Dear Chapel Hill,
Let me get straight to the point. I believe there should be a park downtown, situated at Parking Lot 2 on the corner of Rosemary and Columbia streets.
I didn’t reach this conclusion willy-nilly, having had dozens of conversations about it for the past several months – some pro, some con. It’s not easy to put all that feedback in one, neat newspaper column, but here’s a sketch.
Last month, this column recalled former Mayor Jon Howes leading his planning classes on tours of downtown. I was in one of those classes and when we got to Lot 2, the professor/mayor told us to behold one of the most underutilized corners in the state. He urged us to consider what to do with it. Lot 2 was then and is now, a surface parking lot, one acre in size, following a gentle grade downhill.
Howes’ charge, to figure out what to do with Lot 2, has bugged me for about 25 years. I used to look out at it from the Hardback Cafe and the copy shop where I worked across the street and wonder what would happen.
Other people have, too. Over the years, there have been a handful of plans for the space. None got very far. Now that the economy is moving and downtown seeing a procession of changes, it is much more likely that something will happen at Lot 2.
I believe that something should be a park. Not some bricked alcove, but a real one.
A park where people can just be. A welcoming place. A place with grass and plants and trees and life. Where a kid can fall down and not get hurt. Where people can meet up. Where you can watch the sunset, and listen to the fountain or just eat lunch in peace. A public space with a lot of elbow room and places for people to rub elbows. A neighborhood park for the people who want to live downtown. A gathering place in the heart of our town for everyone, always.
It’s a big step, but it’s time to deal with it. Lot 2 represents the last major public space downtown where something on a large scale can happen. The positives are obvious.
The space is more than twice as big as the Weaver Street lawn in Carrboro. It already has a few significant trees. The grade affords an entryway off the Columbia Street sidewalk and a redesign of that area has the prospect for improving traffic flow through a better transit area with bus pull-offs.
The costs of the project both in development and parking loss are significant, but not insurmountable barriers.
The lower level of the lot, for instance, could be converted into efficient, decked parking without a net loss of spaces. There may be room for additional commercial or institutional areas, as well.
As we head into election season we’ll hear more conversations about downtown, its challenges and what it needs. Just about everyone who has run for town office for the last 30 years has done that. Our downtown is the genesis of the spirit of Chapel Hill. We haven’t that lost that spirit, but I fear that without reviving our center – our heart, our downtown – we risk becoming another collection of neighborhoods assembled under a nice brand.
We’re all looking for that missing piece of the puzzle that makes downtown complete. A new park, a real one, I think, is that missing piece. There are park lands and green spaces all over this town, just not where it all began.
Let’s change that.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at email@example.com