|By Daniel Goldberg, The Herald-Sun,
Durham, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 6, 2009--CHAPEL HILL -- A national hotel developer has its eyes on Lot 2, the municipal parking space at the corner of East Rosemary and South Columbia streets downtown.
The Chapel Hill Town Council was scheduled to discuss whether members think the parking lot is appropriate for any kind of redevelopment project. The 50-minute discussion that followed was more akin to a concept plan proposal, with an executive from developer LodgeWorks presenting details of a six-story boutique hotel and elected officials offering suggestions to improve the plan.
Lot 2 was among key opportunity areas for downtown development identified in a Downtown Small Area Plan adopted in 2000. A council committee that began meeting in 2003 discussed the site in conjunction with redevelopment of Lot 5, a mixed-use project now known as 140 West that will be undertaken by Ram Development with the town paying for a chunk of the parking.
Town Manager Roger Stancil said Wichita, Kan.-based LodgeWorks is the only developer that has followed conversations about Lot 2 throughout, including a November meeting with Dwight Bassett, the town's economic development officer.
LodgeWorks is interested in giving downtown "the right kind of development that would energize Rosemary and Columbia streets "more than they are today," said Mike Daood, the company's vice president of development. His presentation included detailed floor plans that would feature a first-floor lobby at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia and approximately 3,000 square feet of meeting space on the second floor.
Daood said parking would be included, a suggestion that led council members to discuss the potential benefits and costs of above-ground versus underground parking.
"You know that subterranean parking is more expensive," Daood said. "We could work together to work that out."
Later in the meeting, Councilman Bill Strom said he was pleased that LodgeWorks is interested in downtown and suggested that the company review the town's Percent for Art ordinance. He also noted that Daood was "nipping around the edges of a public-private partnership of some sort" and advised the developer that the town doesn't have the debt capacity to take on that kind of project.
"We have the site and I can't imagine going in and investing in the next few years large amounts of capital in more parking," Strom said. "It's going to be really difficult."
But Mayor Kevin Foy pointed out that the Lot 5 deal is expensive because parking is structured underground. The town projects that debt will be amortized in a few years and above-ground parking might not be as expensive, Foy said.
"I'm not so sure, Bill," the mayor said. "There might be a model that would demonstrate that it could self-liquidate."
Other comments on the LodgeWorks concept included a suggestion from Councilman Jim Ward that any development on the site be LEED certified and a recommendation from Ed Harrison that it incorporate natural light.
Midway through the discussion, Councilwoman Laurin Easthom pointed out that Monday's agenda item was "not the usual concept plan" that gives the council an opportunity to receive public input. She favored having a separate discussion focusing on the possible future of Lot 2 without any specific development plans on the table. Easthom also advised Daood that none of the council's discussion should be perceived as an endorsement of the LodgeWorks concept.
At least one audience member was pleased by Easthom's interjection. The Rev. Ru Sen, pastor of Grace Community Church and a member of the steering committee for United with the Northside Community Now, doesn't think that a "high-end boutique hotel" is the best use for Lot 2.
"I'm really glad one of the town council members wanted to slow the discussion down and just have a separate, general discussion in what would be the best use of Lot 2," Sen said. "Instead of developers being the driving force behind the future of Lot 2, wouldn't it be great if the Town Council created opportunities for the citizens of our community to generate ideas and consensus for this and other city properties?"
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