Change is afoot downtown

On a recent walk to the Post Office I noticed quite a lot of changes in retail storefronts downtown. In the former Strong's/Roastery/Judge's Coffee space (which I remember as Barrel of Fun arcade when I was a kid, and maybe a laundromat before that) something called "Jack Spratt" is hapenning. Anyone know anything about that? Also on the 100 block of East Franklin is "Polo," the new Ralph Lauren store. Just what we need now that the Gap is gone (joke!). Nothing seems to be happening in the Gap space, which used to be a movie theatre when I was little.

Walk across Columbia Street and there is a "Qdoba" coming to the space where the ghost of Copytron is apparently cursing the series of restaurants and bars trying to locate there. (I think this was a christian bookstore in the 70's.) Two more blocks west the new "Aveda" salon is being constructed in the old "23" space. I didn't shed any tears when Michael Jordan's restaurant closed down (their website says they are closed for renovations - boy are they going to be surprised). Aveda is an international company, but it might add something new to downtown.

Less than a block west stands the Wicked Burrito. That eyesore has stood vacant for several years - even as new businesses have opened on almost every side of it. Why is this space not swept up in the change we see across downtown? I heard that its owned by a national chain of steakhouses. You see the impact of not-locally-owned businesses downtown - the owners really don't seem to care about the impact they have on the community. This is a perfect example of why it's worth paying extra incentives to support locally-owned businesses who have to compete with huge chains.

One more block past the Vacant Burrito, the Franklin Hotel is being contructed on the north side of the street where the bus station used to be. I wasn't thrilled with the design proposed for the front of the hotel, but hopefully they have found some ways to make the facade more inviting and pedestrian-friendly in the last two years while they were getting their finances together. When a building is 4-5 stories high, the design can have a huge impact on the street.

Is all of this a disproportionate amount of transition in a 5-block area? If so, what might be causing it? Does the Downtown Economic Development Corporation have a hand in it?



One thing you have to consider is that much of downtown is owned by distant landlords and/or family trusts (many times it's the offspring of the small businesspeople that made the place click in the early to mid 20th century). To upgrade the buildings, which most of them need, requires a bit more hoop jumping and, of course, cash that most family trusts aren't willing to pony up.
The market is a bit distorted as a result and landlords are less willing to make the upgrades necessary to bring in a long-term tenant. The rents are high because the market says they can be, but that results in a revolving door system where businesses open up can't make it and close down. Rinse and repeat.
For other info, I refer you to the CHNews archives where rests the other 20,000 words I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago.


The Christian bookstore in the Qdoba/Copytron space lasted into the early 1990s, maybe even as late as 1993. It was still there when I came to town to get my MA.

This is a bit afield for this blog, but the Wicked Burrito problem brings to mind the Henry George Single Tax.

George proposed that the only tax should be on the unimproved value of land. That would greatly increase the property tax since all other taxes are subsumed within it.

Under such a sytem, it would most likely be cost-prohibitive to hold on to a valuable property on West Franklin without putting it into some sort of income-producing use.

I personally miss the Earth Shoe Store, the NC Cafeteria, Foster's Camera Store, The Porthole, The Hub, and having a hardware store and a bookstore downtown. Also I miss Kemp's when it was a record and incense store.
I guess what I'm saying is that I miss the surprises that I used to get when I went downtown. I find it hard to miss a chain or mall store once it's gone.
I also miss being in my late 20s -- but not that much.


Here's an article about the 'Jack Sprat' place going in where Strong's was-

It does seem like Franklin Street businesses turn over awfully fast. I've only been in Chapel Hill for two years and it seems like half of the businesses have changed.

At the same time, whenever I go home to Ann Arbor, MI it seems there are ten new businesses downtown even if I've only been gone two months. Maybe college downtowns are inherently transient.

