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City Beautiful 21 » Architecture, Burlington (VT), Cesky Krumlov, Chapel Hill, Density, Economic Development, International Cities and Towns, Piazzas, Plazas, Parks and Squares, Street Design, Vernazza » Five Great Reasons to Bulldoze the BCBSNC Building In Chapel Hill

Five Great Reasons to Bulldoze the BCBSNC Building In Chapel Hill

Former BCBSNC Headquarters

BCBSNC Headquarters – A Building Its Own Architect Doesn’t Know What Do To With (photo from

Today Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC announced they are consolidating their operations in Durham and vacating their dated, modernist solar-cooker-on-cinder-blocks digs in Chapel Hill, because the building is inflexible, expensive to operate, and bad for workers:

Blue Cross officials said the insurer’s distinctive Chapel Hill headquarters – a rhomboid, glass structure designed by the architect A.G. Odell Jr.’s firm – had become more costly to operate than its other buildings and didn’t fit the way employees work today.

The article adds:

Blue Cross expects the move to Durham will ultimately save it more than $2.5 million annually in utilities and operating costs.

“It will be a walkable, flexible environment, and create a community of literally all of our employees,” Borman said.

As for the Chapel Hill headquarters, Blue Cross plans to work with town officials to determine the property’s future, Borman said.

McMurray [the building’s designer] worries what will become of his building.

“It’s sad that they’re leaving it,” he said. “I don’t know what you do with it.”

I visited this building this past year on a day with temperatures in the 60s to low 70s.  The air conditioning was cranked up like it was in the high 80s or 90s outside, which I assume is part of the reason why their utility costs are so high- whoever occupies the building must combat massive solar gain through the roof.  Even the guy who built the building can’t think of a reason to keep using it.

The site layout is as flawed as the building, with curvilinear roads in a mid-century suburban layout that wastes space with both pavement and grass.  But as much as anyone hates the announcement that a major employer is leaving, the silver lining is an opportunity to redevelop over 30 acres, or more than 1.5 million square feet of land. If this dysfunctional building was torn down, what could fit there instead?

For inspiration, here are five other examples of quality urban development that could fit in that area or less:

1. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic (photo by Flickr user Iurbi)

This picture perfect town is mostly enclosed by a bend in the river that winds through it.  The area within the river bend is about 80% of the size of the BCSBNC site.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

2. Vernazza, Italy (photo by Flickr user damianocerrone)

Hemmed in by the see and a hill, Vernazza only takes up about 40% of the BCBSNC site, and that includes some of the harbor.

Vernazza, Italy

Vernazza, Italy

3. Downtown Shelburne Falls, MA (photo by Flickr user neonlike)

Picturesque small town in Massachusetts with a waterfall, an abandoned bridge covered with flowers, and a trolley museum – in about 25% of the BCBSNC site.

Shelburne Falls, MA

Shelburne Falls, MA

4. The entire pedestrian-only section of Church St and the 8 surrounding blocks in Burlington, VT. (photo by Flickr user devils4ever)

About 91% of the size of the BCBSNC site.

Church St, Burlington, VT

Church St, Burlington, VT

5. The Downtown Core of Black Mountain, NC (photo by Flickr user Bass Player Keith Hall)

East of Asheville, the downtown of Black Mountain is about 50% the size of the BCBSNC site.

Downtown Black Mountain, NC

Downtown Black Mountain, NC

6. And One Bonus Location: East Franklin St (photo by Flickr user Zannie Gunn)

The space bound by Columbia St, Franklin, Rosemary, and Henderson takes up about 25% of the BCBSNC site.

East Franklin St

East Franklin St

Any of these building patterns are more resilient for changing times than the modernist design of the BCBSNC building, which was always more about making abstract aesthetic statements than being useful to the people using the building or embracing the neighboring parcels in a constructive way.  When was the last time you heard someone say Franklin St “doesn’t support the way people work or live today?”

Build a street grid on this site and populate it with many smaller buildings, public spaces, and much less parking, and Chapel Hill can have a tremendous new urban neighborhood built to last. This is an exciting opportunity. What could you imagine here?

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Filed under: Architecture, Burlington (VT), Cesky Krumlov, Chapel Hill, Density, Economic Development, International Cities and Towns, Piazzas, Plazas, Parks and Squares, Street Design, Vernazza

6 Responses to "Five Great Reasons to Bulldoze the BCBSNC Building In Chapel Hill"

  1. BrianR says:

    As always your ideas and suggestions are spot on.

    Recently while walking past some of the newer large developments in Chapel Hill and Carrboro I felt a deep personal disconnect from them. As a middle class person I could not imagine ever affording to live in one of these new buildings. Frankly the businesses in them didn’t seem like ones I’d spend money in either. As a business person without access to debt free capital I can not imagine renting or owning commercial space in these buildings. So if a middle class american can’t use these buildings then how will people with much less money than I?

    I know it’s expensive to build new structures and to fix up old ones. People and companies who take on this expense must profit from it. But while they do they will inadvertently leave out thousands of North Carolinians. Unless we come up with better more equitable options.

    I’m very much looking forward to discussing these challenges with you. Of all the people I know I think you can help find answers.

  2. Patrick says:

    These are good questions, and rather than take a full swing at an answer here, I’m going to start working on tackling them in a standalone post.

    But before doing that, I think it is worth noting that there’s a unit at Greenbridge for sale for $236,000:

    While a look at Chapel Hill Magazine’s weekly Real Estate Transactions tracker shows that the average single family home sale in Chapel Hill last week was probably well north of $400,000.

    Further searching finds a unit at East 54 for under $300,000.

    These multifamily homes are not cheap nor are they that affordable to anyone at the area median income, at least not without a massive down payment, which most median income households are unlikely to have.

    But what I’m getting at is that for all the controversy over Greenbridge and 140 West Franklin, the total number of units in these buildings is less than 300. The number of housing units in Chapel Hill was 22,254 in 2010. That means that if no other housing was built since then, the Chapel Hill housing market, which is what really sets the price of these units, is comprised of 98.6% units NOT in these buildings. Which means that when we want to grapple with the “why” portion of the relative affordability of market-rate units in new mixed-use buildings, we have to ask why the market allows such high prices for these units.

    And the answer is considerably driven by the static supply in most of the rest of the community, and planning “tools” like NCDs, which are designed to make supply inelastic in a town with high demand, which leads to rationing by price.

    Keep in mind that both Greenbridge and 140 West contain affordable units. Most NCD neighborhoods? Not so much.

  3. Patrick says:

    Also worth reading on your question: Chris Bradford on Filtering:

  4. […] 291 Views – Five Great Reasons to Bulldoze the BCBSNC Building in Chapel Hill […]

  5. […] First, if the town wants to take on debt to build a building for non-profit organizations, we should have a plan for how the building could be used if those nonprofits fail and cannot use the space as proposed.  I flag this because the track record of re-using modernist buildings is not that good.  […]

  6. […] 475 Views – Five Great Reasons to Bulldoze the BCBSNC Building in Chapel Hill […]

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