It's not the size, it's how you use it

When it was being built, some neighbors complained about the new 4-story building at 605 West Main Street. So much so that Carrboro is now developing stricter standards for downtown development. A similar building that is now almost finished at the corner of Merritt Mill and West Rosemary Street is a great illustration that a building that size can be very attractive and complimentary to its environment without costing a whole lot. I'd love to hear some discussion of why one looks so much better than then other (besides the obvious: bricks are nicer than vinyl siding).

Also, the Chapel Hill Town Council will have a work session today to continue developing designs for redevelopment of two downtown parking lots. That starts at 5:30 at the Town Hall at 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.


Hi Ruby, Sometimes the obvious answer is most correct, it is just the brick that makes the Merritt Mill building seem more attractive. Both buildings in question are pretty basic utilitarian commercial structures designed to give the biggest bang for the owners/developers buck. The operative paradigm in commercial construction begins and ends with making money on the erection and subsequent use of the building. Both of these buildings are everyday ordinary and actually not nearly as attractive as comparable buildings in Southern Village or gasp Meadowmont. It would have been nice if either of them had been designed to reflect Carrboro's character as exemplified by the mill and the Century Center. PS sometimes it is the size-five is too high!

Actually, the proposed architectural standards are not a response to 605 West Main, or any other building. Rather, this is the final implementation piece of the New Vision for Downtown Carrboro report, which calls for, and outlines recommendations for such standards . It's worth noting here (as has been said elsewhere) that 605 was designed and permitted prior to the adoption of any of the new downtown ordinances that came from this process.

Having said that, public reaction to the buildings you've described have informed what those standards should be, and largely confirm what was recommended in the report.

As has been mentioned, reaction to the Chan building at Merrit Mill has been largely positive, but not unanimous,as one resident of (I believe) Lloyd Street came by expressly to tell us that in her view, it was simply awful. So, as all things aesthetic are inherently subjective, one isn't going to please everyone.

Nonetheless, the Chan building reflects the historic commercial architecture of downtown Carrboro, using brick facing, and features such as arched window detailing. In this, it presents a less 'jarring' presence. If the dominant architectural style were, say, '60s 'moderne', I would guess that the reaction would be somewhat different.


How about the Club Nova apartment building as an example of an attractive new structure in the downtown? It is an innovative combination of traditional and modern design built within tight budgetary constraints that blends in well with downtown Carrboro.

Ahh, excuse me; just my opinion but, the new building at Merritt Mill and West Rosemary Street is hideous.

I don't like the Merritt Mill bldg either, but it is better than 605 Main for the following reasons: set back from the sidewalk, landscaping, and brick construction. Hopefully, the new guidelines will be in place before any new boxes are approved.

The address of the Merritt Mill/Rosemary building is technically a Chapel Hill address. Yes, I know, even though it's on the same block as Carrburritos.

It doesn't matter what the address is, it matters what town it is legally in (as Diana McDuffee and Ed Harrison can tell you). Are you saying the Chan Building, on the west side of Merritt Mill Road, is in Chapel Hill?

By the way, I probably live closer to this building than any of you and I think it looks great. The facade has subtle detail that is decorative but not brash. The size fits in surprisingly well in that location, and the landscaping is a great addition.

Anybody know how the buildings perform in terms of energy use?

Great question. At this time, in this place, that is a concern we all should be voicing.

Any pictures of the Chan building out anywhere? Do you mean the pirate ship building?

BTW the link to 605 W Main above does not work - it should be going to


The building in question is in Carrboro. It was designed by Giles Blunden---who is intimately familiar with our design guidelines--- and went through our approval process. It's a mixed use structure combining some office space, and single-room-occupancy apartments (a badly needed commodity).


I hate that building. It sits right on top of the street. When you walk past it, I feel like I'm being mugged.

Thanks Alex, I thought so.

Which building are you talking about, Katrina?

The building at the corner of MM & Rosemary isn't bad. It's simple and easy on the eyes. It looks like it's been there all along, so I guess that means it fits in well with the town's character. Being that today was the first time I've seen it (I don't get to Rosemary that much) I couldn't get much of an idea of it's use from a quick drive by. Are there any tenants occupying yet?

It is sooooooooooo much better looking that 605 W. Main! Giant chrome numerals on siding? Bleah!

Ruby, I was talking about the 605 building. Blech!
Okay...Giles Blunden is rsponsible for Terra Nova, not 605, right ?

The merits and flaws of 605 W. Main have been rehashed a few times already. In addition to the critiques I posted on the previous thread, I agree that the materials on 605 look a little cheap in spots.

That said, there's nothing wrong with the height of this building. I run by here several times each week. The biggest problem with it in my mind is that it feels cool and unengaging. Why?

No street level retail, the metal bars in between the parking and the sidewalk subconsciously evoke a prison, and the sidewalk is too narrow. By placing a more urban-style building adjacent to a standard suburban-width sidewalk, the design forces the pedestrian to walk closer to a design, that at it's base, is rather unfriendly. The utility lines running across the building at the third floor or so don't help a lot, either.

