Renuka Soll, who is running for Town Council recently emailed people who had written to Town Council in support of Purple Bowl. In her email, she encouraged Purple Bowl supporters to support her and the other candidates on Adam Searing’s slate (Searing’s campaign treasurer works at Purple Bowl.)

Problematically, the email contained inaccurate information (we recently wrote about misinformation Soll has spread about Chapel Hill’s parks and rec budget, and we’ve written many times about Searing’s complicated relationship with honesty).

We’ve been following the plight of Purple Bowl — and similar-affected local businesses like Chimney and Bella Nail Bar that have not caught the attention of Searing’s slate — for a while now. Here’s an update on what we know about the situation and what Soll gets wrong in her email.

Some background information

Purple Bowl opened in 2017 and quickly attracted fans of its acai bowls, smoothies, and community-focused business model. In mid-2022, the shop expanded into an adjacent space.

Later in the same year, the real estate development firm Longfellow, which focuses on life sciences, bought the building Purple Bowl and several other businesses are located in. It aims to redevelop the parcel into a multistory wet lab. 

Does Chapel Hill need a wet lab?

We already have wet labs in Chapel Hill, mostly on campus. (A Rosemary St. lab has been approved but not yet built — Longfellow is confident there is enough demand to support multiple private wet labs here). When UNC entrepreneurs want to launch a company that builds on research conducted on campus, they have to leave Chapel Hill to do so. This region is one of the top markets for life science firms in the U.S., but they are concentrated in RTP, Raleigh, and Durham, not Chapel Hill. 

That means several things: 

  1. People who live in Chapel Hill but work in life sciences likely drive to get back and forth to work, which is terrible for the climate.
  2. Life sciences jobs in North Carolina pay on average $112,000. That’s income we want to keep in Chapel Hill. And those are workers we want to keep in Chapel Hill – UNC currently graduates oodles of students well prepared for careers in life sciences, we just don’t have any jobs for them here. 
  3. Our downtown is struggling because, aside from UNC, most jobs on Franklin St. are low-paying. We have too many empty storefronts and chain restaurants because we do not have a sufficient mix of quality jobs and workers living downtown. Update 10/7/23: We removed references to Purple Bowl’s employee salaries because the implications of those references were inaccurate; thanks to Purple Bowl for the clarification. 

Isn’t Longfellow an evil out-of-town developer hellbent on destroying local businesses?

They are based in Boston — a huge center of life science research – yes. But they have a strong North Carolina presence, including in downtown Durham. And they don’t seem that evil. Read about their work with 321 Coffee, a local business in the ground floor of their Durham lab that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And when Med Deli was recently badly damaged by a fire, Longfellow quickly helped them find temporary space as they rebuild.

Longfellow is actively engaged with all its Franklin St. tenants about relocation options and says they will continue to work to find a solution that works for everyone. Construction of the wet lab is not imminent – there is time to find a solution.

Why can’t the wet lab be somewhere outside of downtown?

It’s a fair question. According to Longfellow, the types of firms that would rent space in a wet lab  want to locate where their workers want to be. And that is somewhere workers can grab a coffee, lunch, or hang out with colleagues after work without having to drive everywhere.  Longfellow wants retail tenants like Purple Bowl to thrive because that’s exactly the sort of businesses their lab tenants want close by.

Most talented young professionals do not dream of working in a suburban office park surrounded by acres of parking lots. By locating downtown, the wet lab will be better positioned to attract those types of workers (not to mention how close they will be to the pipeline of talent coming out of UNC). 

Renuka Soll’s email is full of misinformation

Without evidence, Soll claims that Chapel Hill is “forcing much-loved local businesses, such as the Purple Bowl, out of town.” Actually, the town has been very involved in trying to find a resolution that works for both Purple Bowl and Longfellow – and other local businesses located in the same building as Purple Bowl.  The town recently announced a new grant program targeted to companies facing displacement due to redevelopment. Eligible businesses can receive up to $100,000 to assist with relocation expenses to another space downtown. Notably, the town translated the grant material into Vietnamese to ensure that the Bella Nail Bar would be able to participate. Does this sound like a town that is forcing Purple Bowl out of town?  

“The redevelopment of Rosemary and Franklin Streets and the retention of local businesses is crucial to maintaining an economically strong Downtown; a commercial area where the image, appearance, and environment encourage walkability and attract shoppers. Recognizing that small, local businesses are crucial to the cultural fabric of a community, this grant program is intended to help Downtown storefront businesses mitigate the impact of redevelopment on economically viable local businesses.”

Soll adds that “the Council has not been listening to the public.” That is completely untrue. And many of you reading this know it is untrue because you showed up and spoke at a Council meeting about the proposed wet lab, and Council heard and acknowledged those concerns. Council is well aware of the perspectives of those who support Purple Bowl staying in place.

The new grant program, while it may not be perfect, is evidence that the current Council and town staff are in fact listening. It’s disappointing to have someone who aims to serve the people of Chapel Hill spread a cynical message suggesting otherwise.

We’ll continue to follow this story

Look for an update soon on recipients of the relocation grants, which are expected to be announced by October. 

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...