Ray, I bought class course packs at Copytron when I was an undergrad (89-93), so I'm pretty sure the christian place closed by 1990 at the latest. Not like this matters at all. But Copytron was there for quite a while, it took Kinko's a long time to kill it.

I owned a business downtown in the 80's and 90's and there was virtually no business turnover. Rents were high, but justified by a healthy business climate.

I think the DEDC's organization was in response to the dramatic shift in business dynamics downtown. Increased competition from the "burbs", high rents, poorly maintained real estate, perceptions of limited parking, and perceived safety concerns are some of the issues I see hampering downtown business health.

Ruby, my arrival here occurred in the summer of 1992, and I have a clear memory of the Christian book store on the corner. That's not to say the store lasted long. I can't remember exactly when it became a Copytron, but the transition happened pretty quick and it could well have occurred in the winter of 92-93.

Steve's comments about learning from the example of other communities are interesting, but we wouldn't have to go to Charlottesville or Athens. Over in Winston-Salem they've revitalized the old tobacco district on the northeast edge of downtown in ways I found pretty astonishing when I was there back in September for my 25-year high-school reunion. It's now basically the arts district and has loads of nightlife, more than Carrboro.

Ruby--You don't mention several more changes downtown--Tarheel Book store (textbooks--ugh), Cold Stone Creamery (yawn), but Design 149--locally designed and made clothes--is a nice addition, although we miss a-stitch-in-time, which one of the people who works at Design 149 used to run. The expansion of Schoolkids is also good news. Parking is a huge problem downtown, as are the many dead spaces where places are vacant. Make parking downtown free, and put a light up on the 400 block (the most vital block on Franklin--Med Deli, Modern Times, Internationalist, The Bookstore, Hazmat, etc) and you would help things right there. It seems like there are a lot of ways that property owners who don't get tenants could be punished, and the town gets very little from them waiting for someone to rent at their idea of 'market price'.

I find downtown kind of strange. Some things it is missing: a place to get fresh fruit and other groceries--do people really like going all the way to Weaver St or Harris Teeter? A strong sandwich place/bakery--hopefully Jack Sprat will achieve this. A good institution for contemporary art--how is it our entire metro area has zero, while the supposedly backward triad area has two? A fashionable store for men--with the opening of Polo, we'll have two stores for the preppy set, and zero for anyone else (what is this, Martha's Vineyard?). Grande Firme quickly tanked--apparently there aren't enough consumers in Chapel Hill for fairly cutting edge Italian stuff--but a more moderately priced place, for men as well as women, could fly. Why aren't there more moderately priced, good restaurants around here (do we really need another Mexican place?)? Did everyone who understands how this works move to Asheville? Sometimes it seems like everything is going to wind up in Carrboro, and Chapel Hill downtown will be nothing but t-shirt stores and empty buildings. What exactly is that downtown commission thinking? Has anyone visited Charlottesville or Athens lately and asked, why not here?

Bill--I'm amazed at your hypothetical business owner. She is scared off by a comment someone who doesn't hold elected office or sit on any relevant commissions posted on a website? The kind of businesses that would make for a vital downtown can't simply locate in random locations. If you want the business of UNC students (who have quite a bit of money by the looks of things) and Chapel Hill residents (ditto) its not a good idea to locate in Pittsboro or Asheboro to spite dastardly liberals who post things on

Its worth emphasizing the damage done to our town by empty lots (and we are not talking about places that are empty for a couple of months). They make things more dangerous for pedestrians. And they undermine businesses in downtown in general, since the fewer businesses there are, the less reasons there are to go downtown.

Kirk--that is interesting info about the demise of copytron. In general, we shouldn't waste much energy crying over the growth of chains and big box stores. The simple fact is, there are many things such enterprises do not offer now, and will not any time soon. Good food. Unique objects for the home or your wardrobe. Small press books. Art. These are the sorts of things that make for a vital downtown. Go to Asheville, Charlottesville, or Athens, or the tobacco district in Winston-Salem if you wish--just outside of town they have the same big boxes as everyone else in the US, yet they've found ways to attract people and businesses to their downtowns. And as Richard Florida fans know, attractive downtowns attract more businesses, whose workers want to be near such businesses.

