On March 22, the Chapel Hill Town Council was presented with a concept plan for a new wet lab at 306 W. Franklin Street. The wet lab is being proposed by Longfellow, a life-sciences-focused real estate firm that owns similar properties in Durham and RTP.
The purpose of the presentation was to receive Council’s feedback on an early concept plan for the redevelopment. There was no vote to approve or deny anything – this was just a first step in what will likely be a years-long process to refine the concept and, if it is ultimately approved, build the wet lab.
As designed, the property that would house the wet lab would replace the existing building at 306 W. Franklin that houses several small businesses, including Purple Bowl, whose owners and supporters are encouraging the Council to reject the development of the wet lab.
We have previously written about the predicament facing Purple Bowl and other tenants that face the prospect of moving, at least temporarily, should the project be approved. We have argued and continue to believe that a win-win solution is achievable. That means finding a way to have a downtown that is vibrant year-round and builds our tax base and attracts high-wage employers and supports small, locally-owned businesses.
That does mean there will be some changes along Franklin Street, but that comes with being a town in one of the most appealing and fastest-growing regions in the U.S. It’s not a question of whether we will change, but how.
How is Council feeling about the proposed redevelopment? Their comments suggest that most members accept that change is coming to this part of downtown – if not from this proposal, then a future one – and are eager to find solutions that work for current and future tenants. Excerpts from their comments are below, which have been edited for brevity and clarity. I’ve focused on excepts about how Council members balance the vision of the Longfellow proposal with the needs and wants of Purple Bowl and other current tenants (not included are comments many Council members made showing appreciating to Purple Bowl’s supporters and their reactions to the proposed building design and its relationship to the Northside neighborhood – we expect to cover those last two topics as the proposal is fleshed out). Full video of the Council session is available here.
I spoke with our economic development team today [and] they’re working on a [fund] could help businesses that are facing relocation issues.
I think as one of your supporters says, Purple Bowl isn’t a building. Right? It’s the people and it’s the place. So I think everybody at this dais wants to make sure that that continues in town. …I don’t think it’s an either/or, I think we can have change. I think we can support our small businesses. I think we can do both of them. One of the things that our small businesses struggle with in downtown especially is, we know you guys are great customers, but you leave us in summer. And it’s really hard for our businesses to make it through that time when they have so few people in town.
So one of the things we’re trying to do with development downtown is to bring folks who will come and bring those jobs, who will spend money Downtown. It’s what, $2,500 a person? $4,000 per job of money injected into our downtown for every year-round job we can bring. …Again, we value Purple Bowl. I think the town staff, our Downtown Partnership, I think everybody’s trying to find a solution that’s going to work and make sure this amazing institution continues.
One of the reasons that we are trying to get buildings like this proposed by a lab, like the one on East Rosemary is in fact to create the customer base for small businesses and found that is really central to what we’re trying to do here. We know that many of our small businesses struggle, you know, we talked, you know, Miss Ryan talked about basically trying to get a 12-month economy downtown, which we don’t have yet.
So really, a lot of what we’re trying to do here is, number one, provide spaces for the entrepreneurs, whether they’re professors or students or some mix, that we continually spin out of UNC and then lose the door and lose to RTP. We’re really trying to create places and spaces for the intellectual capital that we have at UNC to stay here and to create businesses, create jobs that will ultimately support a vibrant downtown, both in terms of activity and in terms of the businesses that we have and hopefully new business that will want to be downtown because we now have a vibrant customer base. …I think we are all committed here, to figuring out a way forward, that will allow Purple Bowl to remain the, you know, the vibrant community center that it is, but, you know, potentially in a different place.
When we have a project like this proposed for the middle of downtown, I want to first know three things. One, is it residential? We need more people living downtown. So this is this does not qualify in that score. How does this impact our small businesses? You know, and then what’s the impact on the look of our downtown, the feel, why people think Chapel Hill is special? Those are the three things, and it’s personal to me. I grew up here as a teenager, small business much like the Purple Bowl, a bike shop took me in. As a teenager [I] was having a bit of a tough time and [it] gave me the kind of support that Paula [the owner of Purple Bowl] gives many of the students and folks who spoke here tonight, and I very much appreciated that, I will not forget that ever. And I bring that sensibility to looking at this project.
When I was thinking about this his project and looking at the at the plans and then the outpouring of support for this business and other businesses. I thought about another project we saw downtown recently the Porthole project at Porthole Alley being redeveloped by UNC. And they are doing extensive redevelopment on the middle of our downtown, and they made a space to preserve another Chapel Hill, small business institution, the Carolina Coffee Shop. And that was a priority for them. So I would suggest that the applicant look at that proposal for some ideas as to how to make this proposal work better for you and our small businesses.
I think I think it’s really important for Paula and all the amazing work she’s done to continue to be downtown. I really don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know where exactly… I think we need to figure out a solution because I think we want to do that for all of our small businesses downtown. I don’t think it’s just [Purple Bowl] actually. And I think we’re hearing from other businesses … on that same property who are also struggling to figure out what to do. And that just concerns me – people put their lives into these into these places. And I don’t want to hear that that nail shop owner is also struggling. And just because they can’t be here, and they don’t have 1000s of people writing emails, that bothers me too.…
I think the reality is, I don’t think that this building is going to stay the same. Regardless of whether we turn down this project, I don’t think that this building is going to continue to be what it was or what it is right now. I just think that’s the reality, it’s going to be redeveloped.
Things are going to change. Even if we do not approve this, change is still going to come. And so what I would like for us to be in conversation about are the solutions moving forward. And looking at how we can have community benefits, how we can work with the developers to do both. And it doesn’t have to be either/or. And I feel like you know, our political climate has like devolved into folks retreating to their corners and like fighting, and not allowing for the nuance of the conversation because this is very nuanced.
