Downtown Don'ts

The Town Council talked about a few of the things they don't want to see in the new mixed-use re-development on Lots 2 & 5 downtown.

They don't want to be The Streets at Southpoint, though they avoided speaking the name of the behemoth to the east that's anathema to Chapel Hill business leaders. "I hate that manufactured Main Street," council member Mark Kleinschmidt said.

"That's my biggest fear, that it will look like a mall that's trying to look like Main Street." Council members nodded...

"This space is so important to us," Mayor Kevin Foy said. "The way it looks should respect the existing architecture in the town but doesn't mimic and doesn't try to imitate it."

The council wants modern. It wants cool. It wants something looking to the future in a place that for many -- UNC-Chapel Hill alumni, in particular -- is memory lane.

- News & Observer 6/21/05

What are your hopes and concerns for this project?


Now that we're in full-tilt I hope that this development receives as much scrutiny as UNC/North. Besides the basic issue of the "raison d'etre" of the whole project, there are many potholes to be dealt with in the current plans. For example, we're building additional housing, but there's no commitment to sign-up support businesses like grocery store, etc. I assume if you live in these new units you'll still have to jump in the car to go to EarthFare for food (what a lost opportunity for downtown that was) or to go to the laundromat, etc. With all the open retail space already existing downton, it also is unclear what the mix-usage profile of these projects will really look like - will the new storefronts "rob" retail from downtown? And like downtown, will there still be a continued focus on T-shirt shops, restaurants, flower shops and other "light" retail? Someone told me yesterday that Kilwins closed in University Square - if so that'll add to the gap-toothed expression of current downtown. And what about University Square? The lot #5 development plan doesn't "synergistically" (to use a plan phrase) incorporate its presence - instead it's almost an island unto itself. I suggested that it would be better to put a traffic circle between University Square and the new development (robbing some of University Square's parking lot) to tie the two developments together - maybe improving the current profile of U.Square - but that kind of orthogonal thinking doesn't seem to have made it into the plan. We'll need something like that to handle the near 20K car trips on that part of Franklin (not to mention Church which is used intensively as a cut-through from Rosemary to Franklin).

For all the potholes, I'm quite hopeful that Sally Greene, Ruby, et. al. will try to steer this project clear and achieve some kind of reasonable resolution.

Could a grocery store downtown do enough business, even with people living in Lot 2 and Lot 5 developments? It seems to me that with 3 Harris Teeters within 2 miles of downtown (Glen Lennox, UMall, and Carrboro) plus Wellspring, Weaver, EarthFare, Wal-Mart, Southern Season that Chapel Hill is well served grocery store wise.

I think any downtown retail will have a tough time attracting non-students until their is easy to access, free parking.

Chris, I agree that a full-size grocery store couldn't survive downtown. Even when Fowler's was open downtown (Ah, Big Bertha how I miss you!), it really wasn't a full-size grocery store.

Chris, I spent my fair share of time in Fowler's Big Bertha back in the day, so maybe my feelings are somewhat coloured by that experience, but, yep, I think there's enough downtown interest in grocery shopping to make it work.

You're correct that there's a lot of shopping choices on the periphery of Chapel Hill (if you include Carrboro as being on the periphery ;-) )

The point I was trying to make was that one of the guiding principles of the lot #2/#5 developments was to increase walkability and decrease car use. Since these projects don't have at their core a commitment to provide common services - like a grocery store - then we're already in trouble. I live over by the YMCA and work downtown. It irks me that I have to jump in the car and drive North to Chapel Hill/North or East to Wellspring or South to Raleigh Rd. or West to Weaver St. to do the most basic of shopping. I used to go to walk over to the Piggly Wiggly (A&P) on Airport Rd. quite a bit which reduced my overall car use so maybe I was spoiled by easy access. I'd use the heck out of Fowlers if it still existed.

If you look at the Carrboro model - with Weaver St. and Harris Teeter "centered" on a significant population center - the increase in foot traffic follows from their location. If you look at the Chapel Hill model - the grocery stores are spread about on the periphery (not at the centroid of population) and ensure the maximum in car usage. Why acerbate the problem by building more housing downtown with minimal support services - with the Town's implicit endorsement - without addressing this issue?

