I heart downtown Chapel Hill

Is anyone else as sick as I am of the Chapel Hill News harping on how much downtown sucks? Last weekend there was a big spread mostly about how we are doomed (again). It was way too lengthy for me to dissect it all, but if you read it, please share your thoughts.

Here's one great letter to the editor in response:

How dare they be homeless?

I, too, am outraged at the panhandling that occurs on Franklin Street. Even all of the letters from Sunday's paper could not convey my disgust at those homeless. How dare they ask me for money! I mean, they chose to be homeless; it's their fault.

They buy drugs and alcohol and don't save their money like us good, righteous folks. They stand there smoking expensive cigarettes, and turn right around to ask me for change. They waste their money, so they deserve to sleep on freezing concrete. My rights are being trampled when they ask for money, and their poverty makes me so uncomfortable.

When I walk down Franklin Street, it is so hard to avoid those looks. Bloodshot eyes display the addictions holding them captive. Lean, frail bodies hide under torn, stained clothing that doesn't fit. The smell turns to stench if I get too close. Or, is it that I'm not close enough?

I have the feeling this is turning into a mess reminiscent of the "Airport Road" Saga. There is no need for meetings or committees to discover some magic solution, but for compassion. Return your $200 jeans, buy a Honda instead of a BMW, drink water instead of $1.50 soda, and donate the extra money to the IFC or Habitat.

Or take someone out to lunch. They won't kill you, I promise. I enjoy their company more than most of the people in my classes. If you are uncomfortable, take a friend. Don't like that? Drive to the Division of Social Services on Homestead and find out what you can do. They need a lot. Your expensive clothes and Land Rover display pitiful arrogance, not success.

Having mercy on someone when they do not deserve it is the source of real happiness, I promise.
-- Bruce W. Andrews Jr., UNC senior

I also attended part of the Downtown Partnership's forum last Tuesday about the "Main Street" approach to downtown revitalization that they plan to use as a model for Chapel Hill. I have a few concerns about this:

  1. The Town Council is already in the midst of a visionary redevelopment process that will turn two surface parking lots into vibrant multi-use, urban centers of activity. So where is this need for "revitalization?" The only reason we have vacant stortfront is because of greedy absentee landlords like Joe Riddle (who owns the Top of the Hill building and some lots on West Franklin on either side of Lantern and the art supply store). If rent weren't so high clearly we would have more quantity and more diverse business downtown.
  2. The Main Street (tm) presentation showed success stories from towns around North Carolina like New Bern, Tarboro, Salisbury, Elizabeth City, and a few more along those lines. Chapel Hill's downtown is envy of small towns like these across North Carolina. None of those towns have a major university downtown and are part of a thriving metropolitan region. I think they are more likely to aspire to our conditions than the other way around.

Anyone here hang around for the whole forum on Tuesday? Please fill us in...

Issues: 

Total votes: 432

Comments

Melanie,
It's my understanding that a card swipe machine is on it's way to Parking Lot 3.
(the lot by 411)

I've always thought that lot was a better fit for those machines that even parking lot 5.

I attended the last part of the forum before I had to go off to one of my own at Town Hall. I heard an interesting perspective by a business owner downtown: " currently downtown is where people go for entertainment. You don't associate downtown with a place to go buy underwear, or a place to go to multiple stores shopping for a pair of pants, or other quick conveniency items, as you would in a mall." She went on to say that "those businesses that have relocated to another location or a mall require that quick and convenient factor. People have to really want to BE on Franklin Street. When UNC won the national championship, you didn't hear any complaints about parking or sidewalk repair. Thousands showed up for the glory of being on Franklin Street. We need to get that feeling (on a smaller scale) back. She said unless Franklin Street changes its emphasis from entertainment, stores such as the Gap and First Union will be more attracted to a mall-type of environment."

This view is probably not anything new, but I thought I would add it to the discussion.

