time, the Blue Hill District has spawned three market-rate apartment projects, two affordable apartment projects, and roughly 39,000 square feet of new commercial space. The 180-acre district – formerly known as Ephesus-Fordham – lies between East Franklin Street and South Elliott, Ephesus Church and Legion roads.

Projects in the district must meet form-based code standards regulating the size and placement of buildings. The code also streamlined the town’s development process, giving the Community Design Commission and town manager authority to approve Blue Hill District projects without Town Council input.

Blue Hill District map

The results have been mixed, prompting some in the community to ask the council for changes: smaller buildings, more public spaces, and ways to get more affordable housing and environmentally sustainable projects. The council’s most recent revisions limited block lengths and required public passages to break up larger buildings, among other changes.

However, an important part of the code – the Blue Hill District Design Guidelines – has been slow coming to fruition.

The guidelines state in clear language and with numerous photo examples what the community wants from its streetscapes and public spaces, parking decks, pedestrian connections and buildings.

The council reviewed a draft in November, after multiple public and town meetings with the consultant team. A revised version, plus other potential changes to the form-based code, could return to the council in April.

Residents can learn more at a public meeting Tuesday, March 6. It will be an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about what’s happening, said Nicholas DiFrank, a senior urban designer with the consultant, Winter & Company.

Architectural innovation
The Blue Hill District design guidelines encourage contemporary and innovative architecture but also specifies that “type of creativity should be distinguished from simply being ‘different’.” Blue Hill District Design Guidelines Submitted

The design guidelines don’t address the maximum, seven-story height allowed for most buildings – one of the public’s biggest concerns about the district – but the team heard clearly that it was an issue, DiFrank said. However, they do address the perception of height that is created by the size, shape and form of a building, and how it affects the pedestrian street experience, he said.

A building “may be a certain height, but perhaps at a certain height, we’re looking to step a building back, provide more articulation in building walls, and create more of an interesting building shape,” DiFrank said. “We talk a lot about walkability, pedestrian-friendly.”

Had the changes been in place when the Berkshire apartments – the district’s first seven-story building – was proposed, he said, the discussion might have focused more on the building’s appearance, the sheerness of its walls at the sidewalk’s edge, how the public outdoor space might benefit the community or the need for a pedestrian passage through the three-acre building.

Another often-mentioned missed opportunity is how the Berkshire relates to Booker Creek, which runs under Eastgate Crossing shopping center and through a gully behind the South Elliott Road shops.

Winter & Company works with clients all over the country who are beginning to see green spaces and waterways as natural amenities, DiFrank said. While it might not happen with every development, gradual improvements could snowball, he said.

Riverwalk-Blue Hill District
River walks are one form of public, green space that has become more popular across the country, Winter & Company senior urban designer Nicholas DiFrank said. Gradually adding development that faces Booker Creek could create a similar resource for outdoor dining and other uses in Chapel Hill, he said. Blue Hill District Design Guidelines Submitted

“We obviously understand Booker is an awesome natural resource, and in coming years, there will be some looking forward to development really responding and facing Booker Creek, to be able to enjoy that resource and actually spill out with outdoor dining or other alternative uses, instead of presenting somewhat of a back side of the building,” DiFrank said.

Developers have a right to be cost-conscious, he acknowledged, but changes could be made that are less expensive.

“I think this is an opportunity for residents and the town to stand up and say this is what’s best for us and this is what’s going to be serving us for a long time to come,” DiFrank said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s next

A public information meeting will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, in Meeting Room A at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The event will include two open house-style sessions, with a presentation at 6:15 p.m.

Find more information at