And as my colleagues have stated, we, as a Council, we have to weigh everything, we have to look at everything. And so when we’re looking at our downtown, we are looking at everything, and how everything is connecting. We are working on housing. We were reviewing concept plans right now, for housing because we need housing downtown. And we also need year-round businesses that are going to provide that traffic to help support small businesses.
And so my questions. and I hope you all were listening, as the developers were talking about the concept plan, we’re looking for solutions. We’re trying to find solutions to be able to do both and to support our small businesses. And I really hope that that’s being heard. Again, this is a concept plan. We’re not voting on anything. We are still in conversations. So let’s continue to be in conversation. And let’s make sure that we are being nuanced in our conversation and understanding of what we’re trying to do here.
One of the things that changed that we don’t really talk about is that when I was a student, the food on campus was terrible…. Now you can get Med Deli on campus, you can get Merritts BLT on campus. So that change, I think really affected downtown businesses. Students don’t come [to Franklin] to eat anymore.
…All of the things that impact businesses continue to evolve and change sometimes in good ways… sometimes not so good ways. So you’ve heard my colleagues talk about the ways that we’re trying to help businesses and we really are. That is what we are here to do. And the answer is what’s the best way to do that? And how can we meet as many needs as possible and as many interests as possible in doing that.
…I’m not sure if I understood it correctly, but I think the nail bar owners comment said that they were given the option to move to Durham, like that, to me is not a legitimate option. Their businesses here they’ve invested in their business here. So we need to make sure that whatever options we end up evolving to, as Council member Anderson was saying, are legitimate and viable options. You know, Peppers Pizza moved across the street when I was when I was here, and it was still really great pizza. And really cool, you know, tattoo covered people working there. So, so it is about the people that make the places. So, you know, I think we can find a way and I won’t support this project unless we can find a way to make this work for everyone involved in one way or another.
One of the big reasons that we have embarked on this journey as a downtown is [that] trying to build a business that is tech based in Chapel Hill is difficult, if not impossible. Trying to hire talent in this area is difficult, if not impossible. Our five largest employers, as a community are all public sector. Our largest private employer is Harris Teeter. We have a lot of work to do as a community to build our employer base. There’s a lot of implications behind that. And, you know, we’ve worked for quite some time to finally start seeing the investments in our downtown that we’re beginning to see. So I just want to put that in context. This is kind of a part of a much larger plan and process that the town has been embarking on for a while.
With that said, to the applicant, at hand, I think I definitely have some concerns about how we’ve already been engaging with the current tenants. …I think we need to engage equitably with all the current tenants, you know, they’re all our constituents, not just the ones that can organize and make the most noise. I think Paula has done a great job. But all of those businesses don’t have the same capacity to advocate for themselves.
I was able to connect with the with Tina, the nail bar, lady, she doesn’t speak English. Thankfully, I speak Vietnamese. So we were able to communicate. But some of the things that she was told by the Longfellow representatives were a concerning but be also dishonest. That Durham move thing is obviously a blatant slap in the face, but also telling her that there won’t be retail options to come back to also seems to be a lie, given the fact that there’s 12,000 square feet of retail to come back to. So like Council member Stegman, you know, as much as I want to see this investment. I can’t support this unless I know we do right by the current tenant, all of the current tenants in that space. And you know what that means we will continue to shape in conversation relocation packages, rights of first refusal and coming back to the space, etc.
I want to say that I have concern that Longfellow has not demonstrated tonight [evidence of] community engagement. And I don’t know [if] it’s because there is the individual who’s responsible for that not being here [editor’s note: Greg Capps, Longfellow Managing Director, did not attend the Council session due to an illness]. What I have heard, does not reflect that. Engagement looking to find a win win solution with your current residents, your current tenants rather, was the sought after outcome. I think it’s important that we move forward with integrity, all of us.…
It is important to me that if I’m going to be behind new development, that it is is one that embraces community, one that will engage with community understand the history of the community, and seek to honor it. So I understand the business sense of wanting to expand and I think that change is coming. I have to agree with my colleague – my colleagues – I think many of us recognize that. But we get to choose what type of change comes and is very important to me. And I’ve heard from my colleagues that is change that has integrity, that values community, the community that is here in the community that we want to grow. If you want to be part of our community, that’s exciting. But please know that we do have values: …honesty, forthrightness, compassion, and grace are considered.
Longfellow came and said we still see capacity in your downtown specifically for more life sciences, we were intrigued. …It became apparent that it was going to be right smack on top of some very successful very authentic businesses that we had in our downtown that have done very well. Sometimes we’ve lost a lot of storefronts there in that particular section of town. And we do have some other vacant places. And we do have merchants that are saying, Look, this is great. Bring more workers downtown, bring more people to be here to spend those dollars every year. We have all the stats, we’ve looked at that. But I agree with the comments that have been said here. We need this to be yes. And how do we keep and help our small businesses that are extremely successful not only in their products, but in the community building that they’ve been doing. And I think we can find some ways and we have some time to do that.
I think we pull ourselves together, we can find good solutions. Sometimes, it just hurts and it’s hard to think about moving. You’ve really settled into a place, you’ve spent money to do so… but I do think there’s some opportunities. So I think with all of that going on, the overall big goal that we’ve been struggling with is helping our downtown be sustainable for the future of this community. … We were losing more businesses, we were closing more every year than we were opening. And we are starting to see that shift a little bit just a little bit. And we have several housing projects … in the vicinity. And UNC is looking at their properties to to see what they can do to have more people walkable to while their campus but downtown to so that’s that’s exciting there too.