Why go to Franklin Street? Chapel Hill talks downtown’s future

A chef, a hotelier, an arts director and a real-estate executive got together Friday morning to talk about what makes a downtown great and how Franklin Street could change to remain vibrant into the future.

Chapel Hill has “been running in the wrong direction for 20 years on what we’re going to do to make this town thrive and survive,” said Andrea Reusing, owner of Lantern restaurant. The town should support diverse and “vibrant, young, new, independent businesses,” not more chain stores and restaurants, she said.

“It’s just not motivating,” Reusing said. “I think we need to look at the writing on the wall and see how could we rebuild this community to be something that is attractive and appealing that lives up to our national reputation.”

Public input will be crucial, said Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. The nonprofit invited Reusing and three others to share their observations for its annual meeting Friday at the Carolina Inn.

Since starting his job in January, Gladdek said he has attended more than 200 meetings to hear what people think about downtown.

“Chapel Hill will always be an important place, and there is incredible opportunity here,” Gladdek said. “There are many people that would love to be on Franklin Street, and we have to make sure that, however we grow, it’s done in a way that keeps Chapel Hill [as] Chapel Hill.”

A report from the International Downtown Association already is informing the conversation, he said. The IDA visited Chapel Hill in August. The IDA team report found Chapel Hill needs “a very broad-based and public inclusive process” to create a unified vision of what downtown needs to be.

A global perspective

Chapel Hill isn’t just a college town, said Jay Patel, president of Wintergreen Hospitality and owner of The Franklin Hotel. It’s also part of a greater Triangle region of large cities, several universities and dynamic companies.

“It creates a base of a population here that is different than a lot of university towns [and] much more of a worldly perspective, a global perspective,” Patel said. “The expectations for everything is really a world-class experience, down to coffee and haircuts.”

Gladdek, in an earlier interview, noted the Triangle’s three main cities each bring strengths that can move the whole region forward.

“The thing that has changed in the Triangle — and the reason I bring up Durham and Raleigh so much — is that we don’t live in a vacuum,” he said. “Anyone that’s moving to this area is looking at three really vital, big metropolitan areas, or big municipalities, and there are many more smaller ones around it.”

The “front porches” that draw people to Chapel Hill are athletics, arts and health care, said Emil Kang, executive director and artistic director at UNC’s Carolina Performing Arts.

“One of things I always talk about that makes this town great is its people,” he said. “ I think the intelligence, the sophistication, the curiosity, the creativity, the ambition, all of those things are what allow people like me to do the work that I do.”

That includes UNC students, who are only around for a short time but are integral to the community, said Gordon Merklein, associate vice chancellor for University Real Estate Operations.

The challenge is to attract students downtown when the campus already offers so much, he said.

“I think we have to take the strengths and the benefits of downtown and go into the middle of campus and pull people back and say, hey, you’re missing this up here,” Merklein said.

False sense of competitiveness

Another challenge, Patel said, is Chapel Hill’s sometimes “false sense of how competitive we are” with downtowns around the country, in part because the town is “progressive relative to the rest of North Carolina.”

Patel said he’s “not buying” the longtime concern that panhandling and homelessness hurt businesses.

Asheville, Merklein said, “has way more homeless people than Chapel Hill does, and yet it’s such a vibrant, lively, magical, funky, cool downtown.”

The panel disagreed about the impact of disinterested property owners. Vacant spaces can take a toll on a community’s morale, Kang said, but they also can spark vibrancy. He noted UNC’s Arts Everywhere initiative, which makes the arts part of campus life.

Kang said and the town have talked about an arts initiative to fill empty storefronts, celebrate local artists and increase foot traffic.

Other suggestions Friday included opening a Chapel Hill Public Library branch downtown and more strongly supporting work, led by library director Susan Brown, to bring arts and activities to bus shelters, storefronts and other places.

Gladdek noted the recent Pop-Up Quilt Show and Sale in the former Ackland Museum Store on East Franklin Street. On Sunday, the Near and Far Cultural Fest will be at the 140 West Plaza on West Franklin Street from 1 to 5 p.m.

Downtown will continue to need strong stores, even with online shopping, and more people living there to support those businesses, said Merklein, who led the Carolina Square mixed-use project on West Franklin Street.

“Retail’s still one of those places you get to have an experience, where you get to go in and you get to talk to the merchant, and the merchant helps you solve your problems,” he said.

Reusing recalled the “awesome, weird experience” of arriving in Chapel Hill to find businesses like Time After Time thrift shop and the Besa Mi Burro restaurant on West Franklin Street.

“It was just all these crazy, awesome businesses that you could just make a day around and really experiencing something you never would experience anywhere else in the world,” she said.

While parking wasn’t mentioned Friday, Gladdek said it continues to be a challenge. He estimated that 30% of the land downtown is set aside for parking, but much of it is confusing and appears uninviting and unsafe. “I think it’s an issue that is a growing pain all across the Triangle,” he said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.