An air horn sounds. Five minutes. The construction team has run into rock and they need to blast it. Spotters halt foot and car traffic. Workers stop drilling.
The blaster presses another air horn. One minute. He radios his team to ensure everyone is far from the explosives. Another horn toots and boom—a shotgun sound ricochets through downtown Chapel Hill. Tire mats muffle the sound, but the blast is still powerful enough for neighbors to feel the reverberations.
DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH. Workers return to drilling 25-foot-deep holes— DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH—a foot apart on the 1.73-acre property once known as Parking Lot No. 5.
The vibration could be enough to knock your fillings loose, but Chapel Hill town leaders hope the drilling can fill in what's been referred to as "the missing tooth" of Franklin Street.
In six weeks, construction is scheduled to begin in the heart of Chapel Hill on the controversial and overdue 140 West. The town, a partner with Ram Development Company in the project, hopes it will transform the current Parking Lot No. 5 into a vibrant plaza, retail strip and condominium complex.
Construction is expected to last two years.
140 West is the final stage of a decade-long plan to transform a slab of blacktop into a link between West and East Franklin streets. The 104-foot-tall, eight-story building will include 140 condominiums, 28.540 square feet of yet-to-be-leased retail space, 27,000 square feet that will include a public plaza and public artwork, and a two-story underground parking deck with public spots on the top floor.
One of the most heavily impacted areas will be Church Street, one of only a few thoroughfares between Franklin and Rosemary streets. It will be closed, as will one lane of Franklin Street and 103 public and 66 reserved parking spaces.
Because of this major disruption—which will begin shortly after UNC students return for the school year—Pat Evans, who leads Friends of Downtown, worries that the project will kill existing business before it can spur the downtown economy.
"I think this is going to be a very, very difficult period for downtown," says Evans, who served on Town Council for a decade. "I realize that revenue is important, but you don't get much revenue when businesses fail."
Evans wants the town to offer free parking after 6 p.m. to help alleviate the impact of losing a prominent downtown lot. The town has found 106 replacement spots near the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service homeless shelter on Rosemary Street and behind University Chrysler on West Franklin Street.
Evans' main concern, though, is that closing Church Street will isolate Rosemary and Franklin streets. Pedestrians often use Parking Lot No. 5 as a cut- through, and vehicles use Church Street to travel from University Square to nearby restaurants.
"Construction like this is going to be very disruptive for all businesses downtown, particularly businesses on Rosemary Street are going to really struggle because of the decision to close Church Street, which basically cuts off access," Evans says. "What you're doing is for two years you're totally eliminating it [cross traffic between Rosemary and Franklin] for half a mile."
Assistant Town Manager Bruce Heflin says the town has not decided if the Church Street closure will last the entire two-year construction period or for a fraction of it. Ram Development still is gaining approval from the town for its plan.
The group is proposing minimizing the inconvenience by requiring trucks to always enter the construction site, which will be surrounded by 8-foot-tall fencing, via Franklin Street before they are loaded, unloaded and washed. The trucks would then exit on Rosemary Street. Contractors plan to notify business owners on blast days both in person or by e-mail or phone and by tooting the air horn.
But for some downtown business advocates, such as Evans, that's not good enough.
Antoine Puech, of West Franklin Preservation Limited Partnership, which owns the building on the corner of Franklin and Church streets that houses Aveda and Kildare's, is so concerned with the impact on his tenants that he hired a consultant to examine ways to keep Church Street open while 140 West is erected.
He says the town did not listen to the proposal, and he challenges the assertion that projects can't be built downtown without closing streets. "It can be done; it's done in New York City every day," he says. "Here, they aren't open-minded to it."
With construction costs estimated at $56 million, 140 West has long been controversial. The town will continue to own the land, but it's leasing the building to Ram Development for 99 years at $1 per year. However, after construction is finished, the town is contracted to pay Ram up to $7.2 million for public parking spaces. That cost is expected to be offset by the $1 million in annual property tax, sales revenues and parking fees. But that money isn't projected to start rolling in until 2017. And if the project should fail, the town could be out millions of dollars.
Opponents of the project question the town's dual status as both a partner and the body in charge of issuing the project's permits. The town is essentially entrusted with policing itself.
So far, there are 50 buyers for units, which range from $250,000 one-bedroom condos to $1 million terrace homes, 140 spokeswoman Kim Counts said.
The Community Home Trust has agreed to take 18 units and sell them at affordable rates. (The prices haven't been announced yet.) The trust plans to begin selling them in the middle of next year and expects a strong demand, says Tamara Watson, development and communications manager for the trust.
But between now and move-in, neighbors will have to cope with the noise, the traffic and the lack of Church Street.
"It will be disruptive," says Mike Hammon, chief development officer of the Florida-based Ram Development. "There's no way to do construction in an urban environment without disruption."