CHAPEL HILL — From his privileged perch behind the lunch counter at Sutton's Drugstore these past 33 years, Don Penney has heard the mutterings of downtown Chapel Hill's decline.
Penney recalls Franklin Street in its 1970s heyday, with Fowler's Grocery Store and its giant walk-in beer cooler Bertha, racy magazines and milkshakes at Jeff's Confectionary, literary classics at The Intimate Bookshop and The Rathskeller's Gambler and deep-dish lasagna.
All those are gone. And while Franklin Street is far from dead, the front porch of North Carolina's flagship university is looking a little worse for the wear.
It still has a lower vacancy rate - 5 percent - than any of its urban competitors in the Triangle, and it still has much of what makes Chapel Hill a premier college town: pizza, burritos, booze and loud music in large quantities. It has coffee shops, student protests, passionate artists and all the Tar Heel souvenirs anyone could ask for.
What Franklin Street doesn't have is a grocery store, a full-service bookstore or many choices for everyday items such as shoes or electronic gadgets.
"We don't have a camera store any more," said Penney. "We only have one movie theater now. We have no general shopping stores; we don't have a clothing store other than Julian's. There's 31 restaurants from Henderson to Columbia Street. That's great at dinner time. It brings a lot of people up, but you can't make a living just on dinner time."
The street does have a comics store, a hardware store, smoke shops, record store, used bookstore, dry cleaner, auto shops and a hotel, but they're all in the West End - not the vibrant 100-block of East Franklin that UNC-CH alumni remember from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s.
"When you're in college, you look at things completely different than you do when you're an adult," said Jim Norton, director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. "It's a whole new world out there. Everything's new and wonderful, and I think people remember that. I think it is more of a perception. I'm not saying it's perfect."
High rent a hindrance
In a recent survey of local business owners, the town's economic development department found high rents are one of the toughest barriers to opening businesses. Space on Franklin Street rents for $20 to $30 a square foot; space in downtown Durham goes for $14 to $20 per square foot.
Commercial real-estate broker John Morris said high prices affect the mix of businesses on Franklin Street. Pizza shops sell enough volume to justify the rents, whereas a clothing store might not.
"I'm not saying that it's overpricing," Morris said. "It's just that it's got to fit with the right user."
For the past decade, town leaders and the university have been pushing for new condos downtown, in the hope that new residents would support a more diverse stock of businesses.
Restaurateur Greg Overbeck says it may be too little too late, given the competition from suburban destinations like The Streets at Southpoint and thriving urban scenes in Durham and Raleigh.
"Chapel Hill's never going to get a Nordstrom in the middle of Franklin Street," said Overbeck, one of the owners of the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, which runs upscale eateries throughout the Triangle, including Franklin Street's 411 West and 518 South in Raleigh's Glenwood South district. "I think it's a step in the right direction, absolutely. Has there been a lack of planning for the last 20 years or so? Yes."
Planning is exactly what Raleigh and Durham have done, and the results are bustling entertainment districts such as Glenwood South, Fayetteville Street, Moore Square, American Tobacco District, Brightleaf Square and a revamped Hillsborough Street near N.C. State University.
"People do have different options," said Liz Parham, the state's urban development director and former head of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. "They have options that are perhaps closer to home than they've ever had."
Even Franklin Street's once-captive audience of students has more choices for dining and shopping on campus than ever before. And with more students driving cars, they fill most of their needs at national chain stores across the Durham County line.
An alum's lament
Morganton Mayor Mel Cohen, a UNC alum, noted that even downtown Carrboro has much of what Franklin Street doesn't: daytime foot traffic around the farmers market and Weaver Street Market. It also has two grocery stores, a toy shop, a children's used clothing store, two thrift stores, two musical instrument shops and more.
"The [Chapel Hill] Town Council should get back to the basics of making its heart a foremost picture and reflection of the oldest state university in the country," he wrote.
But, unlike alumni from past decades, many residents now think of Chapel Hill and Carrboro as one community as the tongue-in-cheek moniker "Chapelboro" suggests. And the developers buying into Chapel Hill's vision have caught onto that, siting hundreds of new million-dollar condos amid the restaurant row of Franklin Street's West End, within walking distance from both downtown Carrboro and the UNC-CH campus.
"That area's doing extremely well," said real-estate agent Gary Hill, who recently helped solve Franklin Street's biggest blight, the empty bank beneath Top of the Hill brewery at South Columbia.
Coming: Ackland store
UNC's Ackland Art Museum will open a new museum store there in the coming months, thanks to a series of subleases between UNC,Gramercy Capital, former tenant Wachovia and owner Joe Riddle. The most prominent piece of commercial property in Chapel Hill has sat vacant for years because Wachovia continued to pay Riddle rent even after it acquired First Union's lease and closed the branch.
Chancellor Holden Thorp said locating the Ackland store there showed the university's commitment "to put something on Franklin Street that's not a T-shirt store."
"It'd be great if there was an Apple store and a Barnes & Noble and people were sitting outside reading and drinking coffee and if there were some independent bookstores," said Thorp.
The chancellor said the university plans to include employee housing when it redevelops University Square and Granville Towers, piggybacking on 100 new condos at Greenbridge and 140 planned at 140 West, which will all bring new business demand.
"I think that will bring some significant change on Franklin Street," Thorp said.
Norton, the downtown partnership director, said much grousing is unfounded. "Maybe we've got one more pizza parlor than we need," he said, but, "I think we do a darn good job of holding our own. Ninety percent of communities would kill to have what Franklin Street has."
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