Bill, don't you think with all the new downtown housing being developed (Robertson Ln./Rosemary St./Lots #2 & 5/new hotel/etc.) and with the growth of UNCs on-campus housing that the demand for a grocery store is significantly larger than when Fowlers was here? Also, I recall buying everything I needed to survive from Fowlers - detergent, produce, meat, toilet paper and even a few bottles of beer - it seemed pretty full service to me. Did it really provide significantly less than a Weaver St.?

I believe that there was some initial interest on the part of the Council Committee in having a small grocery store as part of the Lots 2 and 5 developments but the original marketing analysis suggested that it wouldn't be supported. However, a recent (2-3 weeks ago) Wall Street Journal article reported that having a Whole Foods store as part of a rental or condo housing development is a positive selling point - residents who are opting for urban living want to be able to shop (at least occasionally) without having to get into their cars.

It seems that a small grocery should be able to do well. I've seen what I think would work in Key West where we often vacation. (I am sure there are many other examples). It's small, but has some nice produce, basic staples, meats, milk, etc. It's much more than a convenience store, yet much less than a full service grocery. It probably could not serve the complete grocery needs of a fully functioning household, but would certainly reduce the trips to the "full service" grocery on the outskirts of town. It would also serve the downtown workers who need to pick up a loaf of bread, gallon of milk, or salad fixings for dinner.

I agree on the need for a grocery store downtown. Especially on the east end where Weaver Street isn't 10 minutes away. I walk to the grocery store several times a week now that I am am the west end. When I lived on Pritchard Avenue (at the center of downtown) I almost always drove there.

Here are some more thoughts about the design from Sally Greene's blog:

When we had a pre-bidders conference on January 11, I made my own wishes clear: The last thing we want, I said, is a bunch of facades that imitate a shopping mall that imitate a real downtown. Prior to that, as we drafted the request for qualifications document, we went out of our way to take out references to the "historic character" of downtown--we wanted to signal that we were ready to break away from that. I was far from alone in hoping for a distinctive design that looks forward, not backward.

She also wrote a memo to the Council about "green urbanism." Check it out.

Anita, I agree. If you had a small but fairly complete store, and it was located near a transit transfer center (TTC), then UNC employees who use the park and ride lots could stop by after work and pick up fresh items for their dinners that evening. I think that the TTC would be key to making this work, though. People have to be able to get on a bus after a minimal walk and have a direct ride to their car lot. No one wants to be transfering buses while carrying their personal items AND a bag of groceries.

I still think it would be pretty tough to make a go of it with a downtown grocery store and it would face the same problems that other downtown merchants face, if not more. It would be relying exclusively on foot traffic (Someone might drive downtown to go to Schoolkids Records but I don't think they would drive downtown to buy their groceries). A store would also be located in a very high rent area. Plus, the grocery business is a very low profit margin industry.

How many people are going to be living in these condos once they are complete? I'm sure grocery stores have some measurement of # of people in a radius to determine if the business is viable. That's the beauty of the free market--if someone thinks they can make a go of it, they will. If they can't make a go of it, they won't...

It might be more cost effective if services, like a grocery store, are baked into the plans for #2/#5. If it was cost-effective to do these developments outside of the Town's sponsorship then would Ram have made "a go of it"? I don't think so, it was only with the incentives offered by the Town and a strong vision by some of our Council members did we end up with a semi-palatable start.

We've focused on a grocery store, what about a service like a nearby park with a kids playground or are we only interested in facilities that appeal to the young condo crowd?

People with kids aren't going to live downtown in a condo. Like someone else mentioned on another thread, the condos will probably end up being lived in by students like the other places that were built on Rosemary...

I don't understand what you mean by this:

If it was cost-effective to do these developments outside of the Town's sponsorship then would Ram have made “a go of it”? I don't think so, it was only with the incentives offered by the Town and a strong vision by some of our Council members did we end up with a semi-palatable start.

Are you're asking would a company who owned the real estate or bought the property have developed the property?

