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Chapel Hill’s Design Commission petitioning Town Council for more control over downtown changes

Starting in February, passersby on Franklin Street might have noticed a new structure going up on the roof of the building that houses Sutton’s Drug Store.

That is a nightclub. According to plans filed with Chapel Hill town planners, it will be called “StillLife Nightclub.” The owner of the building, 144 Properties LLC, wants to build an open-air bar overlooking Franklin Street. Site plans were approved in May 2019.

Although Sutton’s Drug Store has been open since 1923, and the two-story Strowd Building at 159 E. Franklin St. is on the National Register of Historic Places, the plans did not have to go through the Historic District Commission or the Community Design Commission, or get a special use permit.

So Chapel Hill’s Community Design Commission is petitioning the town council for better control over the changes that happen in downtown.

The commission discussed the first draft of the petition at its April 27 meeting.

“Nobody is reviewing buildings,” said Design Commission member Susan Lyons at the meeting. Lyons drafted the petition along with member Chris Berndt.

“So that’s why I suggested that, at a minimum… that the staff or managers could… send projects like this to the commission for a courtesy review,” she said.

The plans for the new nightclub on top of the Strowd Building proposes to add 603 square feet to the building for the new club, open air to both Wallace Parking Deck and Franklin Street. The owner also wants to build restrooms, and remove existing stairs on the back and replace them with new stairs and an elevator.

The 100-block of Franklin Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

The design commission’s petition presents four ways to improve control over downtown changes:

  • Make it a policy for the staff to send to the CDC for a courtesy review projects not requiring a special use permit in downtown.
  • Make the downtown area that’s part of the National Register of Historic Places a “Special Appearance District,” so the CDC can issue certificates of appropriateness.
  • Add that same downtown area to Chapel Hill’s historic district, so the town’s Historic District Commission can issue certificates of appropriateness.
  • Designate all of downtown a Special Appearance District, and create with the design commission a master plan for downtown.

“Without special action, we are at risk of losing some of the important historical character of our downtown,” states the petition.

“I think it’s important to have review of a building like the Strowd Building,” Lyons said at the April 27 meeting.

But Lyons noted the courtesy review would not come with any real authority – “have any real teeth.”

Other design commission members echoed her concerns.

“I think we’re missing a whole context around the downtown, around certificate of appropriateness,” Berndt said. “We don’t have a visual picture of what we want downtown to look like.”

“Why is there not a review of downtown right now? So that people can push things through?” said Susana Dancy, chairwoman of the commission. “My guess is that it has been an oversight, that it has been a loophole.”

Other members were not as in favor of the petition.

“I think there’s too much emphasis on historic preservation here. Not once do we mention creative and innovative design,” said Edward Hoskins.

The design commission’s next meeting will be on Monday, where the commission will discuss another petition to the town council – on developers adding changes, without notifying the commission, to designs they had approved.

“Frequently, we have been asked to review changes to CDC-approved building elevations where the work has already been constructed,” the petition states. “In effect, we are asked to approve something in hindsight that cannot readily be changed. Recent examples include Carraway Village and Grove Park.”

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