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Planning Commission Recommends in Favor of Franklin St Wet Lab Building

In recent weeks I attended a public information session about the 306 W Franklin St property, which currently houses The Purple Bowl, Chimney Indian Kitchen, Blue Dogwood Market, and Bella Nail Bar. At that meeting, representatives of Longfellow, the life sciences developer that is proposing a nine story wet lab, office and retail building for the space, were asked by a resident why, when they had developed other properties in Durham and RTP in the past, they only just now looked to Chapel Hill for a place to put one of their wet lab buildings, given the synchronicity between the life sciences industry and the research conducted at UNC.

The Longfellow representative replied that they hadn’t actually been considering Chapel Hill as the site for a new lab. Rather, the 306 W Franklin property just “kind of came out of the blue.” Someone they declined to name had called Longfellow, unsolicited, and proposed the project.

Longfellow bought 306 W Franklin for $8,000,000 in 2022. To build their wet lab, they will need a zoning variance from the Town in order to bypass our current height restrictions for downtown. They paid a lot of money (substantially more than the per-sq ft asking price of some nearby Franklin St commercial spaces) to take a chance on getting that zoning variance.

This past Tuesday night, the Chapel Hill Planning Commission recommended moving forward with Longfellow’s plans for 306 W Franklin and the adjoining lot for which they paid an additional $7.5 million this summer. By the Planning Commission’s estimation, and clearly that of whoever reached out to Longfellow in the first place, a large office/lab presence on Franklin St. will bolster our commercial tax base and provide patrons, in the form of that space’s workforce, for our downtown businesses.

It would be hard, and ill-advised, to argue against the need for a robust commercial tax base. And perhaps substantial wet lab space (306 W Franklin is the second proposed wet lab for downtown Chapel Hill) in Chapel Hill is a key ingredient in diversifying our economy - though recent reports suggest we may be well behind the curve on the demand for lab space.

But even if all that is true, I question the wisdom of actively courting the destruction of an historic building that is already home to several robust small businesses that create the exact kind of community and engagement we claim to be trying to support with the new building.

The Purple Bowl is a beloved gathering place for both students and town residents - one of those magical places where everyone goes. Bella Nail Bar and Chimney are minority-owned small businesses. Why are we sacrificing these existing success stories in the name of future, theoretical businesses? There is a parallel here to tearing down existing affordable housing in order to build more expensive housing that will at some future point potentially become affordable as it ages.

Any small business that leases its space is at risk of being displaced at any time - I know, I own two small businesses that lease their spaces. However, very, very few small businesses (mine included) can afford to buy a building to completely insure their future, particularly when they first launch, if ever. And as part of the opening team for The Purple Bowl, I also know that the Gilland family, who own and operate the restaurant, chose their location with an eye to being an integrated part of the community, not because they thought they were guaranteed a permanent home.

If every small business had to weigh the potential that someone might actively court an outside developer to bet on getting on a zoning variance from our Town Council in order to build profitably, thereby displacing that small business, I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that there would be far, far fewer people willing to take on the already considerable risk of opening a brick and mortar store. Which, again, is what our Town Council and Planning Commission wisely want to support in order to revitalize our downtown.

According to an Indyweek article, one of the focuses of the Planning Commission’s Tuesday night meeting was to ascertain whether it’s logical, appropriate, or even possible, to put a stop to Longfellow’s plans in order to save 306 W Franklin’s current tenants. They decided, and I agree, that it’s not. Commercial properties can be bought and sold, and their tenants can be displaced. That’s how the system works. As Commission member E. Strother Murray-ndinga pointed out “The Town of Chapel Hill is not evicting anyone from this property.”

It is, however, within the Commission’s purview to recommend whether or not the Town Council should uphold their existing height ordinances. And it is certainly within the Town’s power to not lead developers to believe, either by pattern or by direct statement, that they are enough guaranteed to get a variance on those ordinances that they can safely spend many, many millions on a property for which they were not in the market in the first place. And whoever made that first phone call to Longfellow absolutely had the power to leave a good thing well enough alone.

At one point in that public information session, the Longfellow representative asked the members of the public in attendance what our measure of success would be for the project. I said that to me, the measure of success of any re-development should be whether the new building is better than the old, both as a structure and as a part of our community. That’s a tall order in the case of 306 W Franklin. 140 feet tall, to be exact.

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