Is Southpoint our hero?

I write a business column for a print publication in which I report on new Nancy Oatesbusinesses coming to town and those that leave. For the most recent issue, I had to dance around a bit, because the only business news I could dig up was businesses that had closed downtown. Gigi’s Cupcakes; Caribou Coffee; Top This!; Qdoba (though a new restaurant has made plans to open in the space); The Thrill, followed by the quick opening and closing of The Heel; Time After Time; Ken’s Quickie Mart; Pita Pit; Game Stop; East End Oyster Bar; Cold Stone Creamery; and the pharmacy at Sutton’s Drugstore — all have closed in the past year or so.

As I was home writing up that depressing column, Robert Poitras, owner of Carolina Brewery, was speaking to the Friends of Downtown about how his restaurant and bar has lasted 20 years on Franklin Street. I would have expected him to be an ardent cheerleader of downtown, but I understand he spoke frankly about the challenges of doing business on Franklin Street.

Lack of convenient, low-cost, easy-to-use parking hurt downtown businesses, he told the audience, and the town could have done more to promote downtown businesses. He would like to have seen the town launch a “Rediscover Downtown Chapel Hill” marketing campaign. Instead, town staff spent $5,000, not including staff time, redesigning the town’s website. Ironically, the website before it was redesigned garnered one of the highest satisfaction ratings from town residents on a “How am I doing?” survey about a myriad of town departments. Since the revamp, users have struggled to find relevant information.

Poitras also spoke of wanting to add vitality to downtown without sacrificing its small-town charm.

In researching my business column, I spoke with a longtime Franklin Street landlord who lamented the loss of Parking Lot #2, which has been usurped by 140 West. An open lot feels easier to use and less of a commitment. The landlord opined that patrons of downtown businesses may not realize the underground lot is open to the public. Or they might think it’s too expensive.

The landlord pointed out that quite a few of the new businesses opening on Franklin Street in recent years are chain stores that have deeper pockets than independent businesses and can afford the high rents. But even the chain stores are struggling. Why would customers venture downtown and hassle with parking to go to a chain store when they could drive to Southpoint where the parking is free and take their pick of Any Mall USA stores?

Chain stores won’t draw people downtown, the landlord said; unique businesses will.

With that conversation fresh in my mind, I read a column in a local newspaper written by a local real estate agent pronouncing the form-based code used in Ephesus-Fordham a success, even though it is driving out a passel of unique, independent businesses from Village Plaza. The town manager is pushing for the faulty form-based code to be used with every new development henceforth.

Town residents already are voicing their objections to turning Chapel Hill into Southpoint with houses, and it sounds like independent business owners are joining the protest.
– Nancy Oates

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61 Comments

  1. Fred Black

     /  February 12, 2015

    We don’t have free parking for a very simple reason: students. Every college town I’ve been to deals with the same issue.

  2. Terri

     /  February 12, 2015

    I walked back from campus down Rosemary Street today, just so I could count and describe the parking options. Like others, I’ve never had a problem, but thought the 13 available lots was a bit of an exaggeration. It’s not–I found 12.

    Starting at the 100 block of Rosemary here’s the list. All the public lots have large Carolina signs that say Public Parking.

    2 decks ($1.00/hour)
    1 surface lot with attendant ($1.50/hour)
    1 surface lot (metered, $1.00/hour)
    3 UNC lots that are open to the public after 5 pm
    140 West deck ($1.00/hour)
    W. Franklin surface lot (by McDonalds) (metered, $1.00/hour)
    Greenbridge (didn’t get down that far)
    W. Graham surface lot (Carrboro, free)
    Surface lot on Graham or Church (3 Birds, metered, $1.00/hour)

    Multiple private lots–way too many IMHO. Seems like it would be a good idea to consolidate them into a deck and use the empty space for new construction instead of tearing down perfectly good older homes.

  3. many

     /  February 12, 2015

    A good analysis Terri and an excellent point about using available land at it’s “highest use”, but how would you consolidate private property?

