Here’s a tale of two towns: Carrboro for the moment getting many things right, Chapel Hill for now getting almost everything wrong.
Years ago, a prominent television newscaster, who at one point had attended our university, chastised me for getting his address in the Washington, D.C., area wrong. He felt I was referring to his home in a Virginia suburb as someplace as déclassé as the former mill village of Carrboro, rather than the more established, upscale Chapel Hill. He might think differently today.
For reasons still murky, both our towns appear to feel the need to revision themselves. There are many young people, living here for something like a nanosecond in Southern terms, who want us to think and act like a big city. Numerous developers, many from out-of-state with no real long-term investment here, continue to see empty space and construction dollars rather than the trees and breathing room we currently have.
It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and “so-called progress” needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track.
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You only have to ride around our two towns, by car or bike (or walk if you’re so inclined, or take the bus), and you’ll see the differences between development done right and development gone astray.
Despite reservations about its size and location, Carrboro’s new Hampton Inn blends in with its surroundings, recalling for me those classic hotels in Philadelphia near Walnut Street and other venerable addresses. The hotel’s interior is so tastefully done with such a Carrboro feel it’s a delight, without ever abandoning this new chic urban quality. The parking deck is a boon to downtown and the retail space on the first floor has already been occupied by two homegrown businesses from Chapel Hill: Cameron’s Craft Gallery and Womancraft. The hotel also to date has presented few traffic problems, which was a concern at the outset.
Next consider Carrboro’s new PTA Thrift shop. You may find yourself with a smile on your face given the playful use of materials, including the crayon-like sign. It’s one of our more innovative, recent building projects, true again to “the feel” of this place.
Cross over, though, into Chapel Hill and you’ll find a new aesthetic, a tribute to “The Box,” as I call it: One box on top of another box, atop another box, all adding up to one big box. Yet, oddly, we don’t want any “big-box” stores here, although those boxes are only boxes set on their sides rather than up vertically.
Moreover, the retails stores occupying the first floor of 140 Franklin Street appear to be mostly chain operations, nothing unique. It’s best not to talk about the plaza’s steel sculpture, which kids aren’t supposed to climb, tempting but forbidden.
Chapel Hill has plans for even more boxes, higher rather than lower of course, all the way from University Mall to Ram’s Plaza along Fordham Boulevard.
Ask yourself: What’s unique and charming about that?
There’s the tale of our two towns: One with character, the other not so much.