Downtown study input

The Herald Sun reports today that the Town Council will officially hear from it's downtown consultant tonight on their downtown market study. It's not surprising that the consultant advocates a further reliance on retail of home furnishings, movie theaters, etc. But it's disappointing to hear that they feel there is no need for new owner-occupied units downtown and no grocery store.

Unfortunately, despite it's progressive reputation, Chapel Hill is still not the walkable community that Carrboro and even parts of Durham are, partially due to the lack of diverse housing options downtown and the lack of a small grocery within the downtown. I'd be interested in hearing more about why the downtown market study did not feel that condos and a market were feasible, especially considering the successful trend towards this in other towns and cities throughout the country. Meeting = Monday (tonight) at 7pm at the town hall.

Issues: 

Total votes: 202

Comments

Don't forget that it matters whether the space is useable by those who are intended to use it -- which I mentioned before. I'm mostly in agreement with you, although I'm not sure what we can do about greed. I just didn't think that VisArt's closing proved that building more commercial space was a bad thing.

The tax rate is high, relative to the rest of the Triangle. But I think that's a place where greed kicks in, since the assessed valuations of downtown properties are extraordinarily low compared to their fair market values, and there's no law saying property owners _have_ to pass on the entire tax burden to their tenants, especially when a lot of them have paid off their notes. (The Kuralt Building, which you mentioned earlier in talking about Sephora, is assessed at $712,794. It recently sold -- this month -- and I haven't had a chance to check the tax stamp. But I'd guess it was sold for considerably more than $712,794. Anyone going up to the Register of Deeds? Look up book/page 3359/576 (Deed of trust) and 3359/573 (Deed), which were all recorded March 5.)

For comparison's sake, the yearly tax bill for the Kuralt Building was about $11,600. In Durham and Raleigh (assuming those counties assessed property value the same way), the tax bill would be $9,260 and $7,630, respectively.

On parking and foot traffic, we'll have to agree to disagree.

Supply and demand is one of several subtheories in microeconomics. As with other theories, it is a ideal model. It works only when there are not intervening variables--such as greed, high tax rates, low foot traffic, lack of parking, etc. I'm not totally rejecting the theory that new construction (additional supply) will lower rents, just your implied belief that supply and demand is always descriptive/applicable.

Too bad about Visart closing.. I get annoyed at articles like that when the writer leaves out basic facts, like how much rent Visart is paying now. How does it compare to the Carrboro location and other similar Franklin Street retail spaces? Is that information secret? If downtown landlords are charging exorbitant amounts, shouldn't we be able to name names?

What's the point of the downtown commission and converting the parking lots Duncan? As I understand it, there's a desire to make downtown Chapel Hill more shoppable (generate new revenues). Yet, as the VisArt example, once again illustrates, there are factors working against that goal that new construction will not address. Robert Florida advocates for livable downtowns in support of a creative class. What will make Chapel Hill more livable? Raising the rents so that small, local businesses (entrepreneurs) such as VisArt can't afford to stay in business? Bringing in a national chain because they can afford higher rents?Sephora proved that isn't necessarily true.

The market study has offered several solutions, but so far I haven't seen any comprehensive data addressing the underlying systemic reasons why Chapel Hill doesn't have a more dynamic, livable downtown. Inc and Robert Florida, as well as Ingrid's examples argue (IMHO) for further research (including citizen input) before jumping into the solution's offered in the current report.

Terri, as usual the voice of reason! I really appreciate your thoughtful dialogue.

I believe you have me mixed up with some other Duncan. This Duncan has already made his displeasure with downtown rents public:

http://www.orangepolitics.org/archives/000201.html

Having said that, let me just point out that the VisArt example does not at all illustrate that "there are factors workiing against that goal that new construction will not address." Rents go up when there is less space available, not when there's more. At the risk of sounding like a running dog capitalist, the solution to the problem of high rents would be to create competition and turn the market for commercial space into a buyer's market. One way to do that would be to construct more commercial space downtown. I'm not disputing your other points (yet), just the microeconomics of your first one.

On the other points, I think we can all agree that more citizen input would be good. But let's not get too exercised about the downtown studies (there have been more than one) and their proffered solutions. Nobody has suggested adopting them without modification, and my personal feeling about members of the council is that close to a majority of them are very wary of the very thing you're wary of: trying to turn downtown into an upscale, national-chain anchored shopping mall. So you've got a lot of the Council on your side. Nobody's "jumping into the solutions offered in the current report."

