Orange County

UNC has a vision for its Franklin Street buildings. Will public be able to change it?

UNC will give the public a say — but no promises — as it plans for the future of its East Franklin Street properties and tenants, including Carolina Coffee Shop and Johnny T-Shirt.

Despite a campus master plan that envisions replacing the buildings, nothing is final yet, Gordon Merklein, UNC’s associate vice chancellor of University Real Estate Operations, told the Chapel Hill Town Council on Wednesday night.

The planning process will consider the buildings’ historic context, including facades or other features that could be saved, he said, in response to a question from council member Nancy Oates.

“I wanted you to say that you were going to preserve (the buildings),” Oates said. “But it sounds like that’s not what you’re saying.”

The university is “very committed to looking at that and very committed to preserving the scale,” Merklein responded. “But I don’t think anyone could stand in front of you and promise something, because until you start looking at the buildings themselves, you really don’t know what the structural integrity is.”

Franklin Street character

When news about master plan broke in July, Chapel Hill residents, students and alumni decried the potential loss of longtime tenants, including the coffee shop, which will celebrate 100 years on Franklin Street in 2022. Some also worried about losing the classic, two-story Franklin Street character of the buildings.

The planning process will be similar to what the university did when it replaced the aging University Square shopping center on West Franklin Street with the Carolina Square mixed-use development, Merklein said. It will start with hiring an architect this fall.

Community workshops, which could take four to six months, will focus on what uses the public and UNC want to see there, Merklein said. The workshops also will consider urban density, pedestrian access, historic preservation, building scale, design and other issues.

“We want to have them with groups that are unique to downtown, so landowners, merchants, users of downtown,” Merklein said. “We would like to have one with the various boards and commissions for the town ... to also receive their input, and then obviously, just the general public, as well.”

The information will help develop concept plans, and UNC will choose which to move forward, he said. Any plans also would be submitted to the town, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

UNC has identified the area as a good future location for its undergraduate admissions office and its visitors center, which will be moving to 134 E. Franklin St. later this fall.

Those uses could draw at least 55,000 UNC visitors and families downtown, Merklein has said. He emphasized Wednesday that UNC is “very committed to retail” and the commercialization of Franklin Street.

Visitors, students and retail

The master plan suggests demolishing the strip of three buildings housing Johnny T-Shirt and Cosmic Cantina to the Bank of America ATM near University United Methodist Church. It also recommends replacing the Porthole Building behind them, which houses Carolina Performing Arts.

The buildings surround Porthole Alley, a busy gateway to campus named for a popular restaurant in the Porthole Building from 1942 to 1985. However, they are not part of the town’s Franklin-Rosemary Historic District or the Chapel Hill National Register Historic District. Both lie north and east of East Franklin and Henderson streets.

The plan suggests UNC’s new buildings could be four and five stories tall, offering 190,000 square feet of office and commercial space.

The university, the state and Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings Inc., a not-for-profit corporation founded by the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation, own the buildings. REH also owns Carolina Square at 123 W. Franklin St. and pays property taxes on all its buildings.

Hemminger has said REH will continue to pay property taxes if its buildings are redeveloped.

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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.