Can a Nobel Prize Winner Bring Peace to a Contentious Property in Chapel Hill? | Orange County | Indy Week
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Can a Nobel Prize Winner Bring Peace to a Contentious Property in Chapel Hill? 

On the list of things Chapel Hill residents would prefer to see less of, a new hotel falls somewhere between luxury apartments and university budget cuts. Until recently, though, that seemed to be the fate of the 1.7-acre parcel at 1609 East Franklin Street, sandwiched between the Ballet School of Chapel Hill and a psychology office building.

A developer, Raleigh-based HPW, intended to build a seven-story, ninety-six-room hotel that would also have included twenty-eight extended-stay apartment units. Neighbors viewed the proposal as a monstrosity, and they mobilized. The psychologists next door spoke of the damaging effects the extra traffic and noise would have on their ability to work intimately with their clients. Folks in the Coker Hills subdivision, which would have faced the hotel's rear entrance, argued the design and the hulking nature of the building were incompatible with the neighborhood's more modest aesthetics. Local hoteliers pointed out that the town had a glut of available rooms already.

In the end, the Davids beat the Goliath: HPW withdrew its plans in January, two years after the hotel was first brought to the attention of the town council. The property remains a vacant patch of land, still owned by HPW. But recently an interested buyer has emerged: The Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation.

Aziz Sancar, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine, won the 2015 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Since 2008, Sancar and his wife, Gwen, have run Carolina Turk Evi, a Turkish center that provides graduate housing to Turkish researchers and hosts visiting Turkish scholars on sabbaticals and short internships. It also holds celebrations of Turkish holidays, Turkish cooking classes, and language classes, Gwen Sancar tells the INDY.

click to enlarge Aziz Sancar - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER, COURTESY UNC-CHAPEL HILL
  • Photo by Jon Gardiner, courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Aziz Sancar

"But we want to expand the scale and frequency of what we do," she says, "and with the Nobel, we thought it would be inspiring to create a library about my husband's work, and his path from a remote village in the mountains in Turkey to the Nobel Prize. We felt we needed a larger facility to do those things."

Scouting locations for a new headquarters earlier this year, the Sancars noted the property at 1609 Franklin. It looked ideal for the Sancar Turkish Cultural and Community Center, as their project will be known.

The center, as currently conceived, will have two pieces. The structure facing Franklin will be the public gathering space, with classrooms, a library, a kitchen for workshops, and office space. Behind it, facing Velma Road, in Coker Hills, will sit a detached six-bedroom guest house for visiting scholars. (Sancar's Nobel prize cash—his take was roughly $310,000, and he donated all of it to his and Gwen's foundation—will help fund the project.)

Aware that the property was a source of tension in the area, Gwen Sancar says she spoke with the hotel's opponents, including Shauna Farmer, who lives in Coker Hills.

"Gwen met with me before they submitted their plan," Farmer says. "Her thought originally was that the development could connect Franklin to Velma, and I told her the neighbors wouldn't like a thruway. And they adjusted the plan." The new version calls for entrance on Velma only for the guest house. "So I think from the beginning, they have worked with the folks from the neighborhood, made compromises, and, as a result, I feel the project will be a very positive one for the area."  

So far, there hasn't been much vocal opposition to the Sancars' plans. It's possible that may change next Tuesday, when the proposal goes before the planning commission. There's already some grumbling in Coker Hills about the guest house enjoying Velma Road access.

On the whole, though, the project is shaping up to be a rare win in a town where developers increasingly walk away victorious from battles with the citizenry. Rather than a big hotel, Chapel Hill may get a cultural institution openly welcoming of Muslims at a moment when the Republican presidential candidate is promoting hostility toward them.

"That's one of the reasons we feel comfortable proposing this project—because we feel that Chapel Hill is relatively rare in the U.S. in that it's a community where something like what we're trying to do will actually be welcomed," Gwen Sancar says. "My husband arrived here in 1982, and he's always said he's felt at home since he got here. It's a place where a Muslim can strive and do good work without the difficulties Muslims face in many other parts of the country."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Right Chemistry"

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