How often do we hear the community — the people who live here or have businesses here or Nancy Oatesotherwise spend money here — tout the virtues of walkability? Some of us on council are pushing for creating a more walkable town by advocating for shorter block size (300 feet, tops) for new developments, more sidewalks and extended greenway, a realistic and usable bike and pedestrian plan, and a bus system that gets people where they want to go when they want to get there.

Walkability will stay top-of-mind as I review development and redevelopment proposals. After hearing some of the plans for downtown, I want to make sure a key component doesn’t get lost. I am advocating for loafability.

Even the most self-disciplined among us need a mental and physical break during the workday. Particularly people who work long stints indoors need to be able to step outside for a little while and leave work challenges behind. And why must tourists who want to stop for a moment and soak in the charm of Downtown Chapel Hill have to do so standing up on hot cement?

If we want to draw business downtown, we need to sprinkle in pleasant places to sit. Some years back, the town removed many of the benches along Franklin Street for fear that indigent people would get too comfortable. But the plan backfired: The indigent perch on planters or spread out on the sidewalk, and paying customers have to keep walking with no place to pause.

We had an opportunity for a loafable space at 140 West. Instead, the owners paved it over and installed a misting metal sculpture with no place to sit. To comply with our 1% for Art ordinance, 140 West owners have spent some of the money on bands to perform on the plaza. Rarely do they have much of an audience. The plaza was not designed to linger.

Carolina Square, while seeking approval from council, spoke of a green public gathering space in its courtyard. Now that construction has begun, the owners have decided to fill up the space with a very large sculpture instead.

Downtown*, with its many old buildings and independent businesses, offers many reasons to linger but no places to do so. As downtown changes with the times, let’s make sure to increase its loafability quotient.

*The Chapel Hill Parking Service has made it easier to visit downtown this month. During July, enjoy two hours of free on-street parking on Saturdays. If downtown merchants report an uptick in business on Saturdays in July, the town might consider extending the freebie. Come downtown and do your part.
— Nancy Oates

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
Leave a comment


  1. Good point. Recall John Pucher’s fascinating Complete Streets presentation where he proposed Franklin Street be reduced to one lane each way with additional space for sidewalk plazas (for loafing), bikeways, and pedestrian amenities.


  2. Nancy, everything old is new again.

    In 2005 (and on), I ran on a platform calling for Downtown pocket-parks (with at least one having a family friendly play area), additional public restrooms (and a budget to keep them clean), restoration of the few removed benches (many more ended up being removed) and drinking fountains (which Chapel Hill used to have).

    Subsequently, I did the same as a local resident who remembered how “loafable” Downtown used to be ( adding, as the years passed, that alternatives to the escalating removal of the historic shade trees be evaluated).

    As you can guess, didn’t get a lot of traction.

    In fact, while the vision for more green, relaxing space was co-opted by some of the candidates I ran against, the willingness to implement was sorely missing (one of your current colleagues suggested that the alley paralleling Church St. -between the Bicycle Chain and Lime & Basil – was a laudable example of her advocacy being realized).

    As you note, and in spite of community calls and support for an alternative, a great opportunity at West140 was missed. The “silver cheese grater” is a great example of what not to do with a Downtown public space.

    I’m also not surprised that the UNC Foundation has reneged on its pledge to provide “un-programmed space” (what we used to call a simple green sward) in the middle of their development.

    When I and other citizens asked Cousins to incorporate that feature over multiple public outreach events, its reps seemed to begrudgingly incorporate it as a near after thought. They also always made the point that while that they called the space “public”, it was totally theirs to control. Given the rather draconian rules at Cousin’s other properties, that was not a very encouraging tack for them to take.

    Beyond the disaster at West140, another example of poor use of “public” space is the uninviting UNC controlled “park” next to Brown’s Hardware.

    This little park used to be wide open and a nice reprieve during the hottest of summers. Now it is fenced and locked down like Fort Knox (keep out, keep out). The gate is routinely locked during the supposed hours of open “public” access.

    Want a great example of how to use a small space to create an absolutely delightful “loafing” spot?

    Kudos go to University Baptist with its redeveloped garden on the corner of Columbia and Franklin. Not only is it a beautiful, quiet and comfortable centrally located oasis – it has great Wifi.

    That overgrown corner used to be used as an outdoor bathroom. UB could’ve easily fenced it in and turned an iconic corner into a public dead zone.

    Instead, UB not only created one of the most inviting, pleasant spaces to hangout Downtown but gave us an instructive lesson to follow.

  3. Terri

     /  July 18, 2016

    The park at 440 W. Franklin that Will is referring to is opened sometime before 7:00 am and locked around 6:30 pm. Not sure where he’s getting his information that “The gate is routinely locked during the supposed hours of open “public” access.”

    Nancy–if you want downtown to be more walkable, you could start with small steps like making sure the sidewalks are cleared of snow, ice and other debris. People don’t just walk downtown to loaf–some of us walk for commuting and other concrete purposes.