(Betty Kenan _does_ seem interested in that kind of development, but I think we can all discount her theories about downtown development since she owns the single worst designed commercial space in all of downtown Chapel Hill -- University Square. Here we have a building that has erected the barriers of a wall, a screen of trees, and a parking lot between itself and Chapel Hill's one true advantage as a retail center -- foot traffic -- while sticking half of its businesses on the other side of the building, out of sight. Brilliant. Now she's keeping stores empty while desperately trying to go upscale. Rumor has it that she's tried to boot Time-Out, but that Mr. Kenan liked the proprietor so much, he gave him a great lease that is now thwarting Mrs. Kenan's plans. Good, I say.)

You ask, "what is the purpose of converting the parking lots?" Creating a town center and gathering space has been one suggestion. Creating more commercial, office, and even residential space -- thus increasing the number of people who come downtown to shop, work and live -- is another. You could argue that, purely from the point of view of proper stewardship of public assets, that those parking lots are not the highest and best use for those spaces, and that the town could get more revenue from them if they were used a different way. Finally, some have argued that the great gaps in the store frontage between East and West is a problem. (I'm not really on board with this last point -- West Franklin might be cut off from the amusement park that is the 100 block, but it's also the place where small, quirky local businesses seem to have had the most success. Maybe linking the two isn't such a great idea.) Anyway, those are some of the reasons I've heard.

Oh yeah -- increasing commercial capacity might create competition for tenants and drive down rents, depending on the kind of space that's created, and how well those spaces meet the needs of small businesses.

You raise a good question about the "downtown commission," by which I think you meant the non-profit economic development corporation that they're trying to establish. I think the success of such entities have been mixed in other communities, and I'd like to see more discussion about that concept.

I'm sure we can agree that Raleigh-Durham isn't a city at all, and that the three points in the Triangle all have their own unique characteristics. Leaving that aside, the idea that thriving communities are "predominantly suburban" is a statement of fact, not causation. Things like affordability, cost of living, good education systems, quality of life, and business costs are more likely to "cause" entrepreneurship -- or, at least, create the conditions. Richard Florida thinks the presence of a "creative class" is another causative factor, and although I'm a little skeptical of his theories, he ranks our area in the top 5 nationwide.

I think it's possible to create the right conditions without relying on suburbanism and exurbanism.

Anyway, rankings are for the intellectually lazy and worthless, if you want my opinion.

Also, let's quote the whole blurb on our area from Inc. magazine, if we're going to quote it at all:

"Raleigh-Durham's overconcentration on tech is a problem, but the basic cost structure is still not impossible. Bet on a better showing from the Carolina region within a year or two."

Maybe UNC could be convinced to open Hill Hall and Morehead lots to free parking after 5:00 (like they were for about the last billion years). These lots are heavily under-utilized after hours due to the excessive parking fees UNC is levying.

Also, maybe we should take a note from Raleigh and look at opening up private lots after hours and maybe open up the towns Rosemary lots for free parking after hours.

Rickie,

I hope this isn't off-topic, but it deals with downtown and its unfortunate: http://www.dailytarheel.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/03/24/406190debf10e

-Nick

Someone please correct me, but isn't the idea of underground parking at lots 2 and 5 (under whatever gets built in those places) still in play? If so, Convenience might feel a lot better.

Some nice downtowns in the state--it might be interesting to look at these and see if there are any ideas for us

Brevard, NC

Davidson, NC

Asheville, NC

Highlands and Cashiers, NC

"More than three-quarters of all new jobs are created by small business, according to the Small Business Administration, so a region showing strong job growth is in all likelihood a hotbed of entrepreneurship. The impact on business of a city's educational and training systems, housing and living costs, taxes, regulatory burdens, and quality of life--factors commonly measured by other "hot lists" to identify strong economies--are all ultimately reflected by job growth."

"So what kind of places are working best in George Bush's America? They are predominantly suburban and, perhaps most importantly, relatively affordable, particularly in terms of housing prices, cost of living, and business costs. These are places, notes Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, where younger families, including many well-educated people as well as upwardly mobile immigrants and even singles, are now migrating in large numbers."

http://www.inc.com/magazine/20040301/top25.html (Top 25 Cities for Doing Business in America)

Raleigh-Durham is the only NC city (of any size) listed in these rankings--and it's listed as among the worst cities in the country (to do business) due to over concentration on technology jobs.

