Communities that can articulate how their downtowns should look and feel are more likely to get what they want, a landscape architect told a packed room this week at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
Ned Crankshaw walked Monday from the downtown post office almost to Carrboro with a group that included residents involved in the arts, historic preservation, design, development and landscape architecture.
He also reviewed several town and community planning documents, including the Chapel Hill 2020 plan that guides future growth and the 2014 bike plan. (Watch the conversation at vimeo.com/album/4283879)
The visit, sponsored by the grassroots group Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, came as the town is refining how downtown will look and what it will offer in the future.
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Chapel Hill is like a lot of other college towns that “just plan, plan, plan,” said Crankshaw, who chairs the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky. But Franklin Street is “quite lively” with occupied storefronts and a lot of variation in how it looks, he said.
The alley beside the post office could use some work, he said, suggesting a landmark to create a “destination” at the end of long brick walls.
The town will talk about plans to improve lighting in downtown alleys in January, said Rae Buckley, assistant to the manager for organizational and strategic initiatives. They also are waiting to hear about an arts grant to spotlight the Wallace Parking Deck roof and create a performance space, she said.
“There’s a focus on alleys as being spaces where you can do quirky, fun, not necessarily permanent things that make places like downtown feel that much more like you just discovered something,” Buckley said.
Crankshaw noted the 140 West plaza and sidewalk also could be better. It was a good idea to set the upper stories of 140 West back from the street and build the plaza, he said, but the hard, stone benches and the building facade are limiting.
“Life doesn’t come from people just moving back and forth. You have to have places for people to ‘park,’ so sidewalk cafes, or creating buildings that aren’t completely flat facades, that have some indentations so that you have more opportunity for sitting spaces for people,” he said.
The town, Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and a UNC graduate student added temporary chairs, benches and tables, umbrellas, plants, banners and signs to the plaza this fall, surveying people about how they used the space. While more people lingered there, they found most still were passing through. The limited amenities, vacant storefronts and nearby construction kept people from staying longer, town officials reported.
The most engaging feature was the metal “Exhale” sculpture, they found, although some people thought it should be removed. There’s a willingness to revisit the sculpture, Buckley said, but its prominence also may make it the scapegoat for what’s not working.
“Because it’s something that some people really love and it was done with good intentions, I think we want to proceed thoughtfully in terms of (making) sure that’s really the issue,” she said.
Vacant storefronts are more likely to be addressed after the AC Hotel on West Rosemary Street and Carolina Square across Franklin Street are open, she said.
They will talk about the lessons learned and future steps for downtown Dec. 13 with the Community Design Commission and Dec. 20 with the Planning Commission, Buckley said. Future experiments, from better seating and arrangements to making a long-term investment in kid-friendly amenities, are possible.
Crankshaw said he loved the variety of buildings and streetscapes west of the plaza, although pedestrians have to walk farther to get where they’re going.
“In my opinion, that was a more pleasant end of the street than the east end because of that variety and then also the street tree planters,” he said. “The big brick ones are big enough to allow trees to actually thrive, so you have a great canopy down there. It’s a very humane environment at that end of the street.”
The best route to good design is a fine line between guidelines and standards, he noted. The town’s existing design guidelines are like “gentle suggestions” that leave developers and the community frustrated, he said.
While standards are easier to understand, measure and interpret, they can result in monotony and overlook public spaces, he said. Guidelines leave community desires open to interpretation, creating uncertainty but also inspiring innovation and improvements over the original design.
“You’re introducing choices for people but you’re giving them some maybe specific hints about different direction they could go with that,” Crankshaw said.
Giving downtown life
The book “Cities for People,” by Jan Gehl, notes that communities first think about the life they want downtown, landscape architect Ned Crankshaw said, and then create the spaces that make that life possible and the buildings that frame that life.
He also noted that “Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” by William Whyte, details five ingredients of downtown life:
▪ Seating that is welcoming and safe
▪ The presence or absence of sun, shade, wind, trees and water to provide comfort
▪ Food, whether outdoor dining or street food
▪ Street engagement, such as sidewalks for stopping and going; plants and other traffic buffers; and building interiors offering light and visual variety
▪ Triangulation, or giving people something to comfortably interact around, such as farmers markets, art and street performers
What do you think?
What would you change about downtown Chapel Hill? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll print responses in a future issue.