Since I was the manager of that Copytron for a while and head of coursepacks for the company for years let me see if I can set the record straight.
First, it was technology, a bad biz move and competition from the UNC bookstore that killed the coursepack business which was the store's bread and butter. Kinkos had nothing to do with it really. This is a pretty big market. UNC built its own copy centers and bought Kinkos coursepack biz after a copyright suit forced Kinkos to get rid of it (there's a whole Harvard case study in all this).
As far as the opening date of the 100 west franklin location (the store was next door on Columbia prior to that), I'm not sure exactly but it was likely in 1990 or 91 (I was at the CHN at the time).
Copytron bought Logos Bookstore and with it, their lease, which was a really good deal.
I think I paid about 3500 a month for rent on the place in 1995 (the last year I worked there) compared to the GAP's 14k a month.
That's probably the main reason why Copytron stuck around so long. I'm sure the rent is market rate by now.


If you were a prospective business owner who was considering moving or opening a business in downtown Chapel Hill, how would this comment affect your viewpoint??

"It seems like there are a lot of ways that property owners who don't get tenants could be punished, and the town gets very little from them waiting for someone to rent at their idea of ‘market price'.

I would probably look for another town with a bit more business friendly attitude...

I don't understand what is going on
with the old Wicked Burrito. Even
if it is owned by a national chain, it's
still costing a fortune in both
real costs and lost opportunity costs
to leave the building idle.

Just the property taxes on the Wicked Burrito location were 20,000 last year. It certainly doesn't make very good business sense to leave it vacant.

Steve, perhaps my hypothetical business owner (who is a "he" btw and not a "she") was rash to be frightened away by the anti-business post of a lone crank but what would a real prospective downtown business owner think of a living wage being implemented in chapel hill? They would certainly seek greener pastures--pastures where they could set a "market wage", not a wage imposed upon business by THE MAN.

Today I was in University Mall, and I was struck by how many businesses there are of the sort that would add to downtown. Cameron's. The shoe store. Spice Street. Southern Season. What exactly is the appeal of this mall? Especially for businesses that probably want students (all of the above excluding Southern Season). I bet a minimum of 30% of UNC students don't know where University Mall is (someone once told me many students never make it to Carrboro in four years at the university). Could it really be parking? It's got to be cheaper rent. Cameron's can't possibly be averaging the $2,000/day in sales they'd need to prosper in the Gap space, based on rents quoted above.

BTW, I would probably get to downtown more often if there were buses every five minutes or so from University Mall. It isn't only the cost of parking downtown --its also the obnoxious amounts of traffic. As it now stands, the bus system is of use mainly to commuters, and is simply too infrequent for quick trips anywhere in town.

I'm also impressed with the changes at University Mall. Another quirky thing about them is that they have a small repertory theater called Deep Dish. I haven't been to a play there, yet, but I've read good things about them. It's great to have a Rose's there, too, in case you need something on the cheap (better than driving out to Wal-Mart, where convenient parking is scarce, especially on weekends)! With the exception of a few things, I've done all my Christmas shopping in Chapel Hill, at University Mall, Lowe's and Borders on Sage Rd.

Also, I live within walking distance of Timberlyne Shopping Center. In this strip mall, they have an art house (Chelsea Movie Theater), a coffee shop, and a pool hall right next to each other. Now that's quirky. There's a Food Lion for cheap groceries and a larger movie theater if your taste in movies is more mainstream.

Perhaps the DEDC could look at these two examples of success while exploring the options for revitalizing downtown.


"the guy with the kiosk of cool stuff form Bali…"

I know who you mean. I bought stuff from him last year, too. The prices are very reasonable.