Thanks for the info Ginny. One more question. Isn't a market analysis something like a needs assessment where the goal is discovery? Something you said and the impression I get from reading the market analysis is that this was more of a verification process rather than discovery.

I'd like to hear more about that sensitive topic 'parking'.

You don't have to have had too much experience with retail business to understand the critical importance to your success of providing ample, convenient parking.

These two lots represent a little over 10% of current available parking downtown. I have yet to meet a current or former merchant downtown who does not put the current lack of parking right up at the top of the list of issues keeping their businesses less competitive than the (relatively) recent commercial developments surrounding our area now.

Did this market analysis specifically look at how parking options downtown will affect the viability of businesses going into newly developed space? Has any retail expert specifically done a parking needs assessment for downtown businesses in the current competitive environment?

I know this issue gets all wrapped up in mass transportation goals' issues.But developing these lots not only will reduce what many say is already inadequate parking but add to the need for more. Combine that with the hundreds (or more) people who will be traveling downtown at night (when our mass options dwindle) for the many revamped Arts Commons venues over the next few years and I think we have a real problem here.

Perhaps, as someone above said, one of the lots should be developed as a parking deck and the other for multi-use. These decks ought to pay for themselves, if done right. Then we could fill in the gap on Franklin Street and help all the businesses there be more viable. We'd also help the community by enticing more folks to make the short drive downtown rather than a longer one for what is at least perceived as more convenience on the fringes of town.

Dude, stay on topic!

R

Sorry about that - I thought Ginny was weaving the topics together.

Weave all you want, but maybe Ginny could answer Will's question on the other thread... http://www.orangepolitics.org/archives/000150.html

Ginny, are you willing to be registered as a lobbyist? Would you be willing to report any 'business' contacts you had with town staff or council members? Do you think reporting these contacts once a month is too much of a burden?

I don't think lobbying is evil, I just think open and free governance demands some level of transparency. Would noting your 'back-channel' communications with staff and council members really be too onerous in pursuit of that goal?

I just took the time to begin reading the market report and have a couple of questions for those of you who have been watching/participating in this revitalization process. Why is the town trying to convert two profitable parking lots into new construction instead of working with existing building owners? Does the town become the landlord for those new constructions (thus generating additional town revenues)?

This report seems to be coming from a very traditional commercial perspective rather than an understanding of how a small(?) college town can 1) fulfill the needs of local residents for daily living services and 2) create a shared space that draws in all members (students, university faculty & staff, and other low income citizens) of the existing community rather than attracting higher wealth individuals from outside the community. I understand that the business owners in downtown must make money to stay here. But doesn't a report contracted for by the Town Council need to look at what our local people need/want in addition to what might compete with the higher-end malls? Isn't the purpose of our downtown to support the needs of its residents rather than to just make money for business owners? I understand the ideal of matching those two needs, but I don't see this report bringing the two poles together.

Is it even feasible to try and compete with the malls? Their attraction is in the convenience of QUANTITY in a single location, while a small area such as downtown Chapel Hill can't possibly compete on the basis of QUANTITY. So why aren't our consultants recommending a new/improved niche instead of more of the same old, same old? I'm disappointed in how un-creative this report is. Wish I could have attended last night's hearing—sorry to hear, from Ruby's report, that more town residents didn't show up to speak.

I've been following this issue as one of the evil hordes of lobbyists in town (heavy, heavy sarcasm here). I can try to answer some of the questions, at least from my perspective.

I think the Town Council has focused on developing these two lots because it is something under their control, unlike the private properties in downtown. They've worked a little bit with existing building owners, but just like it would be hard for the town to come in and tell everyone on your street to rebuild their houses into Colonial Revival style just because they like it, it's hard for the town to do more than "suggest" to property owners what they do with their own property downtown, so long as what they are doing doesn't interfere with the public health, safety and welfare. In my opinion, the town is doing the right thing by taking ownership for how these lots fit in to the dynamic of downtown.

The town intends to keep the ownership of these two lots and the consultant, Stainback, has been brought in b/c his specialty is public-private partnerships for development. The town doesn't have the money, resources or staff time to do any more with these lots than what is being done with them right now. It's going to take working with a private developer to come up with the financing and know-how to build any project there. I'm not sure of the revenue impacts of keeping the lots publicly owned or how it would affect the property tax status of any businesses that would be located there.

I think the important thing to remember is how small the scope of this particular study truly is. It's a "market analysis report." From what I understand, private developers do these to build the funding case for their projects, to show potential financing agencies that they have "market demand" for whatever they plan to build. The town is doing it so that when it puts out a request for proposals (RFP) for their private partner, the town can show that what it's thinking of is feasible.