    To me the number of adhoc private “lots” is a symptom of the lack of organization and infrastructure planning. Ideally lots would be linked by public transit allowing people to “park once”. Ideally besides being convenient and having appropriate capacity, they would be well known, visible, safe and accessible.

    As Fred rightly points out, there is a vastly different need when students are in town then when they are not.

    I am still expecting my next car to drop me off and park itself, then be paid for and recalled by an app on my mobile device.

  4. Terri, you say “I don’t think Franklin St. problems are the fault of the government. ”

    Wrong.

    Today’s problems are squarely the result of almost a decade of poor decision-making by our Town’s Council. The results were clearly predicted years ago – with many local folks arguing (back when Council seemed to listen instead of pretending to listen) for a better way.

    Chris, I agree with you about Sally Greene’s prestige pet project, the (expensive [$480K]) “steaming silver turd” of West 140.

    “Today, 140 West has a common space designed for what Mark is seeking; unfortunately, there’s a steam-breathing giant cheese grater in the middle of it that mars the site and prohibits its utilization for any significant gathering.”

    That space is legally public but, from what I’ve heard, so heavily policed by West140’s landlord, that handing out political leaflets is strictly prohibited.

    Mark, Peace & Justice is not just the size of a ping pong table but, today, has the same practical applicability when it comes to public gatherings. Most of the seated Council passed a reprehensible ordinance limiting dissent in that once vaunted place. History (and public dissent) be damned – all in fear of Occupy and other “scary” public outreach.

    As far as Downtown parking, here is the 2006 Downtown Parking Committee’s recommendations – many of which are still quite relevant.

    I served on this committee and well recall how several Council members, notably Ward (on the committee), Kleinschmidt and Greene, decided that raising parking prices was the answer to Downtown’s woes.

    They liked to reference Shoup’s “High Price of Free Parking” – treating it as the last word in their policy thinking – saying it was the recipe for fixing the ails of 100 block.

    It didn’t matter that Franklin St. and Chapel Hill was quite unlike Shoup’s study’s San Francisco’s Main St. – they absolutely had to up the cost of coming Downtown.

    I wasn’t the only committee member or local to argue against the increase. Several long time Downtown businesses also questioned the decision.

    As I noted in my application, I knew Downtown well – spent a lot of time there working/playing – and understood that their ideology was supplanting solid evidence to the contrary.

    It also bothered me that I never saw many of the supporters of the increase Downtown.

    Geoff, two last comments.

    You’re right about Al’s and Baxter’s. Two great and fun venues – both located close to easily available AND FREE (compliments of Carrboro) parking. I think it says a lot about the results of the current Council’s decisions that the most vibrant and fun part of Franklin has moved from East 100 block to the very tail-end of West Franklin. Lower rents. Easy parking?

    Finally, dead-on about “The Town’s big mistake with parking downtown was replacing the Lot 5 surface lot with underground spaces in the 140 West Franklin parking garage.” First, the Downtown Parking committee had already learned (and communicated to Council) that of all the classes of parking, underground was the least favored of all. Even Shoup noticed that in the most dense of urban topologies, folks would still maximally utilize it. Of course, the ideological led mistakes of West 140 aren’t just about a misfire, as we’ve seen the economic consequences are pretty stiff.

    Again, Kleinschmidt and Greene were dead wrong with their promise that the revenues generated would cover the $8+ million direct taxpayer contribution to the project.

    It’s a bit upsetting to see commenters on this thread so easily for the poor decisions of this and previous Councils as “unforeseeable”.

    2006’s Parking committee was the 3rd such effort since the early ’90’s (along with 2 similar – consultant heavy and EXPENSIVE!! efforts since) basically set forth very similar proposals.

    There is ZERO mystery – just a steady accumulation of missteps against a backdrop of citizens asking for a different course.

    What was needed then, and is needed now, is a fact-based, evidentiary, agile approach that can be recalibrated as conditions change.

    Finally, just because folks compare today’s Downtown with yesterday’s doesn’t mean that they are talking about knocking down the Council’s prestige projects or knocking back the grind of progress.

