Chapel Hill: Opinion

August 1, 2014

Linda Haac: Lessons from 300 East Main Street

Rising in the heart of downtown Carrboro is a development, located at 300 E. Main St., likely to define the town for generations to come.

Rising in the heart of downtown Carrboro is a development, located at 300 E. Main St., likely to define the town for generations to come.

So far, the developer, Main Street Properties, seems to be getting most things right. I wondered why.

“We didn’t want to change Carrboro,” Laura Van Sant, a partner in Main Street Properties who lives in Carrboro, tells me. “We just wanted to fit in.”

Anchoring the site is the new successful Hampton Inn, with its chic, urban feel both inside and out, yet with extensive touches tying the hotel to Carrboro’s past, including a nod to nearby architecture in the façade and the extensive use of black-and-white photographs within that feature Carrboro. Another nice design feature is the sheltered mid-level, rooftop outdoor swimming pool with its peek-a-boo views of Chapel Hill.

Recently constructed, the hotel from my perspective is hip and local. It’s as if the hotel has been there all along.

That’s the point, Van Sant says.

“We didn’t want to do something that was designed out of context,” she explains. “We didn’t want it to look like it was plopped down.”

The goal was for people to walk by and feel the hotel had always been there. Being a local developer helped.

“It wasn’t like we were coming from out of town,” Van Sant says, “and saying, ‘This is what you need.’”

As for community involvement, Van Sant says Main Street Properties obviously didn’t want the community dictating how the property was developed, but “we didn’t want to surprise anybody. We don’t have all the brilliant ideas or thoughts.”

The current development has been 10 years in the making. There were numerous community studies, numerous community meetings and participation by key Carrboro residents, including Jacques Menache, who used to head the ArtsCenter on site. Also involved were town staff and town politicians. According to the developer, careful looks and careful criticism by others was considered.

The goal was to keep Carrboro compact, making the downtown denser rather than letting development sprawl out or scatter (as Chapel Hill currently seems to be doing).

It was also to develop more slowly, to avoid mistakes by being careful, to shun anything that looked cookie-cutter, to practice development that was interesting, smart and concerned, and to turn to European towns such as those in Italy to see how they achieved and maintained their charm and vibrancy.

In meetings with the Board of Aldermen, the developers described how they hoped to create visual and thematic connections with the Weaver Street lawn, diagonally across Main Street, and within the development, to offer small gathering places where people could socialize rather than just a big interior plaza.

At present, going up near the property’s opposite end is the new headquarters for the athletic running-wear company, Fleet Feet.

Van Sant admits a lot of people at first opposed the five-story building height (about half that of nearby Franklin Street’s newest projects), but Main Street Properties still believes it allows for a human scale. Another goal, she says, is to bring in a mix of tenants, with emphasis on local businesses. This includes retail, restaurant and cultural groups.

What concerns remain seem to revolve around the future of longtime anchor The ArtsCenter, now working with architect Philip Szostak, who designed the Durham Performing Arts Center, on a new building for the site, and on whether the county’s Southern Branch Library moves in to the adjacent Butler property.

As Van Sant explains, “There’s still a lot of moving parts.”

Only time will tell what happens next, but so far so good.

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