Orange County

‘Opportunity squandered’? Developers scale back downtown Chapel Hill project

Two years after starting negotiations with the town and Northside neighbors, the developers behind Amity Station have replaced their multistory mixed-use proposal with plans for five smaller buildings along West Rosemary Street.

The roughly 2-acre site has housed Breadmen’s restaurant for over 20 years and also includes the Amity Apartments. Breadmen’s owners Roy and Bill Piscitello have partnered with Shortbread Lofts developer Larry Short to redevelop the properties.

The plans submitted in October would preserve the existing apartments, but Breadmen’s would be demolished. Short said the Piscitellos are searching for a new location to move their restaurant. Parking will be important at that new location, Short said.

Each of the five, 19,999-square-foot buildings now proposed could have roughly 1,000 square feet of ground-floor office space. At four stories, they would descend the hill between the Warehouse Apartments and UNC parking lots.

The upper floors could be used for apartments, giving business owners and employees an opportunity to live where they work, or they could be converted to an office or business use, the plans state.

Parking would be located under each building, accessible via a shared driveway on the western end of the site.

Information, but no council hearings

The projects are expected to meet the requirements of the town’s Northside Neighborhood Conservation District, which regulates building height, home size, parking and other construction elements in the neighborhood north of West Rosemary Street and east of the Carrboro town limits. The district aims to preserve the character of the historically African-American neighborhood, which has modest homes but also has had an influx of developer-owned student rentals in the last 20 years.

The projects also are being planned according to the Rosemary Street Development Guide, which lays out a vision for how the West Rosemary Street corridor could be redeveloped. It also defines how the town plans to address economic development, affordable housing and other issues in partnership with the Northside neighborhood.

The Town Council won’t hold public hearings or vote on the 318-326 W. Rosemary St. plans, because the land already has the required zoning. The town’s Planning Commission will approve the plans; Short said a drawing of the exterior facades won’t be submitted until they apply for building permits.

A public information meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 in the first-floor meeting room at Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Short said he anticipates the Planning Commission could approve the plans early next year.

Affordable housing, $1M lost

The newest plan replace a proposal on the table since 2015, when the developers submitted a concept plan for a 10-story apartment building with a pool fronting Rosemary Street. That Amity Station plan also included up to 175 apartments — presumably for UNC students — and up to 1,500 square feet of retail and office space on the ground floor.

Later versions lowered the building height — first to nine stories and later to five stories — but the number of apartments increased and concerns remained about its size, affordability, potential tenants, parking, and the type of public and commercial spaces.

In 2017, the town started negotiating with neighbors and developers, with the goal of crafting a development agreement for Amity Station. But after 15 months, council members became frustrated, casting a split vote to give the process a little more time.

Those talks ended with an offer of permanent affordable housing, space for startup companies and other businesses, and a $1 million donation to the Northside Neighborhood Initiative to create more affordable housing in the neighborhood, Short said. It wasn’t enough, he said, and the project’s potential size, combined with the desired community benefits, was becoming unaffordable.

The Council Committee on Economic Sustainability talked Friday morning about how the town realistically can push developers to include affordable housing, public spaces and other community benefits in their projects, said council member Nancy Oates

Oates, who served on the Amity Station negotiating team, said they always knew a smaller Amity Station project was possible.

“I was actually disappointed that the last proposal that they came up with didn’t get to the full council, because I think it had a lot of what we were looking for,” Oates said. “Plus they were going to give this million dollars to the Northside initiative, which would help with other, off-site affordable housing.”

Short said he and his partners are happy to move forward with what they think will be a good addition for West Rosemary Street.

“I think it could still be a great little project,” Short said. “But I think it’s an opportunity squandered in one sense, with the so many good community benefits we were offering.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.