Chapel Hill: Opinion

Brian Wittmayer: Protect downtown Chapel Hill by making it the priority

Traffic passes by the 140 West Franklin development in downtown Chapel Hill.
Traffic passes by the 140 West Franklin development in downtown Chapel Hill.

One of the Chapel Hill Town Council’s recent goals has been to “Champion Downtown” – the heart of our community.

Downtown is one of our town’s unique places along with the university campus. It is a distinctive attraction for locals and visitors. Although downtown is currently a charming destination, we need to do more to ensure its continued vitality. It also represents our best opportunity to create a truly vibrant, walkable, connected, and sustainable place anywhere in town.

Based upon recently and soon-to-be approved development proposals, we may soon have competing “mini-downtowns” to the Northwest, Northeast, East, and South of our real downtown. These new destinations will be more convenient to get to, provide accessible free parking, and have plenty of living, working, shopping, and dining options. With this new reality upon us, it is absolutely critical that we focus on addressing the challenges downtown faces so we can cultivate its vitality and unique characteristics.

I learned at a recent Friends of Downtown event that two of the best ways we can support local businesses downtown are parking improvements and better marketing. I’d like to expand on these two ideas from Robert Poitras, the owner of Carolina Brewery, and present the following ideas to truly plan for a successful downtown

▪ Complete the Downtown Master Plan

A preliminary draft plan was presented in October 2014, but it is incomplete and undergoing further work by town staff. Complete the plan consistent with broad community support and the best practices of town planning and design. Integrate compatible new development with the existing historic fabric. Streamline the development review process for downtown to align with the approved plan.

▪ Provide more reasons for people to be downtown

Infill vacant lots and redevelop underutilized properties into a variety of uses including, residences (for all ages and income levels), hotels (including bed and breakfasts located within an appropriate transition zone between Downtown, the University, and existing neighborhoods), workplaces, shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities. Lead a partnership to realize the Rev. Robert Seymour’s vision of a Chapel Hill civil rights and historical museum.

▪ Make it easier to get downtown

Improve the quantity and user-friendliness of parking options. Consolidate parking in strategically located above-ground garages on the periphery of downtown, and free up smaller surface lots for new uses. Improve accessibility to Franklin Street from parking areas. Provide better pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connectivity between downtown and existing neighborhoods and other major destinations in Town.

▪ Make downtown a nicer and more interesting place to be once you are there

Remake Franklin and Rosemary Streets as tree lined “Complete Streets” with safer travel-ways for pedestrians and bicyclists. Provide better transit options within downtown and linked to the University and Carrboro. Provide more and better public open and natural space. Allow food trucks in designated locations.

▪ Invest wisely

The town’s investment of $8M-plus in the underground parking garage at 140 W Franklin was ill-considered, because of its incredibly high expense and uncertain payback. Its further investments of $10M in the Ephesus-Fordham District for infrastructure and its consideration of another $1M-plus for road improvements to support The Edge development, subsidize the success of these competing developments. Instead, imagine what could be done with this level of commitment and funding for strategic investments Downtown.

If the heart of the community is not beating strongly, we all suffer. Let’s get to work strengthening the vitality of Downtown Chapel Hill for the benefit of the entire community!

Brian Wittmayer is a current member of the town of Chapel Hill’s Planning Commission and former chair of the Sustainability Committee.