Also, when I read some of the comments about what the council does/doesn't want the development to look like, I doubt the strong vision. They don't want Southpoint, they also don't want fake old but they do want it be "respectful" of the current architecture but not to look like the current buildings. And they want it to look modern?

True, I'm extrapolating by their comments that the vision thing seems to be internalized by a few members based on their statements, etc.

In Atlanta and in Norfolk we had small bodega type groceries. Part grocery, part specialty foods, part wine/beer. I could walk to the grocery on a daily basis (I like fresh vegetables), but knew that I had to drive on the weekend to stock up on stuff like laundry detergent. I thought it was great--especially since I had to walk by some very nice jewelry stores to get to the grocery. Plus there was very visible cops on foot patrol, so I could go after dark and not worry.


That sounds good...maybe something like the Weav at Southern Village...where you can buy a few things but also has a substantial cafe/prepared foods to go section.

It's interesting that Dorothy Verkerk broached the subject but as Mark Kleinschmidt and Mayor Foy also point out the "public space" on the Wallace deck is a failure.

As Rob Shapard reports in today's HeraldSun

But Councilwoman Dorothy Verkerk argued that perhaps the council was asking too much of that project to include public space. She said the public plaza currently in place above the Wallace deck simply doesn't work as a public space, so maybe it makes sense not to pursue new public space in the project.

Development consultant John Stainback said he agreed, but had refrained from saying it until Verkerk broached the subject. He said he saw the current plaza as barren and that seemed wise to him not to try to create new public space there.

Even Foy said he felt the current plaza had "failed" as public space, but he also was reluctant to give up the idea of having any public space in that area. Kleinschmidt called the plaza a "white elephant," and said his primary goal with the Wallace project was to have as many new residences as possible to have more people living downtown.

I recall that a number of people cautioned the Town on that design when it was first introduce - "designed for failure" I believe one person claimed. In many ways it was uninviting, it broke the natural flow of foot traffic, its implementation is hard and unyielding and its frickin hot on a warm day but is the answer to a former Council/Town poor design decision to do away with any Wallace deck public space?

I'd like to see a comprehensive design incorporating the existing alleys (not just the Rat's), a movement or rejiggering of existing garbage disposal elements (grease dump for one!), the creation of 24/7 public "corridors" through and around the Wallace structure and the creation of maybe more intimate ungated public spaces that are more on the scale of a village.

Ms. Verkerk, rather than giving up, should re-examine why the original design choice failed, how the Town ignored the pleas of the public (something to think about/a lesson to be learned especially in the context of these new projects) and champion a better design.


Is the town ignoring the pleas of the public on the Lot 2 and 5 project? I'm asking because I don't know.

One last comment on grocery stores....Chapel Hill could use a Trader Joe's...those are the best. And if Chapel Hill can't get one, would love to see Durham put one in Southpoint or along 15-501.

I took a look at the Trader Joe's website and it sounds very much like the type of grocery many of us have in mind. It would be interesting to see if they've considered this region at all since they're already in 19 states and several university towns.

Chris, I don't think we've gotten to the "pleas" stage yet....

Have you been following the projects process very much?

The early morning meetings were a non-starter for me (went to one presentation), so I've generally been reviewing the written and reported records. Considering the potential negative impacts of these projects on downtown, the sad history we've had with tall structures (NCNB/Granville eyesores) and the missteps on Wallace, I'm surprised by lack of debate over these developments. I know it isn't on the scale of UNC/North, but the lasting impact could be just as great.

UNC responded to the need for a grocery store close to campus by building one in the new Rams Head development, in the bowl next to the football stadium (it used to be a parking lot). Apparently, it's one of the largest grocery stores on a university campus in the country. That doesn't help anyone who lives downtown, but it might mean it'd be harder to get mid-campus students to also use any theoretical downtown grocery. Downtown is not convenient for most students who live on campus, since the bulk of on-campus housing (including rooms with kitchens) is on south campus.

It seems that if there's enough business downtown, a savvy businessperson will open a business to repond to the demand. Let's hope.