Just got back from having my hair cut a DB Sutton & Co. on West Franklin. As always, a GREAT cut. And, as always, parking was a PITA. I had to scrounge the house for quarters. If I'd been having my hair colored as well as cut, I'd have had the additional fear of a ticket...because the meters only let one buy 2 hours of parking. I wanted to window shop after my appt....but felt constrained because I didn't want to run back to the meter and FEED it.

I wish the lot over by 411 had a way to swipe a debit card or something. This carrying around multiple dollars of quarters makes me CRAZY. And not being able to buy more than two hours worth of time makes me even crazier. (OK--I know some of you think that is impossible....) Two hours will cover lunch, but not lunch AND shopping. Nor a hair appt AND lunch.

OTOH--I love West Franklin.

melanie

The letter by Bruce Andrews is a GREAT LETTER. Sadly, it points out how we as a society are losing our compassion and I think it does not bode well for us if we fail to reverse this trend.

"Teens have a great deal of spending power. According to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, teens spent $175 billion in 2003, an average of $103 per week."

In a society where the average teen can spend over $100 per week, the fact that we can't do better with our homeless and disadvantaged is appalling. I'm sure that these numbers are national averages and that they are much higher in CH - all the more reason that we can and should do better. And the fact that we can't find anyplace willing to "take" the IFC's men's shelter reinforces the gap we have between "talking the talk" and walking the walk".

I hope Mr. Andrews might plan on making CH his home after graduation. He seems to understand that one of the measures of a great society is how they treat even their most disadvantaged members.

Melanie,

There are significant, IMHO, security issues with using a debit card for parking meters. I sincerely hope the town will consider security at the meter and for the handhelds (PDA) used to collect and transfer personal financial data back to the office before moving forward on such a system. A secured wireless network would help to ensure that personal data does not sit in a meter for any length of time; it would also alleviate the need for using handhelds to transfer that data back for collection.

I'd like to see Franklin St. permanently closed to car traffic.

Terri--

That's a good point. Perhaps the town could sell Parking passes that were linked to an account that one put money in....anything but having to haul around a whole roll of quarters for an afternoon of fun. Ok--I'm exagerating--but not much.

Honestly--I remember when the lot by 411 had AN ATTENDANT. (yes, I'm old. yes, I've lived here forever.) As did the one across from University Square. It made shopping downtown far more appealing.

melanie

Heck Melanie, I'm old enough to remember when the lot by 411 was free. I also remember with great fondness parking there weekly for my Friday night feta/black olive pizza at Leo's. Remembering the good ole days usually makes me feel like a geezer...tonight's it's making me hungry for a Leo's pizza!

Well, yeah, Irmember when that lot was free to. Leo's had pretty good pizza--though I've never been a fan of feta. I still miss Papagayo's margueritas, too!

But do you remember Bulwinkle's in Carrboro?

melanie

I preferred the margueritas at Tijuana Fats. Spent many a night going back and forth between there and the old Cradle. Liked Bullwinkle's but preferred the Cave. It's the only one of the old party spots that still hangs on. Wonder what their secret is? Do you think their patronage is concerned about street lights and trash on the streets? :)

Mark

What part of Franklin would you close to traffic......from Carrboro to Eastgate? Closing the 100 block has merit but other streets will suffer more traffic. Closing Cameron thru campus also has merit. Have we ever considered closing streets for part of the day? or making some streets one way?

All:

Would you like to see more police presence on Franklin St. or is it safe enough for you early evening or late night? My understanding we have not increased police presence downtown in 20 years. Is that correct?

Also wondering what the rents will look like from Town of CH after development?

I would like to see more cops downtown, but I do see cops there regularly, and, really, the only times I feel uncomfortable are when I have a longish wait for the bus at night/when it's dark, after most of the regular retail shops have closed. I'm not saying it's unsafe--that's just when I feel most unsafe, which is quite a different thing. I wish the bus stop in front of the Varsity had more of a bus stop feeling, like the one across the street. There are only two town benches and the concrete bench kindly provided by Pepper's.