It's not hard to get 4-5 story buildings right. We're just out of practice in America.

The solution? Keep looking for good models, and learn from them.

Oops, my mistake about the Chapel Hill address of the Merritt Mill building. Apparently, the guy in charge of showing the apartments (an owner I assume) isn't aware of this either as he made a point of noting that it's in Chapel Hill and not Carrboro.

Patrick is correct about it not being that difficult to come up with well designed 4 and 5 story buildings. The problem seems to me to come back to what do you do with the cars? This is particularly acute on the tiny parcels available in the downtown. Parking on the first floor defeats any possible retail usage and is as Patrick put it "cool and unengaging", underground is probably prohibitively expensive, and the lots are to small to provide adequate on site parking around the building. So, aside from everyone walking about, what is the alternative for a building that requires a hundred plus parking slots?

Patrick, it's not hard to get 4-5 story buildings wrong either, say, like NCNB Plaza or Grand Old Towers?

I liked your piece on WCHL this morning on the fast transit buses between here and NCSU. I hope the local student population will recognize their utility. Any chance that the route will service special events?

Also, I didn't quite get the "staying an extra hour" to earn an extra $7. Won't most workers have a fixed schedule?


Good question. My first answer is- who says we need 100 spaces? Is it the Institute of Transportation Engineers Parking Generation handbook? If so, the first step to solving the problem is throwing the ITE book in the trash and starting fresh.

Don Shoup, one of the foremost experts in parking policy in the US critiques Parking Generation:

Half the 101 parking generation rates in the second edition are based on four or fewer surveys, and 22 percent are based on a single survey. Therefore, parking generation rates typically measure the peak parking demand observed at a few suburban sites with ample free parking and no public transit. Urban planners who use these rates to set off-street parking requirements are therefore planning a city where people will drive wherever they go and park free when they get there.

I recommend the following article for any public official serious about keeping a downtown vital, to further explain why standard parking "requirements" are neither rigorous in their calculation, nor relevant to their downtowns.

Roughly Right or Precisely Wrong by Don Shoup. pp. 22-27 (PDF)

Shoup has further explained this in a new book out called "The High Cost of Free Parking." You can read the first chapter for free here: The High Cost of Free Parking-Chapter 1 (PDF)

Once we recognize that minimum parking requirements are ultimately hostile to the vitality of downtowns, we can begin addressing how to estimate the TRUE current need for parking in Downtown Carrboro, and correctly estimate how much parking would make the uses in the building economically viable under pre-existing conditions.

An example: if you take a look at the Parking Generation manual for a grocery store the size of Weaver Street Market, and then actually go and measure the number of people who come to WSM by car, I'm quite confident the number will be highly overestimated.

At a major crossroads in downtown, at the intersection of 3 bus lines, connected to streets with bike lanes, I am sure that WSM gets a lot of traffic by bike, foot and bus that other stores can only capture by auto.

A second example. Padgett Station has 3 on-site parking spaces, maybe 4. It's amazing they can even stay open! Or is it? I've been to Padgett probably 6 times since they opened. I've only driven once, and live more than 1 mile away.

We ought to measure what our LOCAL trip generation and parking generation rates are in Carrboro. We can then apply other TDM (Transportation Demand Management) strategies to use existing parking more efficiently so that it is easier to park downtown, and continue to enhance alternative mode use.

One example program- when the 300 E Main complex is built, the TOwn should consider funding a Zipcar or two onsite. That way, people who work there in the offices could rent a car by the hour when needed, rather than bring their own every day. If you can take Zipcar to a dentist appt in Chapel Hill, you're more likely to use transit or bike to get to your 300 E Main office. These strategies, and many others, acting in concert, can bring down the overall need for parking without dampening commerce.


I've spoken with several bus passengers who are day laborers in the trades. Some have said they could make more money if they could work an extra hour daily, but right now, they are limited by the ability to get home on the bus and leave the worksite earlier than they would otherwise.

I also have heard from a NCSU person who would work 4 10-hour days rather than 5 8-hour days if the bus ran later.

Note to Candidates: Notice how often buses are bus routes are being mentioned?
Who has a novel idea about travel in CH/CB?

What a great example of design failure that the electrical line runs right in front of a window. It's pretty tytpical though that architects don't deal with certain pesky aspects of design and then ugliness ensues. Look at the roofs of almost any commerical building.

Patrick, that makes great sense. I guess with all the work going on at UNC it works as well the other direction (live and Raleigh, work in Chapel Hill).

I'll hold any comments about the subjective appearance of either buildings. That's largely irrelevant. What I do want to comment on is that I'm happy that somebody is finally taking advantage of the new ordinances and building up. This is quite simply, the best thing that can be done for downtown. A lot has been said about "walkability" of downtown Carrboro, specifically, but the core of the issue is that there needs to be more retail, office (not nearly as much), and living space to even approach true "walkability". The only place remaining for more retail, living, and (some) office space is "up". I'm thrilled as can be with both new buildings, and I hope that there will be more in the near future.


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