Last year, Stephen Whitlow wrote that the “predicament with Purple Bowl” was a sure sign that we’ve “reached the painful stage of economic growth. What could be good for our overall economic well being could be hell for our local businesses that make this place feel like home.”
If you’ve ever moved away from Chapel Hill long enough to miss it, or had friends who live elsewhere ask you about what makes it so great, your mind probably turns to certain spots on campus, stone walls, and a few local institutions.
For us, it’s places like Merritt’s Grill, Cafe Driade, and the Lantern. For you, it might be the Sutton’s the Varsity Theater, or Flyleaf Books.
And they are all threatened. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it could come at any time and happen in the blink of an eye.
We saw it again this week with the announcement that the Franklin Street staple Linda’s Bar and Grill would be closing after 47 years in business. Linda’s was the epitome of a good college town bar: it was cheap, open late, drew an eclectic crowd, and stayed open for decades of UNC students, staff and faculty to parade through.
With its closing, we once again are faced with the question of the present and future of Franklin Street. There are many theories for why businesses turn over frequently on Franklin Street. When Bub O’Malley’s closed in 2017, owner James Rippe told the News and Observer that there were many reason for the bar’s decline, including the resurgence of the bar scene in Durham, changing demographics and tastes of students, and many more people needed coming in the door.
We mourn these institutions – and we miss them – but we also believe there are concrete things that can be done to make Franklin Street more appealing for everyone.
In no particular order, here are our ideas.
Build more housing downtown within walking distance
We live in a college town where thousands of people clear out for the summer. Making it attractive and easy to live and work downtown means we’ll have more year-round residents, more people walking around during the workday and more people stopping by a local establishment for dinner after work.
Replace the “Cheese Grater” sculpture with a splash pad
The metallic sculpture “Exhale” – nicknamed the cheese grater – sits outside 140 W. Franklin Street in a plaza that sits empty outside of sporadic town-led events. But the space could easily attract scores of families on weekends if the plaza were designed with some seats with shade, free wi-fi, and an interactive water exhibit. (The ones pictured above are about the width of the cheese grater.) Splash pads and water features don’t have to be elaborate – but having more free, third spaces for families to visit will naturally lead to them finding spots to eat and visit afterwards. (In 2018, the town considered replacing the cheese grater, but abandoned their plans when they learned it would cost more than $1 million to do so. We think creating a better public space downtown is worth the cost.)
Open mini-social districts downtown
We visited the new Downtown Cary park last week – more to come on that soon, it’s amazing – and were struck by the idea that the entire park was part of a social district where people could sit with a glass of wine or a beer (in specially designated cups, during specific times.)
While making all of Franklin Street a social district might be a bridge too far, we could create mini-social districts on Henderson and Graham streets between Franklin and Rosemary. There are already great businesses on these streets, and adding a social district would help them draw more customers.
Encourage food trucks
Currently, Chapel Hill has a series of byzantine rules for food truck operators. Like you can’t have food trucks within 15 feet of landscaping or trees. You have to create site plans. And the annual permitting fee for food trucks in Chapel Hill is $718. Which is probably the profit you would make if you sold roughly 13,000 tacos or grilled cheese sandwiches.
If you design your town for chicken chain restaurants, you will get chicken chain restaurants.
But food trucks are great! They provide different kinds of food, allow for pop-ups (like the excellent pop-ups run by Lantern this past fall) and draw people to an area, which is exactly why we’ve seen them proliferate in many places.
We realize downtown businesses don’t like food trucks because they see them as competition – we see them as additional foot traffic that helps activate downtown.
Close off Franklin Street to cars on Sunday
Boston did this for weekends over the past year and it was ridiculously amazing for local businesses. New York does it every summer. They say “These transformations allow for a range of activities that promote economic development, support schools, facilitate pedestrian and bike mobility, and provide new ways for New Yorkers to enjoy cultural programming and build community.” Princeton does it. We should try it too.
Make it easier to find a place to park downtown
The city of Bend, Oregon just installed digital parking signs to direct people to existing parking lots — and let them know how many spots are available. This helps prevent people from circling and gets them to their destinations more quickly. (The costs are covered by the cost of parking.)
We think the new parking deck on Rosemary will have this technology, but people won’t find it if they think they can snag a cheaper space on Franklin Street. Let’s introduce demand-sensitive parking meters to Franklin Street so we can ensure there’s enough space for delivery trucks and people picking up take-out orders on Franklin. People who park in the new deck, or in one of our many existing lots, are likely to spend more time—and money—downtown, so we want to do everything we can to help them find their way there.
Add a stage or performance space on Franklin Street
Make it easy for poetry readings, performances, plays, and other community events to take place outside. (140 W. Franklin could also work for this!)
Build a new park downtown
Let’s work with UNC to transform the ITS plaza. This + the space nearby alongside the new wet lab could be transformative pocket parks from Rosemary to Franklin. We noticed the 7-acre downtown park in Cary included a pop-up library book cart (smart!) and a pop-up cart full of exercise equipment. In Philly, spots like these are transformed into night-time beer gardens (which would require a downtown social district) with a children’s play area, shade, and soft serve ice cream.Some are run in conjunction with the horticultural society as pop-up gardens.
Streamline the organizations responsible for promoting downtown
We have Visit Chapel Hill, Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership, the Chapel Hill Office of Economic Development, and Friends of the Downtown. That’s a lot of organizations focused on attracting visitors downtown. We realize they are all slightly different, but want to make sure that they are all working towards the same goals.
Work with UNC to convert their office space to storefronts.
There are many offices along Franklin Street that UNC owns. Let’s work with UNC to move some of these offices upstairs or back to campus and reactivate the street.
Give vacant space over to artists
In Philadelphia, when there’s an empty storefront, artists have been given unused storefronts to exhibit their work free of the cost of rent. (They pay utilities.) This brought many more feet to the street. Those feet visit the other businesses.
Let’s make reviving downtown Chapel Hill a priority.
For many reasons, a lot of our debates in Chapel Hill over the past few years have focused on places far from downtown, like Blue Hill, Aura, and the American Legion property. But downtown Chapel Hill is and should be our community’s strongest asset. Instead of pointing fingers, or just complaining about downtown, let’s work together and make it a regional destination once again.