I'm in downtown just about daily, since I commute by bus to campus and often go there at least once during the day, and the homeless folks and panhandlers don't feel threatening to me at all. I honestly can't recall the last time I was asked for change. My reaction to them is usually feeling sad rather than fearful.

Ruby, thanks for starting this thread. The Chapel Hill News coverage was bugging me, too, especially because the the panhandlers=homeless=threat to my family assumptions remained mostly unchallenged.

Here, here Ruby...

I don't see a problem with downtown. I recently took all three kids into Chapel Hill. This was on a weekend with a football game. We had no problem parking. We went to the Ackland, then for ice cream at Ben and Jerry's. I believe the bench outside the ice cream shop was occupied indefinitely (whatever). But no problems... no one threatened my children. It was a nice afternoon. SO I don't see the big issues and problems that others are experiencing with Franklin street.

Downtown has serious problems. That's not the fault of the Chapel Hill News. Compare downtown with any of the college towns that have a reputation like Chapel Hill--Athens, Charlottesville, Ann Arbor. Chapel Hill downtown just isn't at the same level. Incidentally, those towns typically also have homeless people, so I think that is a red herring. For that matter look at Carrboro. Look at the way the art walk pretty much ends at Sizzl. That's sad.

One problem often remarked upon is parking. There is actually plenty of free parking in Chapel Hill. It is at University Mall. There is always a great deal of room. If buses ran between downtown and University mall every five minutes or so between 7am and 10pm, the parking problem would be mostly solved. Then an idea like closing much of Franklin st to cars would be plausible.

Another problem is the lack of inexpensive retail space. The only area with interesting, college town sorts of stores is the 400 w. Franklin area. I imagine that between the multi-use spaces and the luxury hotel that block will be transformed--for the better, if you like bland high end retail, for the worse if you like places like the Med Deli, Time after Time, and Internationalist Books. Put me down as a skeptic about the prospects of the multi-use developments really improving things, rather than driving up certain property values further. I'm not sure how far denouncing greedy landlords gets us. Is it possible to use carrots and sticks to change this situation? Could the town slowly get control of some of the property downtown so it could be used more intelligently?

A third problem is the lack of attractions for adults downtown in the evening. Memorial Hall begins to address that. But more is needed.

I sometimes wonder if the whole 'question of downtown' is overrated. Where I live--near Blue Cross/Blue Shield-- there has been explosive construction, mostly of condos and offices, also a church, Borders. One or two developments devoted to small retail (especially food--there is none to speak of between Eastgate and New Hope besides a couple of fast food places and a single Mexican restaurant), and some sidewalks around here would probably do more to get Chapel Hillians out of there cars than more tweaking of downtown. But I never see a word about it.

Steve, I've spoken about the commercial growth beyond Downtown and ways we could better recognize and support it. One way, an Economic Development Office which broadens our economic development horizon beyond Downtown and just bolstering service/sales growth to also attracting business that creates more jobs throughout Town - jobs that pay a Chapel Hill living wage.

Our Downtown is the centerpiece but it isn't the sole center of economic development anymore. We shouldn't ignore opportunities presented by University Mall, Eastgate, Ram's Plaza, Chapel Hill-North, etc.

Will,

Since you brought it up I will make a plug for University Mall.

Deep Dish Theater has been operating there for five years. People can go, enjoy an entertaining evening for under $15.00 and dine at Spice Street. I never expected performing at a mall venue, but there it is.

John A
Managing Director
Deep Dish

Ahhh, my economic development initiative is gaining traction ;-)! Deep Dish is one of the great stories for University Mall.

Downtown in the afternoon isn't scary. Downtown at night can be a little creepy--particularly on the West End...though it doesn't bother me. (Much to the dismay of some of my friends.) Hey, compared to Cleveburg or Pittsland in the late 70's it's STILL small town.

melanie

Ruby,

The Main Street Approach that was described is really just a process for consistent community participation. There are 4 committees, Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Restructuring... each with a mission and tangible activities. It is an organized, incremental effort to see some changes in the appearance, culture and organziation of the downtown area.

