University Square, the 12-acre site known primarily for Granville Towers, will be transformed into an urban-style mix of retail, offices and residences, including nearly 1,000 parking spaces and thousands of square feet dedicated to cultural amenities for the town and campus.
As developers told a community gathering Wednesday, this largest single tract of land in downtown Chapel Hill was designed on a suburban model in the 1960s, with retail set back from the street — out of step with Franklin Street to the east and west of it — and with acres of surface parking.
In July 2009, its original owners, a company affiliated with the Kenan family, sold it to the UNC at Chapel Hill Foundation Inc. That set up a rare opportunity for the University to have a direct role in the evolution of downtown — and to make money from prime real estate.
The long-term plan presented by the developers, 52-year-old Cousins Properties Inc., calls for the three towers that house about 1,300 students to be “off the table” for 10 years, but after that they could be replaced with other development now referred to as “future mixed use” and future housing. UNC now runs Granville, which previously was privately operated.
The plan has retail space lining Franklin Street set back about 25 feet (the buildings now are 70 feet back) to accommodate a sidewalk cafe atmosphere, with offices above some areas and 78,000 square feet of unspecified cultural-related development.
The plan shows townhouses lining part of the east side and apartments above the street-side retail. Offices also would be built above a large parking deck, adjacent to an open space envisioned as a sort of urban park. The top building height would be five floors. Construction likely would not start for two years.
All vehicle entrances at University Square now are from Franklin Street; student pedestrians use an alleyway behind Fraternity Court to get to the campus. Those could change, but just how is not certain. One attendee at the public meeting asked whether Pittsboro Street, which now ends at Cameron Avenue behind the tract, might be extended into the new development. That would necessitate removing at least one fraternity house. The plan as presented Wednesday showed all existing development surrounding the tract remaining in place.
The developers expect to submit the first-phase plan to the town this fall.
At the time of the sale, the University and UNC Health Care already leased about 80 percent of the office space in the five- and six-floor University Square buildings.
The foundation, which collects private donations and manages the University’s endowment, has created a subsidiary real estate corporation to own the property. The foundation is private, which will keep the land on the tax rolls. As a result, it’s unlikely the University could put academic units there.
Development of the University Square complex began with the start of Granville Towers in 1965, when the property was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., and continued in phases over the next eight years. Frank Hawkins Kenan ’35, who oversaw the major expansions of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, acquired the property in the early 1970s.