The consultant has said all along that if the town wants a transfer center, wants a plaza, wants subsidized space for artists, that's fine. They just have to figure out a way to pay for it. And Chapel Hill has traditionally found a way to pay for the things it wants, so I don't think that's going to be a problem. It's just a matter of setting out the priorities for what we expect these two relatively small (in the context of the entire downtown) spaces to accomplish.

Also, Ruby, I don't think any of the Council members are abandoning the design charrette ideas. They said at the Parking Lots 2 and 5 Council Committee work session (which 6 of the 9 attended from 4-6p just before the public forum, in case you were wondering why they didn't talk much at the regular meeting) that they wanted to revisit the concepts people came up with at the charrette.

And I don't think anybody has any illusions that we can compete with malls on quantity. The report says that Southpoint has 1.3 MILLION square feet of space. There's just no way we can get that downtown, nor would we want to. I think the report did a good job of highlighting what is possible and feasible based on historical trends (an important point), and now it's up to the town to figure out what the future might be and what the priorities for development on these lots should be.

The next meeting of the Parking Lots 2 and 5 Council Committee is either 4-6pm or 5-6pm, Wednesday, April 14, at Town Hall. It should be publicly noticed on the calendar of meetings on the town web site.

Whoops, just remembered that Wicked Burrito was a former gas station, Fowler's was just in that same shoppig nook. There goes my query, sorry.

-Nick

What a great way to revitalize downtown: get people there easily and not have to worry so much about parking. A downtown transfer station, made attractive and containing the "bookstore" and "coffeeshop" and artwork, would be an avenue to draw more consumers downtown. More consumers downtown mean more income for local businesses currently existing, and would help attract new businesses. Increased bus service downtown on evenings and weekends would be a plus along with the transfer station. Not only would people use CHTransit more and get used to the idea of taking a bus generally, but our streets may be safer after people wine and dine in restaurants and then try to drive home!

The Harris Teeter and Weaver Street are both heavily used businesses in a downtown location, and when I left town in 1990, Fowlers seemed pretty busy. Profitability is a concern of the business owner and is affected by the owner's business acumen and expenses (rental rates, taxes, trash services, etc.). My concern with the current process is that the town is looking for businesses that bump up tax revenues, look hip (per CH News article on Sunday), or some other criteria besides creating a sustainable living environment in downtown.

"We need grocery stores downtown" - I agree with Mike's point on this one, especially since the downtown population has gotten more dense over the last ten or so years (Chancellor's Square, the Warehouse, hopefully the Northside NCD will work and we'll see more families settling in). Melanie, you're right about the old A&P, that place was so filthy I didn't trust even the canned goods, and it got no better during the year or so that it was "Meats and Treats." I think that location, though, was really only good to attract the foot traffic from people using the laundromat - and then just for the beer ('cause it was effin' dirty in there). If they do redevelop one of the lots, specifically 5, and use a grocery store for the centerpiece, I think a lot of people would use it. After all, it works great in Carrboro, we might as well steal our ideas from them since our great sister city has proved to be more "hip." See: http://www.chapelhillnews.com/opinion/story/1076331p-7145859c.html BTW - Was Fowler's really unsuccessful? They seemed to be okay as I can (barely) remember. Does anyone know if maybe the Wicked Burrito guys just cut them a super-sweet deal to move in years ago?

"We have enough cinemas" - Maybe it's just me, but after having gone to many movie theater's elsewhere that combine lounge settings, pizza, movie screens, and beer, I always thought the Ram Triple's space would be great for this type of theater. I know we've got the market for it, but alas, it's now a ghosttown of an ill-conceived nightclub. Yeah, two art house theaters are good for downtown, but more poeple flock to see the high-budget Hollywood schlock than they do "Triplets of Belleville" or "City of God," so a downtown theater with mainstream fare can keep folks from leaving for the Lumina, Wynnsong, or South Point.

"A transit hub would be a great addition and could be quite attractive" - Cool. Also, if one lot remains undeveloped, can it be turned into a deck? Can the town partner with UNC to turn the two Rosemary lots into a deck or two? I know, I know, we all want to see less auto-reliance and less pollution, but if it means no one will come downtown if they can't drive, then a trade-off must be made. (Let's just push federal legislators into enforcing strict fuel-efficiency and emissions standards and pray for more hybrid automobiles) The town did a great job designing the new Rosemary deck, it fits in pretty seamlessly with the surrounding buildings, hell it's prettier than some of them, and, I think anyway, adds a nice bit of aesthetic value to the roadway. I think decks would fit in better with the building motif near downtown, the lots just look like craters, and maybe they can serve some mixed-purpose like Rosemary tries to do (anyone got thoughts on why NO ONE uses the amphitheatre above that deck).