I too hope for some kind of fresh food option downtown. Not having some place to pop in and get some fresh fruit or a decent loaf of bread takes something out of the whole downtown experience. I honestly can't get too excited about a condo project. Whether students or professionals, the people who buy into such projects don't tend to add much culturally. What they will want from the police and local retail is usually opposed to the genuine vitality of a downtown. All I can see is ever increasing pressure over the next ten years to get rid of the tenants who make the 400 block the only really vital area of downtown. I also worry about organizing a proposal around a series of don'ts. I read the article and I wasn't clear what was actively wanted from this project. Here are some other things that could help downtown: anything that would draw adults at night besides movies or restaurants. A lot of us feel a little old for the dominant music scene in Chapel Hill--but what alternatives are there? An indoor miniature mall, like the one on the downtown mall in Charlottesville, with several reasonably priced (i.e. better than fast food, preferably locally owned, but not too expensive) lunch alternatives. A space for contemporary art--since a real complex at the level of SECCA or the Weatherspoon is unlikely here anytime soon (why is that, exactly? Does the Triad have a more serious art community than the Triangle?), just setting aside a wall or a corridor and having the town pick some artists to do installations would boost interest in the complex and bring people downtown. Also, although I doubt this could be a serious part of a new 'mixed use', condo sort of development, a building with a concentration of nonprofits and other community oriented businesses would do a lot for downtown--and nobody would mistake it for Southpoint. Maybe the reporter missed something, but I'm concerned about the town not giving the developer very concrete priorities, and instead just hoping they'll come up with something vaguely creative or exciting.

Here are some other things that could help downtown: anything that would draw adults at night besides movies or restaurants.

For the downtown to be successful/vibrant, it's going to have to become a "destination". People are going to have to want to go downtown and spend $. For example, Raleigh seems to now have a thriving downtown with bars and restaurants that people from other towns (Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill) will travel to for an evening of entertainment. I don't get the impression that Chapel Hill has acheived "destination status" yet and I don't think that new condos with less parking is going to make that happen. People/kids may come to chapel hill to see a live music act on occassion but it doesn't seem to be a place that "adults" head to for an evening out...

The request for "creative and exciting" was borne of a discussion focused on the design of the buildings, not the function or use or mix of tenants. Much of that will occur later. In fact, one of the reasons Ram was attractive to the Council was Ram's willingness to allow for significant town input into those decisions at a later date. The Council has deliberately refrained from defining it's desires related to "the look" of the project in order to maximize achitectural creativity.

I encourage people to review the Ram proposal. I think you'll see a lot of promise for what's being discussed here. (The trick now is to turn the promises into reality beginning with the contract negotiations.) For example, I'm very attracted to Ram's idea of "affordable commercial rentals" on the Rosemary frontage -- perfect for start-ups and non-profits. Also, Ram made it clear that this isn't going to be an "anchor-centered" development. Staying away from a huge anchor is going to allow for more of the diverse uses many of you are talking about. Consequently, we won't become a slave to a monster anchor's specs in the design of the project and will be able to retain flexible use of the space in the future. Another of my fears is that the development would pursue a major anchor that would so strongly define the space and design that it would become "Barnes & Noble Pavillion" or some such thing.

If you haven't been paying attention to the process from the beginning, the press coverage of Monday's meeting may be a little misleading. The Council has spent years on what it wants. I recommend you go to the town web-page and take a look at the RFP and RFQ that were issued for this project and to search the newspaper's archives for the related news coverage.

The new Executive Director for the Chapel Hill DEDC. Liz Parham, has excellent expertise that will be helpful in moving forward in downtown. I think you will find her experience and expertise very useful in many of the areas under discussion in this thread.

Bill, you have captured what might be the central dilemma of these projects - do they serve to anchor more residents downtown or do they serve as a "destination" for people living outside of downtown or do they do both?

Recall Glenwood in Raleigh from 10-20 years ago. It was a failing commercial corridor with controversial high-rise public housing that functioned more as a way to get quickly from Wade/5-points to downtown than anything else. Now, leveraging the existing "traditional" traffic pattern established years ago, Raleigh has created a destination location (with one hell of a lot of help from some creative people willing to take a chance on their vision).

