Apr 7, 2023 - Real Estate

Chapel Hill lab project grows as residents voice concerns

Longfellow Real Estate Partners told the town of Chapel Hill it was in talks to add the Bicycle Chain property to its potential Franklin Street project. Rendering courtesy of the Town of Chapel Hill

Over the past decade, downtown Durham has become a landing spot for tech and biotech companies.

  • That's in part thanks to one developer — which is now turning its attention to downtown Chapel Hill.

Driving the news: Longfellow Real Estate Partners is placing a big bet on transforming a roughly two-acre parcel of land at 306 W. Franklin St. and building more lab space in the heart of the town's busiest district.

  • The building would be nine stories tall — making it one of the tallest in town — and have 320,000 square feet of lab, office and retail space, according to preliminary plans it presented to the town council last month.

Why it matters: The town of Chapel Hill has worked to attract more developments as an effort to diversify its economy and prevent business from dropping off when students are away from the university.

  • "We've heard a lot of it over the years — and some people call it one form of brain drain — that all these people go to UNC and they're ready to go out and do all kinds of exciting things in the workforce … but there aren't many options for staying in Chapel Hill," Gregg Capps, managing director at Longfellow, told Axios last month.

Between the lines: Longfellow has worked near universities before. Its Innovation District project, less than a mile from Duke's East Campus, is home to companies ranging from Google to the Duke biotech spinout Tune Therapeutics.

Yes, but: Before the project has even formally submitted an application to the city, the plan has attracted opposition from residents, students and some local businesses, Axios previously reported.

  • Those in opposition view it as the latest domino to fall on an iconic college street losing its small-town character, like the popular restaurant The Purple Bowl, to large developments.

What's happening: Longfellow's challenge is to create something both attractive to local residents and the companies that want to be in an urban space.

  • Capps said he hopes the town sees a benefit in Longfellow's potential ability in connecting Franklin and Rosemary streets — downtown's two main streets — by building pedestrian throughways and more retail space.
  • "We see that as an opportunity to bring people through the space, whether they work there or not, or they're walking to campus or shopping," he said.

What's next: A formal application for the property could be submitted within the next few months, with the rezoning case coming back before the Chapel Hill Town Council in the fall.

  • If approved, the project could break ground later next year, town staff suggested.

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