Chapel Hill News

Proposed Carrboro arts center draws pros, cons and Cat's Cradle concerns

Architect Phil Szostak stresses this is just a concept of how the proposed Carrboro Arts & Innovation Center might look.
Architect Phil Szostak stresses this is just a concept of how the proposed Carrboro Arts & Innovation Center might look. PHIL SZOSTAK

A hearing on the proposed Arts and Innovation Center on Tuesday night brought out those for and against the project -- and concern about another venue that's not even in the plan.

The two-and-a-half-hour hearing, which will be continued next month, filled Carrboro Town Hall. The Board of Aldermen also heard from the public through phone calls, email and social media.

Longtime resident Deborah Miller, who works for the N.C. Folklife Institute, wrote the town to say Cat's Cradle "could be forced to relocate, or simply close, which would be a devastating loss to Carrboro and Chapel Hill."

At the hearing, Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin, a former alderman, said he too worries how the proposed Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center (CAIC) might affect the Cradle, which he called "the soul of Carrboro."

Dorosin reminded the aldermen that the developers of the 300 East Main project "used the Cradle to get it approved." Promises were made to offer the Cradle new space at a time when many feared the club might move to Durham.

Efforts to reach Cradle owner Frank Heath for this story, as well as Dorosin, were unsuccessful.

But Friday, Main Street Partners said they have worked with and continue to support the Cradle and that the club, located within their 300 East Main development, is not directly affected by the CAIC planned for the 200 block next door.

"We've made very strong efforts to support the Cradle," said developer Laura Van Zant.

"The Cradle's last lease expired in 1999 and, ever since, Main Street Partners has always asked the Cradle to stay and ... has always given the Cradle greatly discounted rent," the developers explained in a prepared statement.

The statement indicates that two years of designing, planning and negotiating with the Cradle included an offer to create space for the club and rent it at cost or buy it, but the Cradle ultimately elected to stay put.

New hotel planned

The CAIC has been proposed by the ArtsCenter and Kidzu Children's Museum, both of which would relocate into the new $12 million building planned for the parking lot Main Street Partners owns at the corner of East Main and Roberson streets, across from the Armadillo Grill.

The ArtsCenter's current building would be replaced by a new hotel, whose real estate and hotel occupancy taxes would pay for the town's $4.5 million contribution to the project cost, according to the plan.

The town does not yet have the legal authority from the state to levy an occupancy tax, however. That was just one of several financial concerns Alderman Bethany Chaney expressed on her blog.

"In this particular case, ... town government has been asked to entertain and pay for a high-risk plan that it has had no substantive role in designing, and to consider it under some 'urgent' conditions that could set the town up for failure right out of the gate," she wrote. "As some Aldermen have noted, this doesn't feel like partnership. It feels like manipulation."

No formal application for the CAIC has been submitted yet, and the aldermen want to hear from as many people as possible.

In his comments at the hearing, Dorosin suggested the driving force behind the CAIC is not a new arts building but the new hotel, which would be built across from the new Hampton Inn, putting two hotels in downtown Carrboro.

"This isn't about an arts center," he said. "It's about building a hotel."

Main Street Partners addressed the hotel in its statement.

"When MSP was approached last year with the possibility to add a second hotel/retail building at 300 East Main if space were available within a reasonable time, many people quickly suggested that the smaller opportunity of a second hotel could become a much larger opportunity for the community if the new tax money from that second hotel could be used to pay for the public contribution to a new CAIC without raising anyone else's taxes," the statement said.

"If local citizens now decide the CAIC and a second hotel are not things they want in downtown Carrboro, that's a fair decision. The only thing that would have seemed wrong would have been to risk losing these opportunities without giving people a chance to consider them first."

The CAIC building

Architect and Carrboro resident Philip Szostak, whose firm designed the Durham Performing Arts Center, has also designed preliminary sketches of the four-story, 55,000-square-foot CAIC. The sketches are just ideas for how the building might look.

The proposed center would have three performance halls: a 120-seat theater, a 200-seat theater and an amphitheater that could seat 300 to 450 people. The building's concept design is a modern structure with glass outer walls that Szostak says will allow passersby to view, from the street, various activities in progress, similar to DPAC.

The ArtsCenter and Kidzu museum would relocate to the building as their bases of operations. Carolina Performing Arts would use the facility for some performances but is not a financial partner in the project.

The alderman will continue the hearing at 7:30 p.m. Feb 3 at Town Hall, 301 W. Main Street, and the meeting will be live streamed on the town's website (

Carrboro residents are invited to send comments to the aldermen via email at , as well as Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #CAICpubliccomments.