Council not sure about selling Chapel Hill landmarks

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 11, 2014 

  • Building history

    Chapel Hill’s former library and town hall have filled multiple community roles over the years:

    • Chapel Hill Public Library: The building, designed by architect Don Stewart, is a classic example of midcentury modern style. It replaced the town’s first library (115 W. Franklin St.) in 1966.

    In 1994, the library moved, and the Chapel Hill Museum leased the Franklin Street building. The Chapel Hill Historical Society moved into the lower level, and in 2007, the town signed an easement with Preservation North Carolina to protect the building. The museum closed in 2010, leaving only the Historical Society and thousands of items in storage, from Chapel Hill News archives to books, historical memorabilia and town documents.

    • Town Hall: Thomas C. Atwood and H.R. Weeks designed the Colonial Revival-style building. It replaced Chapel Hill’s first town hall in 1938, adding courtrooms, government offices, police and fire stations and a four-cell jail.

    The Columbia Street facade originally had six garage bays, including two rear bays hung with double fire engine doors. The doors have since been replaced. The interior also was remodeled over the years, leaving little of historic significance, but the building’s style left an impession on the next 50 years of downtown development, historical documents state.

    In 1985, the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service opened a homeless shelter in the then-vacant building and later added a community kitchen. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

— Town Council members said Monday they’re not ready to sell one downtown landmark, but the town manager should work with a state nonprofit to sell or reuse the other.

The former Chapel Hill Library on East Franklin Street and Town Hall building at West Rosemary and Columbia streets are among several parcels the town has looked at selling or putting to better use.

The town had both buildings appraised last year, and folks have expressed interest in buying the town hall building, staff said. The library’s market value is estimated at $750,000. Town staff did not provide a market value estimate for the town hall building, but the town has roughly $2.5 million in future budgets for renovations there, staff said.

Council members said both buildings have a value that’s hard to quantify, and it would be hard for the town to buy them back later. Residents urged the town to keep both properties.

Many groups, including town staff, use the old library for meetings and to archive documents, said Richard Ellington, president of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

“The prime location that you have there, it’s irreplaceable, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever Any replacement costs would far and away exceed anything it would take just to keep that building habitable at the present time,” he said.

Evan Rodewald, a Preservation Chapel Hill board member, also suggested putting a preservation easement on the old Town Hall before re-using it.

Council member Donna Bell suggested talking with the county and others about future uses for the town hall, including a new county visitors bureau. Other council suggestions included an entrepreneurial hub and a downtown grocery store.

The town also could wait until the library turns 50 in two years to see if it qualifies for public renovation money, Council member Jim Ward said.

“I’m not in support of selling the library at this time,” he said. The money “would be gone so fast, you wouldn’t even know what you spent it on.”

Council member Maria Palmer said the decision is about being good stewards of the town’s assets. The old Town Hall could be reused to meet many public needs, but whoever owns the former library will invest a lot of money in it with limited options for using it, she said.

“I think we preserve it. We honor the neighborhood and the community and the architecture, and we sell it through a process that will ensure it will be there,” Palmer said.

Town staff will bring more details about both buildings to a future meeting.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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