On Tuesday night, the Chapel Hill planning commission voted to approve a new nine-story life sciences building at 306 West Franklin Street. 

The developers behind the project, Boston-based Longfellow Real Estate Partners, have been continually updating the proposal since they introduced it to the community design commission in February, but they maintain that the facility would be around 150 feet tall with over 400,000 square feet to include first-floor retail space, commercial wet labs, and offices. A Longfellow statement to the town council said the building would create “space for hundreds of new jobs for office, research, life sciences, technology, etc. and opportunity for supporting jobs and existing businesses in the heart of downtown.”

But shovels are still a long way from hitting the dirt. The planning commission is an advisory body, meaning its only power is to provide recommendations to the town council. Still, all seven board members who were present gave the project the green light. It is tentatively scheduled to appear on the town council’s October 25 agenda. Even if the council approves the project, construction wouldn’t start until early 2025.

A site plan for Longfellow’s proposal for the parcel at 306 West Franklin Street Credit: Courtesy of Longfellow Real Estate Partners

Some candidates for council and mayor have put the spotlight on the Purple Bowl, a current tenant of 306 West Franklin Street, arguing that demolishing it would mark a dark turn for the college town. Others say that the town needs the commercial tax revenue that would come from a Longfellow building. Town staff and members of the commission seemed to be acutely aware of the extra layer of political scrutiny—a memo from town staff to the commission essentially told members to disregard public discourse about the Purple Bowl. 

“The displacement of current tenants of the project site has been a major element of the public conversation regarding the proposed development,” stated the memo signed by Britany Waddell, Judy Johnson, and Tas Lagoo. “Staff do not recommend the inclusion of any ordinance conditions regarding the displacement of current tenants.”

Still, commission member Jon Mitchell, who is running for a seat on the town council, asked Longfellow representatives about “the elephant in the room,” and what authority the town might have to try to prevent the destruction of the current building.

“Who owns the building?” Mitchell asked.

Longfellow owns the current building and several surrounding lots. According to real estate records, it purchased the property in 2022. Because Longfellow is making a zoning request to redevelop the 1.99-acre property, town senior planner Tas Lagoo said the council has limited options to try to somehow preserve the Purple Bowl. 

The Purple Bowl on West Franklin Street Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

“The town’s hands are, in my view, severely tied when it comes to requiring, through the zoning process, really, anything related to the current tenants,” said Lagoo. While the Purple Bowl has gotten more attention from politicians, 306 West Franklin is also home to businesses including Bella Nail Bar, Chimney Indian Kitchen, and Blue Dogwood Market. 

He pointed back to the staff memo for “other levers” the town could pull. The memo stated that Longfellow “is working with current tenants to assist with relocation. The Town also created a grant program to assist downtown businesses with relocation costs.” 

In both Tuesday’s presentation and an information meeting earlier this month, Longfellow communications director Casey Angel promised that Longfellow would fill the first floor retail space with local businesses.

“You’ll never find a Starbucks or you’ll never find a Subway in any of our projects throughout our entire international portfolio,’ said Angel. “We exclusively work with local retailers and we foster those relationships and so moving forward, folks like the Purple Bowl and Chimney are exactly who we want in our building moving long term.”

In their closing remarks, commission members tried to separate the politicization of Purple Bowl’s potential demolition from the reality of their limited role as an advisory commission.

“I think it’s been perhaps misunderstood or twisted in the public discourse about this project, especially with the upcoming local elections,” said member E. Strother Murray-ndinga. “The town of Chapel Hill is not evicting anyone from this property.” 

Members also emphasized how the transformation of that area of Franklin Street could shape downtown Chapel Hill’s future.

“I think most everybody wants the town to get more commercial development so that we can stop raising taxes,” said Mitchell “The town needs to move forward with [its] long term vision for the economic vibrancy of the downtown, and it’s not clear what we could do, or what would be reasonable for us to do, to hold up a project to keep an existing tenant in place.”

Murray-ndinga agreed.

“The benefits of job creation far outweigh the other concerns,” she said.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story reported that Longfellow purchased the property at 306 W. Franklin Street for $3.5 million. That is the assessed value of the property, not the sales price. The story has been corrected.

Reach Reporter Chase Pellegrini de Paur at chase@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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