"If you want arts downtown you have to subsidize, they can't afford downtown rents" — Who does the town hire and how much do they pay for the murals? We've got tons of art majors plugging away right there on Columbia Street everyday, how expensive would it be for the town to let some students use our walls as a canvas for a class project or resume booster? Students come cheap, and I'm sure they'd love to do a project like this for next to nothing to help gain entree into the commercial art world after graduation. Downtown rents are too expensive, period. Duncan already made this abundantly clear last week while he was moderating the site.

"We do want public common space, maybe indoors" - Indoors? How - and what will this look like? Sounds like they want a food court a la Every Mall USA. At least, that's all I can come up with.

Sorry I went so long, I had a pretty thick $.02 to spread.

Nick

Ruby,

Although these market studies are insightful, I agree that there is no denying the need for a downtown grocery store. As someone who lives downtown, I am ashamed to leave downtown to buy groceries. The grocery stores form a circle almost around downtown, and I think this indicates the biggest need for a grocery store is downtown. We haven't had an adequate place downtown so grocery stores popped up on all sides as close as they could get. We've got that opportunity now though, and I hope we take it.

If Fowlers and the AP had been reasonably profitable, they would STILL BE THERE. Well, maybe not the AP. It was NASTY...but definitely Fowlers. Those grocery stores left because they weren't generating enough revenue. Successful businesses don't go elsewhere...they leave for a REASON.

Perhaps there ARE enough people living downtown (now) to suppport a grocery store--but I'm skeptical. Unfortunately, the marketplace deals in reality, not "wouldn't it be nice."

Melanie

I'm watching the hearing now, and a lot of citizens are asking why mess with a good thing?

Seriously, we have one of the best downtowns (for a town our size) in the state if not the region. I don't think we should change the general directions we're going in. Although we have some great opportunities to do some innonative things with our municipal parking lots. For some ideas check out this amazing project the town did a few years ago: http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/planning/workshop/workshop.html (Why does it feel like the Town is already abandoning the good ideas invested in these concepts?)

The big challenge is that by it's very nature, the downtown is a compact area without huge parking lots and sprawl-style convenience. The town was built before we all believed cars were the key to happiness. This is a good thing. This is what makes it work. But this does put a lot of pressure on the transportation issues, which leads most people to ask for more parking. This isn't unreasonable, but we need to also think about serious support for transit downtown. Please let's don't make downtown into a mall!

A few other comments I heard from citizens:

- we need grocery stores downtown

- we have enough cinemas

- a transit hub would be a great addition and could be quite attractive

- if you want arts downtown you have to subsidize, they can't afford downtown rents

- we don't need another Weaver Street Market, but we do want public common space, maybe indoors

Most of the speakers represented typical downtown shoppers and business owners. As Terri pointed out previously, downtown RESIDENTS are conspicuously absent from this conversation. This concerns me.

"After crunching numbers and interviewing local leaders and businesspeople"--appears the people who would shop/live downtown don't have much input into the decision.

I'd have to agree, Terri. I haven't followed this process very closely, but as a downtown resident (and homewoner) I dont' recall being invited to comment in development of this study. And I am a huge booster of downtown life. I think the I'm kind of person they want to attract to downtown (but less affluent, probably).

A few years ago, I did participate in a citizen "charrette" (community design brainstorm) for the downtown parking lots. I'm not sure if the consultant built on those recommendations or started from scratch.

In case folks are interested, here are some useful links for tonight's Council meeting:

- It happens to be a packed agenda. http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/ca040322/AgendaFaceSheet.htm

- In addition to the report on what do with downtown parking lots 2 & 5, http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/ca040322/2.1%20market%20analysis%20report%20public%20forum.htm

- The Council will also review the Horace Williams Commitee Report, http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/ca040322/7a-Principles%20Goals%20Strategies%20Horace%20Williams3.22.04.htm

- Discuss OI-4, http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/ca040322/13-Possible%20OI-4%20Changes.htm

- And take up three petitions by Councilmember Kleinschmidt. http://www.orangepolitics.org/archives/000205.html

 

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