Now, do we have anything equivalent to leverage, as Raleigh did with the existing traffic flow and nearby neighborhood revitalization for Glenwood, to create a "destination"? I don't see it, instead I think we have to look at this as solidifying/increasing the in-place population base of downtown. You've pointed out, quite correctly, that condos (with maybe a high-level of transient population) alone are not a very satisfying outcome. It seems to me that retail plus condos is also not a very satisfying outcome either especially in light of current empty commercial footage (a little less today thanks to Lonestar and some local pressure) and increasing private housing developments downtown.

What would be satisfying?

There's been a number of ideas presented in this thread, from other citizens, the Council over the last couple years, that might combine to form a great result. I'm trying to add some "orthogonal" and "common sensical" points at this juncture as the plans start to be set in concrete.

On the "orthogonal" front, I wonder why not more discussion on attracting retirees to these developments? Downtown Chapel Hill has most of the elements that the ersatz Perryville (Meadowmont for non-Capra fans) likes to advertise on WCHL.
Would Ram and the Council be willing to work with UNC/Health to build a pocket-clinic servicing a senior population? Could such a clinic have the capacity to serve adjacent neighborhoods like Northside? What other necessary services would this type population expect? Nearby grocery store, pharmacy, etc.? This would be a great population to attract: stable, possible affluent (disposable income), more and more likely to eat out, etc. As others have pointed out, a non-profit component would be great - how much better if there was a downtown population traditionally willing to be involved in the community?

On the "common sensical" front, we can look at extremely stable/workable/sustainable village/city structures from the Far East or Europe. Why do these population centers continue to exist and flourish? Terri B. and others have described a number of reasons, like bodegas (which also server as meeting spots), that have survived the evolutionary process. Sally Greene has written extensively over the years about those elements that serve a community instead of sucking its lifeblood away (see: this store).

I look forward to hearing some innovative ideas from Ms. Parham on not only downtown's economic development but an overall plan to increase economic activity throughout town. Since it's summer, a good start would be to look at the constant commercial churn downtown. I know people that stopped going downtown because of the unpredictability - would such and such be open anymore? Failure breeds failure sometimes, central downtown's commercial district could really use some stabilization.

I don't get why so many of you don't think condos will be appealing, to people with families or anyone else. Just because you like having a yard and two cars, doesn't mean everyone else wants that.

I thought the consultant's comment about being "reluctant" to bring up the public space issue interesting. Aren't we hiring a consultant for his expertise? If he thinks the public space idea won't fly, shouldn't he be bringing the subject up? Sometimes a consultant's professional opinion will be at odds with what the client wants. I think a consultant should state his opinion based on his professional expertise. If the client doesn't want to take the advice, that's fine, but the consultant shouldn't be "reluctant" to weigh in. That's what he is getting paid to do. Am I missing something?

Ruby, how ironic to hear you of all people saying that just because we want or like something doesn't mean everyone does!

Do you have kids? I trust not or you would know why people with kids won't want to live downtown...

I'm curious if it had anything to do with the way Ram owns the public space.

From the financial plan:

4.1(l) Our plan contemplates Ram owning certain areas of the public space at Lot 5 and the Wallace Deck for the first three years after construction delivery. The public space intended to
service the condominium units will be owned by the HOA. The public space, specifically the open area and plaza areas of Lot 5 and the courtyard at the Wallace Deck will be leased, back to
the Town for $10/year. Ram will enter into an agreement with the Town ensuring their right to activate, program and maintain the public space as they see fit. Ram has budgeted $200,000 toward the cost of programming the public space at Lot 5. Those funds should be ample to cover these costs for three to five years, during which time Ram will work with the Town and/or local non-profit agencies to create a joint funding and programming agreement for the public space. The objective is to ultimately create a self-sustaining operation (i.e. funds generated from events and sponsorship should cover costs). In the interim, Ram has budgeted ample funds ($200,000) to subsidize the effort.

I'm kind of curious about the "activate,program" clause. I'm assuming the their is the Town but it might be Ram. Maybe one of the people participating in the review can clarify.

