From this fourth-story perch, high in the ascending structure of Chapel Hill's mighty 140 West project, you can see it all.
To the east, there is the roofing of the town's iconic Top of the Hill brewery and the sprawling UNC-Chapel Hill campus. To the west, there is Carrboro and the towering Greenbridge development. To the south, undergrads sunbathe at the Granville Towers pool.
And above our heads, a 200-foot construction crane crouches over the college town's economic hub like a praying mantis.
"You're standing in a living space," beams Scott Milke, construction manager for 140 West's Florida-based Ram Real Estate, as hard-hat-wearing observers stand in the fourth-floor skeleton during a media tour in early May. Meanwhile, construction workers hoist a tree to the roof, a common "topping off" ceremony celebrating the place at which the structure reaches its highest point.
There is no elevator yet, so hospitality workers hand out 140 West signature water bottles to wheezing reporters who climbed the building's stairs in the early May heat. "Your heart is still in Chapel Hill. Why aren't you?" read the bottles.
The nostalgic message is clearly hitting home for some. Those at the helm of 140 West say the condo homes at the $55 million mixed-use development, under construction at the corner of West Franklin and Church streets, are 60 percent sold.
The large-scale project, viewed by some as testament to Chapel Hill's enduring economic appeal even in the throes of the American recession, is expected to be completed in 2013.
This fourth floor is the top of the structure as it meets Franklin Street, although it will step back from the streetscape to stretch to eight stories at its heart.
In its upper reaches, there will be luxury condos fetching price tags of more than $300,000. At street level, builders plan to fill the fronts with retail, dining and walking space.
"The development is going to take Franklin Street really into the 21st century," says Peter Cummings, chairman of Ram Real Estate.
When completed, Cummings says 140 West—coupled with university plans for a major redevelopment of the aging University Square across the street—will shift the center of gravity a block west from Franklin's intersection with Columbia Street.
Chapel Hill is rife with projects like 140 West these days. Plans for the razing and rebuilding of University Square include multi-story residential space mingling with street-hugging commercial activity, part of the "missing teeth" in Franklin Street connectivity, some town leaders say.
And then there's Greenbridge, to critics nothing more than a pair of jagged wisdom teeth in Franklin Street's mouth.
Greenbridge—the somewhat infamous Rosemary Street condo project mired in bankruptcy, soaring debt and sluggish sales—seemed to break the mold in 2010 with its vision of upscale, Earth-friendly mixed-use construction that built up, not out.
Developers plan another high-rise with West Rosemary's Shortbread Lofts, a seven-story apartment complex near Breadmen's Restaurant slated to break ground this summer.
And across town, the already-completed East 54 bundles luxury condos, retail, restaurants and a rooftop pool into a large development on Raleigh Road.
Some town leaders say this is Chapel Hill's future: development with an eye toward increasing year-round residency in the revered college town, hopefully an economic buffer for stores and restaurants vexed by a culture of transient students without deep pockets.
"One of the goals was to have people living in the downtown 52 weeks of the year if possible," said Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison.
Harrison is something of a reluctant backer when it comes to these mega-projects, but the in-progress 140 West will improve the feel of Chapel Hill at the sidewalk level, he said, and perhaps grant a boon to Franklin Street businesses in need of year-round denizens.
Still, though town leaders backed a special-use permit for Shortbread Lofts in February, Harrison warned they could soon apply the brakes to the condo boom.
"I will say that what's coming in Chapel Hill is a whole lot at once, or it certainly feels that way," Harrison said.
Town Councilwoman Penny Rich, who assumes an Orange County Board of Commissioners seat later this year, said it's expected that some will recoil at the site of the massive cranes, but she describes it as necessary to accommodate Chapel Hill growth.
"That's the new look of Chapel Hill and that's the new look of Franklin Street," Rich said. "Some people will never like it. Some people want to remain the little village they went to in college and they never want it to change. The problem is Chapel Hill is changing."
Will Raymond, a three-time Chapel Hill Town Council candidate and board of directors member for the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, is no opponent of development.
A Greenbridge critic, he's quick to say that growth is good, but he blasts the idea of mega-developments that blot the Chapel Hill skyline and diminish what he calls the "human scale" size of the town.
"I hope we're not going to see downtown filled with these kinds of buildings," Raymond said. "Then we're going to look like Anytown, USA. We'll lose that quirky look."
Raymond said the town must learn from mistakes like Greenbridge, a $56 million project that was submerged by outstanding loans, forcing Bank of America to spur foreclosure proceedings in April 2011. He thinks downtown growth should honor Chapel Hill's history as a progressive municipality bent on diverse businesses, a mix of academics and professionals, and the town's oft-noted "small-town" feel. "Maybe you don't recognize it until you've lost it," Raymond said of that last quality.
Aaron Nelson, CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said that certain special "it" might be something of a myth. "People want to keep it the same way it was when they moved here," Nelson said. "There is some effort to conserve and protect. Sometimes, we think people are remembering something that never was."
Structures such as Granville Towers were built nearly a half-century ago, Nelson pointed out, adding that the vertical development in favor these days is the best way to keep growing in Chapel Hill without occupying more land space. "How are we going to keep from sprawling to protect the economic buffer?" Nelson said.
Michael Parker, a pharmaceutical consultant from Manhattan who settled in Greenbridge in 2010, is one of a few dozen residents in the building today. He said this type of development is needed to re-energize Franklin Street.
"The downtown has lost a bit of its vitality and economic relevance," said Parker, who isn't troubled by the concerns about Greenbridge's fiscal foundering. "Within a year, it's going to be full," he said. "No doubt in my mind."
Delores Bailey, executive director of community advocacy nonprofit EmPOWERment Inc. and a frequent Greenbridge critic, said neighborhoods must be vocal about their needs as Chapel Hill morphs.
"We are aware that the neighborhood is changing," Bailey said. "We are aware that it doesn't look like it did in 1996. We have to be a part of that change in a positive way."
Months ago, Bailey's group and others advocated to maintain affordable housing in the historically black Northside community abutting Greenbridge. This week, she said the town's need for a bolstered tax base will ultimately promise higher residential density, another sign of changing tides for longtime Chapel Hill residents. "By the time eight more years passes, it will be a completely different-looking town," Bailey said. "We won't be a village anymore."
Cummings doesn't think that's such a bad thing. The 140 West builder, who celebrated the construction of a Whole Foods grocery store in Detroit last week, said his developments strive to make a positive impact in the community.
"Once the stores start to animate the street level, I think the vast majority of people are going to look at this and say it's pretty neat," Cummings said.
He added that, while Greenbridge was saddled with peak construction prices and mounting debt, 140 West took advantage of post-recession price tags. He estimated that developers could pay off their construction loan as early as the second quarter of 2013.
Then, there's the location. "It's pretty clear to me that if you're going to build some residential housing in Chapel Hill and you build it on that site, you will not have to compete with somebody who has a better site," he said.
Raymond isn't convinced that the bird's eye view of Chapel Hill transformation is worth the price.
"We're not Raleigh and we're not Durham," he said. "We're something unique, and I think we're losing it in this rush to grow."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Chapel Hill, growing up."