Carolina Innovation Center: Alexandria Equities, the Citizens Partner?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

At yesterday’s UNC Board of Trustees meeting, the Carolina Innovation Center took center stage when Carolina North’s quarterback Jack Evans confirmed it as the first step in Carolina North’s development.

The center will be sited upon the recently vacated Chapel Hill municipal facility.

Jack has written a Sunday column for the Chapel Hill News, a sneak peek which has been published on their OrangeChat ‘blog.

I will be responding to his Q&A in more detail once the column is published.

As part of preparing to respond, I was doing background research on Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc., the private partner in this private-public partnership. Alexandria, as this Triangle Business Journal report notes will OWN and manage the facility.

What kind of partner in this public endeavor would Alexandria be?

If their website is any indication, not so open:

TERMS OF USE

The www.labspace.com World Wide Web site (the “Site”) is a copyrighted work belonging to Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. (“Alexandria”) and its suppliers. Alexandria grants you the right to access and use the Site subject to the following terms and conditions (the “Terms of Use”). PLEASE READ THE TERMS OF USE CAREFULLY. BY ACCESSING THE SITE, YOU AGREE TO BE BOUND BY THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS BELOW. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE BOUND BY THESE TERMS AND CONDITIONS, YOU MAY NOT ACCESS OR USE THIS SITE.

The FIRST thing one sees on the company’s website, http://www.labspace.com/, is their TERMS OF SERVICE asking you to bind yourself to their conditions.

If you read through the 1182 words, agree to the 12 legal clauses, you’re allowed in, bound, I guess, in virtual chains forged of legalese.

I’ve used the Internet before there was an Internet. I’ve learned a few things surfing the Web.

One thing I’ve learned? A company that throws legalistic mumbo-jumbo in your face and demands your acquiescence before entry is either woefully over-staffed with paranoid legal talent, in some kind of trouble, been burned by bad PR, has no sense of customer service or some kind of witches brew of all those reasons and more.

Maybe Alexandria just needs a ticket on the Cluetrain express?

Yes, there could be quite legitimate reasons for raising the Web wall but, at least based on this not so friendly “Howdy Do”, I have to wonder what kind of partner Alexandria will be….

The HeraldSun Turns A Corner: Trouble on the horizon at lot 5

Monday, March 19th, 2007

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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