The towns mentioned were towns in NC that have adopted this approach and seen positive results. Each town is unique and each town applies the process according to its assets and community participation. I think that a town who has adopted the process that would serve as a better idea of what is possible would be Frederick, Md.

Unfortunatly I was late to the forum on Tuesday but did manage to stay for most of the discussion. As I said Tuesday night, the more I think about this and the more I hear from people about the issues facing downtown the more I am convinced that the answer is infrastructure. First however I think we must agree on the question and that is what seems to be missing. I am not completely convinced that we know the question we are trying to address. For me I think the question is "What can the town do to attract people to Franklin Street, so that it can maintain it's status as an attraction for the town?" This is not the same as "What should be done to increase spending downtown?" or "What kind of people do we want to encourage coming downtown?". Let's have a discussion on what we think the question is.

Rebecca, I think a good read of the mainstreet.org website will explain that this program is a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization, not just an economic plan or an historic preservation plan.

And Ruby, I am not sure your statement that Chapel Hill's downtown is the envy of these other communities is in fact true. When I worked on the search for our new Downtown Partnership Executive Director, I spoke to a number of folks involved in downtowns across the state and the nation, (including a couple you mentioned) and found that many of these downtowns are much healthier and vibrant economically, culturally, and aesthetically than ours. Maybe they don't have a college next door---but they have other historic and cultural components of their downtowns that are equally near and dear to their hearts and that give them a sense of place in their downtown communities. Many of their downtown businesses are far healthier, many of their tourist counts are as good if not better, and they have broadbased use of the downtown areas by their citizens.

I heard over and over again from people who know our downtown well from the outside looking in that they had many concerns about our downtown, and most of them had seen a sharp decline in our downtown's vibrancy and viability over the last 10 years or so. I heard a lots of kudos for our town/gown leadership for implementing this new partnership and assurances that 10 years from now, we would all be pleased that the leadership took this step.

As far as what comparable college communities use the Main Street program, there are several. Technically a town has to be of a certain size to be an "official" Main Street participant, but many towns use the model even if they are larger. Some university towns that I know are using the model, either officially or unofficially are:
Athens, GA, Ann Arbor, Michigan , San Diego CA, Santa Cruz, CA Boulder, CO, Radford, VA. Those are just a few.

I don't think that acknowledging that our downtown isn't what it could be is slapping the good things in the face. It is precisely because we do have some really good things about our downtown that we want it to be the absolute best it can be. When you pay attention to something and work on it or with it, it generally thrives. The Downtown Partnership is doing just that.

I mostly use downtown as a parking lot--- when I go to the Planetarium or something on campus.

I don't avoid downtown because it feels unsafe or because I feel harassed by people asking for money. (I lived without a car near Pike Place Market in Seattle for a couple of years in the early 80's--- now that was a downtown with overwhelming social problems.)

My reasons for not going downtown:
- There's hardly anything I want or need down there
- It feels like a place for students, not families
- There aren't many restaurants my kids like going to--- Franklin Street Pizza is a kid-friendly exception
- If I have adult time, I want to go some place quieter than Franklin Street

Also, who is the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership offering the personal-safety skills program to?

To throw in my two cents, I agree with Steve that downtown has serious problems. The primary one in my opinion echos Laurin's comment from the forum that people go downtown primarily for entertainment. For someone like myself who has to drive in, downtown offers little else than entertainment, and currently that is limited to eating, drinking (alchohol or coffee), and people watching. And if you compare the current entertainment offerings of downtown to other areas, it's pretty weak - no bookstore, a very limited offering of movies, no plays, good music but rarely before 10pm, nothing for younger kids other than food (the kids programs they have are nice, but are geared at older kids). Compare this with what Weaver Street or Southpoint offers and you can really see the difference.

