CHAPEL HILL - The developers of the University Square property on Franklin Street are taking a lesson from one of the Triangle's most successful downtown makeovers: Durham's American Tobacco Campus.
At a meeting Thursday, John McColl, executive vice president of development for Cousins Properties, said the company plans a grass quad inside the Chapel Hill site "similar to the American Tobacco interior."
The American Tobacco Campus across from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park has a long courtyard with a waterway and stage surrounded by a lawn and outdoor dining.
McColl told about 30 people at Chapel Hill Town Hall that the grass quad grew out of five or six public meetings Cousins Properties and the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation have held since the foundation bought the property for $45.75 million from US/GT, LLC, a company affiliated with the Kenan family in 2009. The foundation is private, and the property will remain on the tax roll.
The current project covers half the 12-acre site. The Granville Towers dormitories are not part of the current project and "are staying right where they are for now and the foreseeable future," McColl said.
The project would raze the retail/office buildings now standing between a parking lot and the Franklin Street sidewalk.
Three new buildings, including one rising 118 feet but only three stories along the sidewalk, would include:
40,000 square feet of retail space;
275,000 square feet of office space, up from 80,000 square feet now;
90,000 square feet of "flex space" that could house an entertainment venue; and
150,000 square feet of rental housing, McColl said.
An underground parking garage doubling the number of spaces to about 1,000 would replace most of the surface parking.
Two of the three new buildings would be built in the project's first phase.
The University Square property no longer fits the Town Council's goals of a dense, walkable downtown. By moving the buildings closer to the sidewalk, putting parking underground and adding residential units, the developers hope to add to a new vibrancy many hope to see with the 140 West Franklin and Greenbridge mixed-use condominium projects downtown.
"We think this project could change the face of Chapel Hill for the next 50 years, so it is critically important," said Jim Norton, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit funded by the town and university to promote downtown.
Questions Thursday included how Cousins will connect the property to its surroundings, how much office space would cost and whether the property, now marked by fences and sometimes driveway chains, would become more open.
"Anything you can do to enhance people cutting through this property would be really great," Will Raymond said.
McColl said the developers plan two Franklin Street entrances (down from four current curb cuts), and a new entrance off Cameron Avenue. The developers also hope to work out a better connection to Fraternity Court on Columbia Street.
Office space will rent for $30 to $33 per square foot, slightly higher than downtown rates now but in line with newly constructed space. "It is affordable," McColl said. "It is affordable at replacement-cost rents."
And yes, he said, the goal is to make the property "permeable," with people walking through it 24/7.
"Our goal is to make this a place," he said, meaning a destination spot like American Tobacco with its restaurants, concerts and movies on the lawn.
Ruby Sinreich, a former member of the town's planning board, echoed that.
"Durham has been kicking our (expletive)," she said. "Chapel Hill has to catch up."