    Since it was the town council that approved the plans for the University Square replacement, shouldn’t the town council hold the developers responsible for adhering to those plans? It didn’t happen for 140–a lovely green space with trees and inviting public space was planned. Jim Ward pushed and pushed to get that green space included in the plans before the development was approved, and then those plans just didn’t happen and no one blinked an eye (publicly at least). You can be more assertive and hold Cousins accountable. I encourage you to do so.

  4. Terri, when I used to spend more time Downtown – especially during the Summer – I found either the front, back or both gates locked during the day. Maybe UNC has done a better job over the last few years though I do spot check it as I walk by and have still seen it occasionally locked.

    I’ve yet to hear a persuasive argument for why it was locked off in the first place after being opened for decades.

    As far as W140, there were a lot of backroom shenanigans but the disappearance of the green and trees was not one of them. If you review the record, Jim mentioned his disappointment late in the process – that’s quite a reach from really fighting to restore the original concept.

    I’ve posted all the audio the Town made of the special “negotiating” meetings for West140 and other extensive notes on citizenwill.org if you’re interested in how the mess was created. Unfortunately, the Town has done a fantastic job of putting the posted links to minutes/agendas through a blender breaking hundreds of links to relevant materials.

  5. Terri

     /  July 19, 2016

    Will, I work in that building and have for 3 years now. The gates are locked during the hours I listed above.

  6. Thanks for raising this point, Nancy.

    So good to hear from CitizenWill again.

  7. Nancy

     /  July 19, 2016

    Terri, as far as council holding developers accountable, unless it is a specific condition of the Special Use Permit, council can’t do anything. And if the town manager deems a change minor, such as approving a large sculpture instead of a common green space, council wouldn’t even know about it. Sometimes things that are supposed to be in the contract get changed or omitted. I recall at a CDC meeting on the Timber Hollow rezoning and SUP, the CDC, developer & community agreed that the cut-through to the adjacent neighborhood would be pavers instead of a fully paved street. But when the SUP came before council, it was written up as a fully paved street. The council liaison to the CDC was not at the CDC meeting, and though the chair spoke to council advocating for the less-permeable option, council approved a fully paved street.

    As for downtown sidewalks being cleared, that is the responsibility of the business owner. My experience is that they do a pretty good job.

    If you work in the 440 W. Franklin building, perhaps you can press for the gates to be unlocked during the day. My observation has been that the park is locked to outsiders.

  8. plurimus

     /  July 19, 2016

    I agree with Will & Nancy, a deficit in space to gather, rest and “loaf” has developed it is important to look at the effects more space downtown will have.

    Many of those who do not have a set destination or schedule are the visitors downtown business rely on.

    Others are not, and eyes wide open these spaces will be a magnet for the aimless. History suggests that will be a problem.

    I followed the debate last century on the benches and I was very surprised that the community in a passive aggressive act to eliminate pan handling and loitering, chose to sacrifice its benches. I didn’t think it would work and it didn’t, it just made the downtown less friendly to everyone.

    The town needs to think this through and understand that the impact potential is far greater once a decade snow and ice storm. An increase in public areas will increase the cost of maintaining and enforcing the downtown as the walkable and livable place everyone wants it to be. Chief Blue and his officers, do a fine job but they can only do so much with the resources they have.

    Homelessness, unemployment, vagrancy, drug addiction, the lack of mental health services and beds, proliferation of weapons, and increased community tensions from those who have been disenfranchised; are all problems society has dumped on law enforcement and the courts.

    Of course, Chapel Hill by itself cannot solve this;……but, in an effort to keep history from rhyming again, the effects and pressures societies lack of action will put on community spaces and transitively on services every day is something that should be discussed and accounted for.

  9. Terri

     /  July 19, 2016

    Nancy–I come and go from what you perceive as locked gates several times a day (M-F) without my ID card. Not sure why you think it is locked, but you’re just wrong. The gates are locked after hours and on weekends when there is no staff on duty in the building. But given the nature of the building (IT), everyone who works or goes to school here should be thankful the building is secured. The parking lot, on the other hand, it well used by the public as soon as Public Safety removes the gates at 5:00 pm (M-Th) and on weekends.

    Perhaps council should consider reviewing the decision to let the manager make design changes or at least require that you are notified when such changes are made.

  10. Linda Convissor

     /  July 19, 2016

    Nancy and Will,
    I want to affirm what Terri has said about the gates. She knows better than I what hours they are open, but essentially they are open during the day and locked at night. There could be a snafu on a particular day (call me if you find them locked) but the practice is for them to be open.

    There was much discussion about this in 2004-05 when 440 West Franklin had some work done on the building and landscaping added to the parking lot. Tommy Tucker, who had developed Rosemary Village, was concerned about the locked (at night) garden blocking one of the few pedestrian connections between Rosemary and Franklin Streets. Nancy Suttenfield, who was VC for Finance and Administration at the time, supported the idea of building a brick walkway to connect the two. That’s what led to construction of the lighted walkway that allows a clear pedestrian path through one of the longer (longest?) blocks downtown.

  11. Nancy

     /  July 20, 2016

    Thanks, Linda. Good to have a contact person. And good to have the greenspace open to the public.