Mark--A lot of the architectural debates about entrances, awnings, etc quickly become obscure. It is more important what's in the building. Downtown Chapel Hill isn't exactly a spectular architectural area in danger of being ruined. The problem with Main Street at Southpoint isn't that it looks fake, but that it IS fake-- it's just another shopping mall. It's more pleasant architecturally than University Mall, but the latter makes a real contribution to an interesting retail mix. I would rather see concrete ideas about the use of the roof of the building (perhaps a vegetable garden?) or some kind of corridor for art, etc. than ideas about how far the entrance is from the street, which is mostly the kinds of things I saw on the website in the town's ideas about the proposal. I liked Ram's ideas about retail, for the most part, although please tell them the next time you talk that there are at least four retail stores for women's clothing downtown, versus one for men, so it would be nice if they could at least mention men's clothing as a possibility (I have a few more questions, but I' ve lost track of the link to the RAM document--the website is quite obscure 'plans' 'process' 'products'???? maybe someone can post a link to the RAM stuff?).

Ruby--I don't think the market for the 85% of units that won't be in the affordable range (what kind of numbers are we talking about here?) will be families. I doubt downtown is considered an attractive area to most families. Liberals who want a more urban environment might as well just move to downtown Carrboro. The real market for these units will probably be the parents of students from out of state. They can buy their kids residency, and turn over the property in a few years for a profit (or can they? I wasn't clear how that will work in terms of them being condos and the town owning the complex). They are already buying into Carrboro, but downtown Chapel Hill is more convenient. Next biggest market will be young professionals with the University or RTP. Both groups will pressure the police and the town council to 'clean up' downtown.

To have a more dynamic downtown, we'll have to attract the kind of people who make a downtown dynamic--people like artists and musicians (see the experience of Paducah (another possibility would be to unearth the history and cultural resources that are already downtown). Instead, as the condos and luxury hotel march forward, they will continue to drift towards Durham and Carrboro.

Fiona Morgan had a recent article in the Indy on the "creative class" Steve that highlights some of what you've brought up.

My family spent 5 years in California. We love Trader Joe's. They'd fit in very well here.

In a note that is off the specific topic, but general to downtown, the Wicked Burrito building has been rented out to a group called Carolina Pros and will be occupied beginning in July.

i've been lobbying trader joe's for the last 18 months to consider chapel hill. i fear the addition of earthfare might hurt CH-C's chances. and speaking of earthfare, there's no footprint be enough in either downtown to accomdate a full-size store like that, which want 40 -50K square feet, plus ample parking. oops. ample parking. *crack* that's the sound of a deal breaking -- even in "new" chapel hill, where there still won't be enough lots to accomodate shoppers, residents and the kids who'd rather pay for a retail parking space or risk a ticket rather than take the free bus.

and let's not forget the ridiculous idea that we should have LESS parking downtown to encourage people to take the bus. i promise you, that's not the kind of thing retailers (esp. a grocery store) wants to see in the press. it's a big red flag. i don't think it's realistic to believe the by promoting public transit we're going to suddenly be able to attract people downtown on the bus. the very people the town council wants to see downtown don't ride the bus for leisure purposes (and most don't ride it work, either). so you're talking about making a gigantic change in the way people think about shopping/entertainment. after all, nobody takes the bus to southpoint or to the chelsea. why would they start now?

Maybe Trader Joes could come to Carrboro. The Andrews Riggsbee building is about the same size as the TJ by my dad's house in Indpls. BTW, I have a pantry full of stuff I brought back from the last trip. Even though its a chain--I would shop there if it came. Please keep up your lobbying!

I love Trader Joes. I'd shop there in a second. Let's all lobby, shall we?

Today's CHH has an editorial on the decision making process for the downtown project: "Balancing act for the Town Council"

This is a tricky:

"Although no member of the council is an architect, and only Cam Hill has any relevant experience in the building field, the elected officials so far have not been shy about giving Ram their opinions. They are fully vested in the idea of being co-developers for the projects"


"The council must find a way between no involvement at all and trying to micromanage the developments, poring over every single detail and inserting each member's personal preferences into the mix. It won't be easy."

I agree.


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