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Chapel Hill gives developer ‘huge responsibility’ to shape downtown skyline, future

·5 min read

A building approved Wednesday night will transform the downtown Chapel Hill skyline while also adding needed space for business, research and growing UNC startups.

The Town Council voted 7-1 to approve Grubb Properties’ 238,000-square-foot office and wet lab building at 150 E. Rosemary St.

The project also includes three levels of parking — roughly 158 spaces — under the building and two ground-floor retail or restaurant spaces. A 7,000-square-foot park would fill in the corner at East Rosemary and Henderson streets.

Council member Hongbin Gu voted against the project — her last vote following an unsuccessful bid for the mayor’s office — after again raising concerns about public safety and the type of research work that could happen inside the building.

At roughly 132 feet tall, the building’s height took residents and council members by surprise. Most expected a typical seven-story building at 90 feet tall, but each floor of a wet lab building has 15-foot ceilings, instead of the 12-foot ceilings in a commercial building.

The building, 150 East Rosemary, will be the second-tallest downtown — and the tallest along the historic portion of East Franklin Street. The 135-foot-tall Greenbridge condominium tower on West Rosemary Street and several buildings on UNC’s campus are taller.

This project is “really important” for Chapel Hill’s future, Council member Amy Ryan said before the vote. She asked the developer to continue working with the town’s urban designer and consider other changes that might reduce the building’s visual size.

“It’s a very big building that’s going to be a lot for Chapel Hill to swallow. I think that the design is going to make it work. My one concern right now is I think that the Franklin Street facade is not there yet,” she said.

Council member Michael Parker agreed, calling it “probably the most important single building to go up in Chapel Hill in the last 30 or 40 years.”

“We’re giving you a huge responsibility, and I hope that you’ll continue to work on the building and make it the very best that you possibly can, because a building that doesn’t work here is really going to set back this town in terms of our goals and our ambitions for decades, and that’s something we just can’t afford at this point,” Parker said.

Economic development, jobs

The project also marks the latest change for the 100 block of East Rosemary Street, a corridor that runs parallel to East Franklin Street and has prioritized parking and commuter traffic in the past.

Grubb Properties obtained the site in a land swap with the town — the town-owned Wallace Parking Deck for the former CVS parking deck that Grubb owned at 125 E. Rosemary St. The town is replacing the CVS deck with a new, 1,100-space parking deck.

Grubb also is renovating the former CVS building at 136 E. Rosemary St. and 137 E. Franklin St. to create an Innovation Hub and has proposed Link Apartments Rosemary, a seven-story, 150-unit apartment building at East Rosemary and North Columbia streets.

It’s all part of the town’s long-range goal to attract more people, businesses and UNC spinoffs that regularly move to other parts of the Triangle in search of adequate commercial space. The Innovation Hub already has attracted one tenant, BioLabs, which announced in September a plan to add flexible lab space for startups.

On Wednesday, Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership, shared his conversation with another wet lab developer interested in finding space in Chapel Hill.

“They are talking about how often they develop in RTP and in other areas, and how many UNC researchers are going off to RTP and to Durham to locate,” Gladdek said. “They have said that they would prefer to stay in Chapel Hill, but there’s no space for them.”

Safety committee, research limits

The town’s rules do not specify the types of lab work that could happen at 150 East Rosemary, but they do define research activities as related to chemical, pharmaceutical, medical, electrical, transportation and engineering fields that can be done in enclosed buildings and “produce no noise, smoke, glare, vibration, or odor detectable outside the buildings.”

A number of state and federal rules, design standards and best practices also would be used to draft detailed plans for each tenant leasing the space, including the N.C. Building Code, International Fire Code, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Town staff will review the final plans for each space, including ventilation, spill containment and storage areas. The building would have a separate collection and containment system for lab waste, which would be picked up regularly by a contractor.

An architect’s rendering shows how the south side of East Rosemary Street could look once Grubb Properties completes its CVS building renovation (right) and the construction of a new office and wet lab building (left) in downtown Chapel Hill.
An architect’s rendering shows how the south side of East Rosemary Street could look once Grubb Properties completes its CVS building renovation (right) and the construction of a new office and wet lab building (left) in downtown Chapel Hill.

Joe Dye, executive vice president for Grubb Properties, noted there are research labs in downtown Durham, Winston-Salem and Research Triangle Park. UNC follows similar standards for building and operating its lab space on campus.

The highest-risk lab uses, such as research using the Ebola or smallpox virus, won’t be allowed at 150 East Rosemary. Lab uses posing the next highest level of risk, including COVID and flu research, will be allowed but are unlikely in a commercial building, Dye said.

The council asked town staff to look into establishing a safety oversight committee this spring that could work with Grubb Properties. The committee could operate similar to the Biosafety Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gu, a UNC data scientist involved in medical research, said it’s critical to have a plan, because accidents can happen.

“I can guarantee you that none of my colleagues who are involved or exposed to those accidents have ever had the intention or (thought) these things can happen, but accidents just happen,” Gu said.

An architect’s rendering shows how the seven-story 150 East Rosemary building could look from the corner of East Franklin and Henderson streets at the Chapel Hill Post Office.
An architect’s rendering shows how the seven-story 150 East Rosemary building could look from the corner of East Franklin and Henderson streets at the Chapel Hill Post Office.

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