Chapel Hill: Opinion

Art Menius: ‘A Desolate Place’

Site of the current Spotted Dog restaurant between Main and Weaver streets in Carrboro.
Site of the current Spotted Dog restaurant between Main and Weaver streets in Carrboro. Courtesy of Art Menius

The caption of a 1940 Farm Security Administration photo of today’s Spotted Dog building, bisecting East Main and Weaver streets, reads “Carrboro is a desolate place since the mill shut down.”

That reminded me that just as Chapel Hill was a company town for the University, so was Carrboro for the Alberta Mills. Changing circumstances forced both communities to seek new identities.

Thinking about this forced me to write two things that some people may not want to read.

First, throughout changing times, Carrboro and Chapel Hill are two separate, easily distinguished towns.

Second, to build a future Carrboro that preserves its creative economy and maintains its middle class, Carrboro must adopt Robert Moses means to achieve Jane Jacobs ends. Moses was the mid-20th century public works czar of New York City who met his Waterloo in the form of community activist Jacobs.

Carrboro meandered as a bedroom community before hitting its stride as a hub of the arts, creativity, and community in the 1980s. That stride became a tide that made Carrboro the envy of many. While its population increased fourfold over as many decades, its downtown became a model of walkability featuring locally owned businesses; a small town feel with a welcome, tolerant spirit, and liberal politics that contrast greatly with its history. The mill town west of Greensboro Street and north of Weaver became one of the most desirable historic neighborhoods in the Triangle.

Succeeding as a town that believes in the small shops and the arts as economic driver, Carrboro has to confront a serious downside – gentrification.

Uncritical preservationism is the handmaiden of gentrification, just as uncontrolled growth destroys community. Carrboro has become one of the most expensive, densely settled places in the state. With inventory restricted by height limits and much of the rental property seized by transient students, permanent residency has grown limited to only the least and most affluent, just as Jay Wright Forrester predicted.

Before it becomes too late, Carrboro can apply its amazing brainpower and good intentions to change course. In so doing, Carrboro would become a model for preserving the middle class and locally owned businesses. That requires thinking not about fixing a problem, but in imagining the future Carrboro and then take steps that build that place.

As Canadian planning guru Bob Lehman writes “planning by the people is the future.” This process requires many voices and forces confrontation of some hard realities. Carrboro too often becomes where businesses like Strata Solar start, then leave. Even renowned institutions like Cat’s Cradle find market rate rentals in its hometown prohibitive. Development to the north and south has stretched the town away from its heartbeat and crown jewel of a walkable, authentic downtown.

Carrboro will have to use all the tools at its disposal, knowing that supply alone will not address the problem. A pure supply-side approach would only produce more housing for students and the rich. Instead, the town, nonprofits, for-profits, and Fourth Sector businesses could collaborate within a public policy framework to create the needed facilities and infrastructure. Developers could be convinced by advantageous tax incentives and funding from social impact bonds, local banks, and the revolving loan pool to accept rent controls that ensure affordable housing and small business space.

Businesses and residences could further benefit from a geothermal District Heating System providing inexpensive, earth-friendly heating. A sustainable Carrboro needs genuinely local banks, prompted into existence by public policy. Joining them could be a social enterprise lending pool and a local stock exchange, facilitating local investing. The local business base and currency keeps a high percentage of local money multiplying in the community.

Intelligent development preserving the character of Carrboro’s historical and natural features requires a new way of approaching zoning that encourages multi-use and diverse neighborhoods rather than rigid use-based divisions. A one-size-fits-all limit on building height is not smart. In the mill town or 100 block of East Main two stories fits best. In Rogers-Triem hollow ten stories might not be out of scale. In the 200-300 block of East Main five floors could be the limit along the street and seven set further back.

Affordable middle class housing has to be equal to the other housing rather than merely resembling neighboring houses or being in the same complex. In order to ensure ample affordable space for the middle class, Carrboro would need its own affordability index with the percentage of median income qualifying for such housing regularly adjusted to fit changing conditions. Tiny houses infill within historically residential areas could also increase single-family housing and ensure affordability using scope and scale.

While sketching concepts proves easy, working the process will be hard. Avoiding that work, however, will send Carrboro down the path to being just another Cary.

You can reach Art Menius at