    As others noted, Franklin St. of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s was vibrant. Not 24/7 but awful close for large parts of the year. Diverse and successful LOCAL businesses (not Noodles, etc.) lined the street.

    Office, retail and residential was AFFORDABLE.

    Startups didn’t need a special (and subsidized) incubator. Retail could manage the deadly August doldrums. And the “creative class” – including a slew of Chapel Hill bands – flourished with cheap – close – residential (yep, there were actually 6000 Downtown residents before the recent luxury condo building boom).

    I wish we had local leadership that valued the advice of citizens – now and decades ago – in forging the future of our Town.

    Good thread.

  5. That is Shoup noticed that even in the densest of urban environments, underground WAS NOT maximally used.

  6. Whoops! “Shoup noticed that in the most dense of urban topologies, folks wouldn’t maximally utilize it”

  7. Terri

     /  February 13, 2015

    “Today’s problems are squarely the result of almost a decade of poor decision-making by our Town’s Council. ”

    I still don’t understand what “today’s problems” are.

    1. We hear that all the good businesses are gone–but I gave a list of businesses that have been open and active since the 1980s which offers evidence that the original claim may be more about bad business plans than about town policy.

    2. We hear there is insufficient parking but I counted at least 12 reasonably priced or free parking lots in a 6 block area.

    3. We hear that parking isn’t easy to find, but seriously if anyone can’t see those big blue signs I question whether they should be driving.

    4. We hear that the current restaurants are aimed at students, but I don’t think Top of the Hill, Spanky’s, Elaines, Lantern, La Residence, or Cholonad can be categorized as cheap student food.

    There’s a lot of other speculations that simply don’t hold up under investigation. Franklin Street isn’t like it was when I was young. I’m not like I was when I was young. I don’t deny there are problems in town, but Franklin Street isn’t one of them IMHO. However, I do agree that 140 West and that awful sculpture are a huge disappointment.

  8. DOM

     /  February 13, 2015

    CitizenWill –

    Are you speaking as a member of CHALT or a these your own assumptions?

  9. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 13, 2015

    I am trying to remember who it was that said the 140 W Franklin sculpture cost $750,000.00. Is that 1% of the cost of the building?

  10. paulko

     /  February 14, 2015

    I have an arts studio in the courtyard. Normally parking is not a problem, especially during the day before 6pm. But I have to report, that this was the second Friday in a row, for Art Walk, where patrons have texted me and called me and said they keep trying to kind a parking space and are giving up and going home. This is not great for my business! After 6 on Friday and Saturday it is hard to find parking on West Franklin. Behind my building are several spots marked reserved. They stay empty because you will be towed, I know this first hand. So, there is a prking problem sometimes, especially on the weekends.

  11. paulko

     /  February 15, 2015

    Deborah,
    It has been reported that both sculptures and the planning by Clearscapes cost close to a million dollars. Peter Cummings, the developer and owner of RAM who developed the spot, said he had to pay for the public art out of his profits. I am not so sure of this statement since probably the costs were absorbed by the town and the residents.
    I agree, I live at 140, the “cheese grater” was horribly conceived and only breaks up the space and makes it unusable as a gathering spot. That was the priority of the town to “create a new town gathering space”. But I have been there for the summer arts series usually attended by 8 or so people. Chalk drawing on the pavement is the only activity for children that sometimes gets out of hand. It makes common sense for that space to have had a verticle sculpture and more green. We bought into the project because all the glitzy promotions showed a lot more trees, tables and chairs and planters. The reality is that our board and residents have had to purchase these items ourselves at considerable expense. When it opened a prominent relative of a prominent town official looked down from the eight floor terrace and said “look at all that concrete, this is NOT Chapel Hill”!
    The people who live in 140 are great, a nice mix of all walks of life and yes, incomes thanks to the Land Trust. Our main concern is the nightly noise from the bars on Rosemary Street, which has gotten worse this year, and the empty retail spaces.

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