Council weighs potential buyers for old library building

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJune 16, 2014 

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The old Chapel Hill public library building sits at the corner of Boundary and East Franklin streets.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

— The Town Council heard Monday from four bidders interested in owning a piece of the town’s history.

The town has been working with Preservation North Carolina this year to find a buyer for the former Chapel Hill Library. The 523 E. Franklin St. property is priced at $752,000. The town could receive at least $747,000 from the sale.

The council plans to pick a buyer June 23.

Four serious bidders have suggested new uses for the old building: the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation, Chabad of Chapel Hill, neighbors Chris and Ann Cox, and local resident Jay Miller. All four have offered to keep the property on the tax rolls or make a payment to the town instead.

All the proposals are “real jewels,” council member Donna Bell said.

The library, considered a classic example of midcentury modern style, replaced the town’s first library at 115 W. Franklin St. in 1966. In 1994, it was replaced with a new Chapel Hill Public Library off Estes Drive.

Monday’s top bid came from the Arts and Sciences Foundation, which offered just over $1 million for the 13,500-square-foot building, parking lot and acre of land. The foundation could keep paying property taxes or make a lump-sum payment instead, officials said.

The building would allow the nonprofit group to bring its now-scattered services under one roof, the applicants said. The private foundation operates separately from UNC but raises money to invest in research and academic opportunities for UNC students and faculty.

Council members said they were concerned about the potential for UNC to get the building in a future sale or by other means, such as eminent domain. Foundation officials said their goals and policies are different from the university’s policies. The library would be the foundation’s home for a long time, they said.

In their application, foundation officials said the town would have first choice if the building is sold in the future.

Council member Jim Ward said it would be a mistake, however, to make a decision based on what foundation officials say now. The group’s future leadership could come in with a different opinion, he said.

“The university could strongarm the foundation, and the foundation, I suspect, would do what the university wanted,” he said.

At just under $1 million, Chabad’s plan would make the library a place of respite from financial, emotional and other issues that UNC and Duke hospital patients and their families face. The nonprofit also helps college students learn to be active community members and leaders, and teaches people from all faiths about the Jewish heritage.

Chabad officials have offered $990,000 for the building but said they could add $50,000 to the highest bid. The group also offered to buy the property for the asking price and pay property taxes for the next 15 years, or work with the town to identify another local group the building also could support.

Rabbi Zalmen Bluming, Chabad’s executive director, said the group’s programs are now limited by the lack of space at its Mallette Street location. The group would not house patients or families overnight, he said.

The goal is to “fill them with optimism and will power to battle their illnesses,” he said. It will be a “supportive arm, as they are often alone in this battle.”

The Coxes, on the other hand, think the building could be a great home for local arts and cultural. They have met with architect Phil Szostak to design a minimal renovation that brings the building up to modern codes and handicap accessibility.

A “Chapel Hill Cultural Center” could provide space for nonprofit and for-profit cultural groups, to store and display collections and for dance and performing arts groups to rehearse, Szostak said.

In emails to the town, neighbors have shared concerns about increased traffic and activity a cultural center could bring.

Szostak said the Coxes would be local caretakers and preserve the library. The activity level would be similar to when the history museum occupied the building, he said.

The Coxes have offered to pay the town $25,000 more than the highest bid and keep the property on the tax rolls.

Miller – the lowest bidder at $752,000 – said his plan would improve the building’s handicap accessibility and offer low-cost space to nonprofit service providers. While he could bid higher, Miller said he doesn’t want to because that would increase the rent on potential nonprofits.

The space potentially could be rented for roughly $12 a square foot, he said.

If his bid is successful, Miller said he would want to pay property taxes for a minimum of five years, but in the future, he might want to pass on to tenants the savings of being a nonprofit exempt from property taxes or work out a payment with the town instead, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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