This week, the News & Observer published a long article on the perception that Franklin Street is in trouble.

Using the early January closure of Linda’s as its hook, Josh Shaffer interviews a range of people who seem to agree on one thing—that Franklin Street isn’t what it used to be, and that spells an end to the street’s “uniqueness” and “funky” reputation. 

But this perspective, however common, misses the story of what’s really happening on Franklin Street, and we would all be better served if we understand what is happening downtown and why.

East Franklin is struggling. West Franklin is doing great.

While Shaffer interviews business owners up and down Franklin Street, the only significant vacant storefronts on Franklin Street are in the 100- and 200-blocks of East Franklin, across from UNC’s campus, and the northwest corner of Franklin and Columbia. Local businesses are responding to shifts in consumer preferences—there are more places to get a bubble tea than a slice of pizza on west Franklin—which suggests a successful downtown business climate.

While alumni might miss Pepper’s Pizza, current students flock to Tea Hill. That’s a sign of changing tastes. Ten years ago, it was hard to find a decent bagel in Chapel Hill. Now we have Brandweins. We have a cat cafe, and North Carolina’s first nonalcoholic bottle shop. Even East Franklin now has Epilogue, which is a terrific cafe and bookstore, a worthy replacement for The Intimate Bookshop, which closed in 1998.

UNC has big plans for East Franklin.

In the next few months, Cosmic Cantina will relocate to a storefront on East Franklin, marking a new era in the much-loved restaurant’s history. This move is happening as part of a plan by UNC to redevelop a 1.1 acre parcel that they’ve described as the Porthole Alley project. Several buildings on Franklin Street will be demolished, and will be replaced by a much larger building that will include an expanded UNC Visitors Center and additional retail.

An illustration from a 2021 presentation showing what the new Porthole Alley buildings will look like from the north side of Franklin Street.

While the most recent information on this project is from early 2022, it appears that construction will soon start. Operating a business next to an active construction site is not ideal, so we wouldn’t be surprised if many of the property owners on that section of Franklin Street—including UNC’s Real Estate Operations, which has acquired several properties downtown in recent years—are reluctant to lease out their buildings while construction is taking place.

Because UNC is not required to get town approval for development projects on campus, the redevelopment of Porthole Alley has not been a major topic of discussion. The drawing above does not indicate what the storefront retail will look like, but we really hope there’s spaces for small businesses.

The zoning map for the 100-block of East Franklin Street. The area in light blue is controlled by UNC.

The Innovation District will transform downtown.

As Shaffer mentioned in passing, the town and UNC are working together to create an Innovation District downtown, including the recently opened Innovate Carolina Junction, which houses start-up businesses. The East Rosemary Parking Deck will open this spring, after which Grubb is expected to begin the process of building a wet lab that will be adjacent to the Innovate Carolina Junction.

Inside the Innovate Carolina Junction, which has entrances on both Rosemary and Franklin Street.

Last October, the Chapel Hill Town Council heard a presentation from Innovate Carolina, which promotes the commercialization of UNC research, that included a simple map of how the innovation district will add new vibrancy to the 100 blocks of East Franklin and East Rosemary.

A map of the new projects planned for two key blocks in downtown Chapel Hill. The Innovation Hub opened last fall, and the parking deck will open this spring.

You can’t build a local economy on nostalgia alone

Shaffer’s piece is far from the first story that gives space for older alumni to wax about their favorite restaurants and complain about the lack of parking. (I’m fond of Billy Ball’s Indy story from 2013, which helps prove that the investments made in West Franklin have paid off ten years later).

But as the Governing magazine opinion piece Shaffer links to in his article notes, some of the places that made college towns special—cafes with vegetarian options and espresso drinks—can now be found more easily. Meanwhile, many college towns, including Chapel Hill, struggle to retain young professionals given that the price of housing continues to rise due to a lack of apartments downtown. Because UNC doesn’t pay property taxes, Chapel Hill has for many years been trying to add office space, a strategy that is finally bearing fruit. (I am also looking forward to the 150 apartments that will be built at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia, which will add a lot year-round residents downtown.)

UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill are making substantial investments in the 100-block of East Franklin Street. If the current approved projects are built, East Franklin will be much more vibrant five years from now than it is today, and if the current town council commits to adding more housing in this section of downtown, we’ll see the number of year-round residents and employees rise as well. While the construction phase of any redevelopment is awkward, the future of downtown is bright.

I like a “funky” downtown as much as the next person, but it is really difficult to support interesting retail when rents are high and population densities are low. When only UNC employees lived in Chapel Hill, real estate prices were effectively set by university salaries. Now that Chapel Hill is part of a broader, fast-growing region, we attract people with high-wage jobs from all over, including the most recent wave of work-from-home high earners who moved here during the pandemic. We should subsidize office rents when feasible, but our only viable option is to make our local economy strong enough to support businesses of all kinds.

While we all miss Linda’s, and hope that it reopens soon, downtown Chapel Hill is not a tater tot. Complaining about downtown is easy, actually taking steps to address our challenges is tough. Local leaders are already pursuing an economic development strategy that involves adding more office space and housing downtown, and turning Porthole Alley into the gateway to the university. We should talk more about what that strategy is, what we think about it, and what we can do as a community to advance it.

Or we can go back to simply reminiscing about our favorite restaurants on Franklin that are no longer open. I miss Sandwhich. But I bet there are people out there who love what replaced it—Heavenly Buffaloes.

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.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...