The HeraldSun’s editorial stance on Chapel Hill’s Lot #5 project has always been somewhat “peppy”.

Tom Jensen’s Chapel Hill Herald (CHH) columns have been singularly reflective of the papers ebullient attitude towards this troubled development. In spite of the narrowing scope – halving the size of the project – and escalating taxpayer commitments – keeping the cost the same, increasing the public outlay 15-fold, ignoring the potentially expensive hazardous waste remediation, discounting further cost increases – the message continued to be move forward at a reckless rate and let the details be damned.

Tom,a recent graduate of UNC, political insider, Sierra staffer and Chapel Hill Planning Board member looks forward to the day he can live Downtown:

On a personal note, one of the reasons I love this project is that I would like to live in it myself.

I don’t own a car and I commute by TTA to work in Raleigh every day. Lot 5 is about two minutes away from where I pick up the bus. It would be great to be able to walk right out of my house, catch the bus, and then come home at night and meet my daily needs within walking distance of my condo.

Right now there’s nowhere that meets both the niceness and affordability criteria I would need to see to live on Franklin or Rosemary Street.

Affordability, Tom, considering the $385-$415 per square foot price of the condos, is reserved for those qualifying for the affordable housing component. It might be tough to qualify if Councilmember Strom makes good on his statement that the bulk of these roughly 600 square foot affordable units will be used for families.

Today’s HeraldSun editorial takes a different, more cautionary tack.

Let’s hope they don’t find anything. Let’s hope the environmental assessment, being undertaken this weekend, on downtown parking lot 5 shows no problems at all.

Because if it doesn’t, there are very serious consequences.

Yes, it would be nice to think there is no hazardous material to remove, but with at least one known gas station sited on that lot, it isn’t likely. Serious? The price tag could run into the millions.

And from what I observed this weekend, digging a deep parking deck just got a lot more expensive.

The editorial continues with this interesting assertion:

It is the linchpin for the town’s attempt to reinvigorate downtown, to bring more people to live by the community’s historic core, to create a market for downtown businesses and to make sure the area remains the vital, throbbing heart of Chapel Hill.

As I’ve mentioned before, this project lacks a “communal” center – something like a grocery store – to both serve the residents of the complex and to draw in the thousands of walking distance residents noted in recent cautionary testimony before Council. The commercial component seems oriented towards boutique shopping – Sunglass Huts and Jumba Juice – over sustaining, locally-owned concerns.

Because that goal is so important, the town has been willing to accept a far-less beneficial deal to develop lot 5. What once was an arrangement last year with the private developer that would have cost the town under $1 million, now may cost more than $7 million — and that price could be going up.

We have noted in the past in this space that on balance, the increased financial liability for the town still was worth it. The ultimate benefit — to downtown and the entire community — would offset the increased cost.

It is nice to see a bit of concern about the value returned being somewhat in the ballpark of the value given – even if the editorials numbers are off by a factor of 2 on the low-end. The original investment was $500,000 with a more restrictive land deal – increasing to today’s $7.3 million with a real-estate giveaway. And, of course, the $7.3M figure doesn’t incorporate the true value of the property – commercial real-estate folks have quoted $5-$13 million conservatively, the probable high costs of environmental remediation, the slew of new expensive consultants to manage our Town’s end of the deal and another round of predictable increases (like having to deal with a huge rock under the lot).

But if the consultants conducting the assessment this weekend find evidence of possible environmental contamination at the site — and previous consultants had, in fact, found that kind of evidence — the town, as the owner of the property, would have to pay for any cleanup needed.

There’s no telling, at this point, how much that could cost, but the price tag could be significant, in the millions. If it is, that could jeopardize the entire project. If it is, that probably should jeopardize the entire project.

The town cannot afford — either literally or figuratively — to put excessive sums down the deep hole being bored this weekend at lot 5. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, the town should be ready to cut its losses and head in a different direction.

Absolutely correct. On the cusp of expanding the Lot #5 moneypit I hope the majority of our Council reassess our citizen’s liability – drops the current deal – totes up the “lessons well-learned” and starts again.

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