Organizers hope small, colorful and inexpensive changes will encourage more people to sit down and enjoy the 140 West Franklin Plaza this weekend.
“You can make a space active by creating certain physical elements that appear to be inviting – shade, tables, comfortable places to sit, greenery, color, free WiFi,” said Meg McGurk, Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership executive director.
The experiment – CHDP’s partnership with the town and former UNC graduate student Mia Candy – has a goal of generating more activity in the 26,000 square-foot plaza. Volunteers will collect data and talk with the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30 through Sunday, Oct. 2.
The town is asking folks who participate to tweet their comments using the hashtag #chapelhillplaces.
The results will be plugged into the town’s Downtown 2020 strategic plan to address a community desire for more public gathering spaces, said Rae Buckley, assistant to the town manager for organizational and strategic initiatives.
They’re also looking at updates for downtown alleys and how to make “secret” gardens more accessible, including the small park across from McDonald’s at UNC’s 440 W. Franklin St. building.
“140 West was always meant to be a public space, but it’s generally thought of as not usable in that way right now,” Buckley said. “It’s kind of more of an event space as opposed to a public gathering space. I think this is a different way of having a conversation about the choices we want to make for that plaza.”
While town-sponsored events can draw a crowd, McGurk said, the plaza doesn’t get much daily use. A $200,000 contribution that Ram Development Co. paid the town to help with those special events will run out next year.
140 West was always meant to be a public space, but it’s generally thought of as not usable in that way right now.
Rae Buckley, assistant to town manager
Candy’s three-person group of graduate students studied the plaza last year to see how its design influences public behavior.
They found it’s a cut-through for most people, she said; others stopped to wait for friends or use their cell phones. The permanent benches around the plaza “are pretty uncomfortable and no one wants to sit there for any length of time,” she said. It was busier in the evening, likely because there’s no daytime shade.
She noted that their survey found the steel sculpture “Exhale” by artist Mikyoung Kim is controversial. “Some people love it, some people hate it, some people want it removed and some think it’s great,” she said.
“The main takeaway that’s informing the work we’re doing now is (that) the space doesn’t function as a destination,” she said. “There was nothing in the space that really encourages people to come there and stay there for an extended period of time.”
Several new features will be added the 140 West Franklin plaza this weekend:
▪ Colorful chairs, tables and umbrellas
▪ Shaded DIY benches using concrete blocks and boards
▪ Adding “grass” to the center of the plaza, and plants and flowers along the edges
▪ Internet access and charging stations
▪ Signs noting the space is public and where to find restaurants and shops
▪ Food carts that complement existing 140 West businesses