Developer sees room for more apartments, retail in Chapel Hill’s Blue Hill District

Just two months after the town approved a controversial residential and commercial project at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a Texas developer is returning with plans for more apartments in Chapel Hill.

This time, Trinsic Residential Group is looking across town at the Blue Hill District. Plans for Aura Blue Hill propose 272 apartments and 23,195 square feet of commercial space in two, six-story buildings at 1289 Fordham Blvd.

The 2.76-acre site near Eastgate Crossing would have a clubhouse, pool and fitness center for residents, as well as a seven-story, 409-space parking garage.

The building closest to Ephesus Church Road would wrap around the garage, with a pedestrian bridge linking the second building to the garage. Drivers would enter from Legion Road Extension or from a new traffic circle behind the new Park at Chapel Hill apartments.

Both buildings would step down to four stories near the outer edges, with rooftop terraces overlooking ground-floor courtyards. Several pedestrian amenities are expected, including a 10-foot path and bike lanes on Ephesus Church Road, and a 12-foot path along Fordham Boulevard.

“The overall design will be compatible and harmonious to the surrounding neighborhood and promote and enhance pedestrian scale, encouraging interaction between building, space, and people,” the application stated.

The buildings there now — a small home, Chapel Hill Bible Church, and a two-story brick building housing The UPS Store, Domino’s and other small businesses — would be demolished.

Aura Blue Hill building plan.jpg
Trinsic Residential Group wants to build 272 apartments and 23,195 square feet of commercial space in two six-story, mixed-use buildings at 1289 Fordham Blvd. A seven-story parking garage would serve both buildings. Trinsic Residential Group Contributed

Aura Chapel Hill, Blue Hill construction

Trinsic’s first local project — Aura Chapel Hill — was approved in late June with 419 apartments and townhomes and over 15,800 square feet of commercial space. Town staff is still reviewing the final construction plans.

It’s the second project for the town’s busy Central West district, where development is guided by a 2013 small-area plan. The 97-acre district stretches east of MLK Jr. Boulevard, from north of Estes Drive to Mt. Bolus Road.

Its first project was Azalea Estates Gracious Retirement Living at Estes and Somerset drives. A concept plan submitted in August for a third project could add 78 townhomes between Somerset Drive and Aura.

The area near the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard — at the heart of the Blue Hill district — also is seeing significant redevelopment just seven years after the town created the form-based code that guides projects there.

The code outlines how buildings should look and fit into their surroundings and speeds up the approval process by routing projects to the town’s Community Design Commission and town manager for hearings and approval. The Town Council does not review projects in the district.

Blue Hill-Ephesus-Fordham corner.jpg
An overhead view shows how the area around Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road has changed and could continue to change as projects, including the Park at Chapel Hill, Millennium Chapel Hill and Aura Blue Hill (not identified, at center), are built. Trinsic Residential Group Contributed

Most new buildings have been five to seven stories, replacing decades-old, single-story buildings or undeveloped land. Most also have been apartment buildings, a few with just a touch of commercial space.

The latest is the 414-unit Park Apartments complex under construction just south of the Aura site, and the Millennium Chapel Hill Apartments, with 284 apartments and short-term lodging units approved for the former University Inn site. Demolition has not started yet.

Also under construction south of the Park is the new Elliott Road Extension, which will connect a new roundabout on Ephesus Church Road with the traffic light at Fordham Boulevard and South Elliott Road.

Ram Realty Advisors opened the 272-apartment Bell Chapel Hill (The Elliott) last year at that intersection and sold it Sept. 9 to Greensboro-based Bell Partners Inc. for $85.25 million.

New buildings and businesses have also gone in or been approved at Eastgate Crossing shopping center, including an Aldi grocery store, and two more apartment projects — Trilogy Chapel Hill and another that is part of the Tarheel Lodging redevelopment — are located farther north between Fordham Boulevard and Legion Road.

Trilogy opened last year and was sold Aug. 23 to ACIF I Trilogy LLC, a subsidiary of New York-based Abacus Capital Group, for $93 million.

The Aura Blue Hill site is zoned for up to seven stories of residential and commercial use with driveway access to Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road. It would fully extend the planned Legion Road Extension — part of the Millennium construction project — to Bypass Lane and Fordham Boulevard.

The developer is asking the town to approve an alternative landscaping design for Aura Blue Hill because of overhead power lines and utility company requirements, and also to allow less of a setback on the side facing the new Millennium apartment building.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.

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