Commentary

Rich Leber: Blue Cross site ideal for high-density development

April 15, 2014 

An open letter to the mayor and Chapel Hill Town Council:

Do you think the existing Blue Cross and Blue Shield headquarters parcel would be an ideal location for a high-density condo and apartment complex?

I do. Here’s my reasoning!

The parcel is adjacent to Interstate 40 and is on the upgraded U.S. 15-501 corridor, but is located in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. Surveys show residents who live in Chapel Hill tend to work in Durham or the RTP. Travel from this parcel to Duke University and Duke Medical Center is as short a commute as parents can have while having their children attend CHCCS. Travel east or west on I-40 from 15-501 will be congestion free after I-40 is expanded to three lanes in each direction in 2017 or '18.

This parcel isn't likely to be redeveloped into a major shopping center because of the proximity and ease of access to all the major retail stores in Durham on 15-501 corridor. The developer of the Edge has also noted their development would not attract major retail anchors because of the proximity of the Edge to existing retail outlets on 15-501.

Many retail consultants feel continued shopper preference for online shopping will prevent many new brick and mortar stores to be built and will continue to make obsolete existing stores – not just book stores and office and electronic suppliers, but also stores like Dillard;s and Roses. Do you know any Chapel Hill resident who does not currently use online shopping or at least check online pricing? Chapel Hill may enjoy new tax revenues from online shoppers without having to invest public funds in new retail developments.

Blue Cross has already cast a vote that the site is not attractive as an office park – even for the largest employer in our area who owns the parcel. Just look at the dismal occupancy of the office building in Cosgrove Hill – almost across the street from the Blue Cross parcel – as another indication that office space will be hard to fill in this area.

If you agree the Blue Cross parcel will likely be redeveloped into condos and apartments, how can you support investing Chapel Hill taxpayer bond funds in the Ephesus-Fordham focus area?

Isn’t your investment in this focus area likely to face significant market pressure from more attractive options for condo and apartments? If a developer requests redevelopment of Blue Cross parcel and the Edge and Obey Creek move forward, you may end up voting for other (more market-attractive) projects that will undercut the expected return on taxpayer investment in Ephesus-Fordham focus area.

Please do not approve the use of Chapel Hill bond funds to favor this very risky investment over other future projects such as Obey Creek, the Edge and redevelopment of the very attractive Blue Cross parcel. Approval of these projects will not require the use of significant precious and scarce Chapel Hill bond funds.

Richard Leber is a 19-year Chapel Hill tax-paying resident.

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