Parking is a problem, but I'll admit that I've had harder times parking to go to Thursday evening at Weaver Street or movies at Southpoint - I just have more motivation to put up with the parking. It would be nice if the town could get the University to move the hours on the University lots back from 9pm to 5pm.

And yes, downtown does suffer an image problem for a reason. No, it's not New York city, but it's worse than other areas of town adding just one more reason to avoid it.

I live in the Democratic and progressive Dilworth (idilworth.org) neighborhood of Charlotte. My sister went to Duke and I have friends at UNC. Every time I visit Franklin St., it seems even more nasty and decrepit than before. I don't understand! Can't your town council get their act together and revitalize their own main street? I can't imagine that prospective students and residents get a good first impression of Chapel Hill when they visit the area. Carrboro's downtown is thriving. Here in the Charlotte area, Davidson's Main Street is beautiful, clean, and filled with locally owned essential businesses which only burnishes Davidson College's reputation. Franklin Street is a disgrace and all Chapel Hill residents should be embarrased and demand better of their elected officials.

In a perhaps related note, it was almost impossible to find a traffice spot at Southpoint Mall Saturday evening. Since we aren't there very often, we asked the clerk at one store if there was a special event taking place. She replied that Southpoint is extremely crowded most weekend evenings.

Embarrassed of Franklin St.? It's actually still a pretty big selling point to incoming students...

I remember saying this at a Town Council meeting years ago, but...
I very rarely hear from students who are bothered by panhandlers. I've never felt threatened, harrassed, accosted, etc. If you don't want to give them money students don't have much problem saying "Not today, but God bless you/have a good day" or smiling and walking on. In fact, some of the CH panhandlers are popular characters (one man, who has told me his name is Kevin, is known by his catchphrase on campus. Somebody created a "Facebook" profile in his honor and he 464 UNC students have linked him as friend.) Parking is actually not much of a problem (I'm always running late and park before class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and have yet to have a hard time finding a spot on the Rosemary St. deck), you just have to be willing to include a dollar or two extra to your downtown visit. I can think of towns with much worse parking (Charleston and Savannah come to mind...) The businesses appeal to a wide variety of interests and a wide variety of budgets (from 25 cent drafts and $1 slices of pizza to the Top of the Hill and Julian's crowd.)

Granted, Franklin St. is geared for restaurants and barhopping and may seem a little bit dead to those who don't frequent the street after-dark, but it provides a safe place with lots of options late-night drinking, music, and dining. It's not quite Ann Arbor, but it sure beats the near-campus atmosphere at NCSU.

(My only pet peeve is the awful, overpowering smell behind Amber Alley and the post office next to the Rosemary St. parking lot... but I have a sneaking suspicion that isn't a top priority for my elected officials! :) )

Right on, Ginny. That back-of-restaurant stench is pretty nasty. But you'd never know if you don't visit the backside of Franklin Street.

Ginny, who knows, maybe some of our newly elected officials will take up my call for a decent bathroom downtown (along with spiffier streets, water fountains and a fun place for the kids to play).

I was just Downtown this morning and was reminded of something I wanted to get out during one of our election forums but never had a chance to... I think we need to ditch a few of the Downtown planters. They were built for obsolesence since maintenance seems to be intermittent, some are trash magnets, some block the flow along the walk, removing others will free up space for "sidewalk opportunities". It's a shame considering the amount of $$$ spent on them...

Oh, my gosh, that stench. This is a college town -- can't we Febreeze it? ;-)

But Will, that's the CH way these days -- spend $ spend $ spend $. Doesn't matter if it's useful or not. Just spend more $.

(and no, I'd rather not serve on the citizen's budget committee since they were ignored last year)

James, we're about to drop another $250+ K on sidewalk "improvements" in front of University Square. I'd still like to see us wait on that expenditure and channel the monies to something like the muni-network project which gives us a multiple return on our investment.