The national steak house chain is most likely getting a huge tax write-off from the Wicked Burrito property-not only is it providing a loss, but they are probably depreciating it as well. When in doubt-look at the money angle!

Someone wrote: “It seems like there are a lot of ways that property owners who don't get tenants could be punished, and the town gets very little from them waiting for someone to rent at their idea of ‘market price'. "

Translation: Landlords should rent out their property at reasonable prices so that businesses can operate downtown. Seems like a business-friendly comment to me.

As to U-Mall not attracting college students--so? It has decided to re-make itself as a shopping entity that appeals to GROWN-UPS. While I'm not 100% happy with some of the decisions U-Mall's mgmt has made (getting rid of FYE was a major bummer for me) I think they're right to not "worry" about the college students. Franklin Street has tried that--and look where it's gotten them!I hope that eliminating FYE was not mall mgmt trying to phase out shops that appeal to HS kids. I love that my (non-driving) teen can walk to U Mall and get his games. I miss his being able to go there for music and movies.

How can "many of the students" not make it to Carrboro in the 4 years they are at University? Lots of them LIVE there!

As to the patronage at U Mall--it IS all about the parking. And the convenience of a small mall. Southpoint makes me tired just thinking about it. Last year I did more than 90% of my shopping at U Mall. (Everything except the electronics--whuch meant a trip to Circuit City in Durham, and the books--which I got on-line.) This year, because FYE is gone, I've been to Borders for DVD's and books--and bought several CD's while I was there. I may make a trip to Schoolkids as well...but only if they say they have what I'm looking for when I call. There aren't enough other stores downtown to draw me into the traffic/parking mess. The rest of my shopping will happen at U Mall. Gamestop, O'Neills (he has some lovely stuff for men!) Goldworks, Cameron's, the guy with the kiosk of cool stuff form Bali...why would you go anywhere else?

Wow, Melanie, UMall should quote you! I agree absolutely with your opinion. I like having UMall populated with stores that cater to a more diverse and mature population than those aged 18-22 years old.

As far as Deep Dish Theater goes, I've been to a few productions there and they have been quite good. They've gotten great reviews in general and are well worth attending!

"Translation: Landlords should rent out their property at reasonable prices so that businesses can operate downtown. Seems like a business-friendly comment to me."

Mark, shouldn't the landlord get to determine what is a reasonable price? If the price is unreasonably high, the landlord will discover this when no-one rents the property. The landloard will adjust his price accordingly.

Your comment and Steve's comment sound to me like you are advocating that someone other than the landlord would decide what a reasonable price is...

I said downtown landlords should charge reasonable rents so that businesses can operate. I think you know whose decision that is.

There are nonetheless foolish downtown investors who push the price envelope and wind up with vacant properties b/c their tenants can not survive. Or they rent to bars and T-shirt shops which can manage to get by.

You won't find anyone in downtown Carrboro crying over the situation.

Bill--to lay my cards on the table, I don't believe it's appropriate to have
urban land owned privately. Just give all the landlords big tax write offs to
dump it into a public trust and then we could really talk about what to do with
it. Give responsible tenants long term leases (thirty years or more) (doesn't
most of London work like this?). Short of that, yes, private property has to be
reigned in by notions of the public good. If you want to hold onto a dresser
because you think one day it will be a collector's item worth more, that's fine.
But a space in the downtown area isn't the same thing--it's use, or lack of it,
affects citizens of Chapel Hill, other property and business owner's in the
area, etc etc.

We were talking about university mall. Note that there has been virtually no
turnover since their upgrade two years ago. Interesting local businesses can
survive in this town.

late comment, i know, but does anyone know anything about the building going up near carrburritos? it's an enormous brick four story stucture on the corner of rosemary and new ridge road. looks like it could be condos/apts and it seems nice, weird location though.

I've been told it's a single-room occupancy housing. Just what Melanie was advocating for a couple of months ago.


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