Part of revitalizing downtown involves improving lighting, smoothing out bumpy walkways for pedestrians and handicapped individuals, improving the aesthetics of downtown, and promoting "walkability" i.e a streetscape project.

Anita, the sidewalk on the University Square side has some issues but is overall in good shape. And, of course, you can always walk on University Square's property and sidewalks if you're shopping there (and you aren't the wrong kind of folk and get chased off by the security guys).

I work right across from that stretch and, by far, most people walk along the other side of the street. It might be because it's nicely tree-lined, has access to more shops along West-end, etc. but it definitely has a higher utilization.

By my estimation, the aesthetics of the planters on 100 block are low, the maintenance spotty and they break the pedestrian flow along those blocks (and they're not very comfortable to sit on either!).

If the problem is broken, impassable walks - let's fix that and then move on. People aren't avoiding the walk in front of University Square because of the lack of planters.

We need to start being much more fiscally effective with our tax monies. Part of that is to develop metrics to evaluate the ROI for some of these projects (I agree there's projects not so amenable to ROI analysis - some, like the greenways, I heartily endorse).

The economic benefits of planters are couched in rhetoric much more vague than the measurable benefits of many other types of services - including municipal networking - yet something like the Wifi effort Downtown is expected have have a complete end-to-end financial workout while we casually drop 10's of thousands of bucks on "prettification" in front of one of our most commercially problematic stretches Downtown.

The streetscape improvements in front of University Square were put on hold last spring for many of the reasons that you mention also because of the massive changes that are going to occur across the street.

Thanks Cam for pointing that out. I'm concerned that with all the talk about our crime ridden, gun battlin' Franklin St. , the project would get a new kickstart. BTW, along with the other issues I raised, I forgot to bring up the additional service on the bond debt versus redirected outlays.

--Walkablity is important, but at what cost? I agree with what Andrews said. And Mark's idea to close franklin street to downtown traffic...I don't see that idea fixing the problem. What I would like to know is, and I have no answer to this question, how does the town benefit from how much it costs to park on or near franklin street? Most of the time I can manuever around the cost, but it can get a little discouraging.
I have so much to say with regards to this subject that I almost do not know where to begin. I must first say that I see merit in all of these comments. We are on the right track! I usually keep my comments to myself; in the public sphere people tend to disagree with me, but here goes... The homeless people in Chapel Hill are not the problem; most of the time they keep to themselves and ask nicely for spare change. The 'problem' with homelessness in Chapel Hill is a thread in the same tapestry as the issues with our downtown intiatives. The homeless people afflicted with substance abuse diseases are at arms length because the town of Chapel Hill decided to use a prime piece of real estate to give them a shelter. While I understand that, it doesn't exactly encourage any new customers for our starving Chapel Hill businesses. First of all, the ugly truth is that most businesses that can afford to rent franklin street real estate would not be so able without the income of the students of our nearby university. While I think that it is important to stimulate growth in our downtown area; our efforts seem to be covering up a much larger problem.
Other than restaurants and drinking and music; people still seem to be bypassing franklin street. I see a lot of people going to southpoint. This disappoints me. Businesses have been ruined because people would rather spend their money in an air-conditioned over priced mall with a nice brand new movie theater. Why are there so many rules about what Chapel Hill will or will not allow to invade the town if its citizens are just going to drive ten miles outside of the city the very first chance they get? We don't want corporate crap but we don't support our fellow citizens and their wonderfully unique businesses... I just don't see how any of these new plans are going to do for Chapel Hill what has been promised. Franklin Street real estate is ridiculously high. Rent of those store fronts is ridiculously high. Prices of homes are ridiculously high. For a city so determined to avoid corporate corruption and the almighty dollar; we sure have done a horrible job at promising safe affordable housing for those who want to call this town home. (We do provide safe homes; for anyone rich enough to afford it) The unfortunate reality: We want Chapel Hill to remain as charming as we remember it, as our home, while we try to allow the kind of growth and development that will really help the town and it's citizens.

 

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