Downtown Chapel Hill Businesses Continue to Evolve

Downtown Chapel Hill has seen a lot of things change over the years and that is continuing with new businesses coming into the area.

Kristen Smith, with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, says she is anxious to see where the changes in downtown Chapel Hill lead.

“I think downtown is evolving. And that’s what makes it exciting,” she says.

She adds that many businesses view downtown as a place they can thrive, and it is important to find the right pieces to complete the puzzle.

“Downtown is so desirable, these spaces don’t stay empty,” she says. “It’s just about finding the right mix.”

Smith points out that there are already areas of downtown where you can see the evolution as businesses revamp certain locations.

“Graham Street has transformed,” she says. “We’re seeing new businesses, and I hope that people take an opportunity to get involved.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says that overall there is a very low retail vacancy rate in Chapel Hill, but adds turnover is important to continue pushing the economic climate in the right direction and find businesses that can plant long-term roots in the area.

“A healthy downtown, or a main street, is going to have a fractional vacancy rate,” he says. “So that you can continue to freshen the mix of retail options for consumers.”

Smith says the possibility exists of, literally, building up in downtown. She adds that as certain developments grow taller that will open more possibilities of living space in downtown Chapel Hill. The extra population could turn into high retail foot traffic and add another layer of economic input to those downtown businesses.

“Downtown Imagined” has grown out of the “Rosemary Imagined” project. More information about all of the undertakings in development for downtown Chapel Hill can be seen on the Town of Chapel Hill webpage.

Council Hears Plans For Graduate Housing Downtown

Jay Patel, one of the co-owners of the Franklin Hotel, wants to build a six story, 105-unit apartment building and parking deck behind the hotel between Kenan and Mallette streets. He told the Town Council the project is unlike anything else being built in Chapel Hill.

“Our project is going to be focused specifically on graduate students and working professionals and we don’t think there’s anything like that available in the immediate downtown on a rental basis,” said Patel.

At a public hearing before the Council on Monday night, Patel said the project, known as The Graduate, represents a $20 million dollar investment that would generate more than $200,000 in property tax revenue each year.

An earlier concept plan called for student rentals aimed at undergraduates, but that plan has since been revised to target graduate students and young professionals, with no per-bedroom rentals.

The proposal also promises 15 percent of the units will be maintained as affordable workforce rentals for 30 years, in return for increased density. Project engineer John McAdams says size is key to the project’s success.

“This is urban infill and indeed, the proposed building is large,” said McAdams. “In order to be financially feasible the building simply has to be this large.”

However, neighbors said the scale of the building and the traffic it might generate are major sticking points.

“Our big issues with this are twofold,” said Kurt Ribisl, president of the Cameron-McCauley Neighborhood Association. “It’s the massing of the building on the Mallette Street eastern side that is really too big, and number two, a lot of the traffic dumps out just on one side, to Mallette Street.”

The Graduate proposal will return to the Council for a vote on October 27.

CHTC Mulls Mallette Street Apartment Concept

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council is cautiously optimistic about a plan to build a six-story apartment building behind the Franklin Hotel, but Council members say there are still questions to be answered before the project moves forward.

Jay and Anup Patel of Wintergreen Hospitality want to build 55 apartments on Mallette Street behind the Franklin Hotel. The apartments were originally billed as student housing, but John McAdams told the Council on Monday they are rethinking that concept.

“Franklin Student Housing is a concept name and we will be changing it because it is meant to appeal to more than just students,” said McAdams.

However, Council member Lee Storrow said it wasn’t clear how appealing that mix might be to non-student renters.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that some of our older residents who are low-wage workers, even if you are providing some affordable housing, are going to have the same interests to live in a project that sounds like it is going to be about 90 percent undergrads,” said Storrow.

The developers are proposing a five- and six-story building on just less than one acre of land currently used as a parking lot. They told the Council they need to add density above and beyond what the area is zoned for to make the project economically feasible. In return, they hope to designate 20 percent of the apartments as permanently affordable rentals.

Council member Sally Greene pressed for details about the affordable rental plan, but Jay Patel said that’s still up in the air.

“For us, the priority now is to figure out the strategy and what the intent should be, based on your feedback and the community’s feedback, and then the logistics of figuring out how to make that happen,” said Patel.

Council members also urged the developers to rethink the buffer between the buildings and the Cameron-McCauley Historic District adjacent to the property.

“I don’t know how you do that, I’ve got no clue,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “But right now it just seems too high, too close.”

Council member Donna Bell said this could become more of a problem in the future as new properties are developed downtown.

“We should work in coordination with the developer to think about how these bufferings should work and think of it as sort of a pilot program to figure out what we’re going to do long-term,” said Bell.

The Franklin Housing concept is still being developed and no formal plan has been submitted to the town.

A separate plan to redevelop Timber Hollow Apartments on Martin Luther King Boulevard was scheduled to come before the Council on Monday, but developer Ron Strom asked to delay deliberations until February.

Carrboro Aldermen Debate Downtown Parking

CARRBORO- The Board of Aldermen wants to hire a consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of the availability of residential and business parking around the downtown area, but board members differ on what should be the ultimate goal of the town’s parking plan.

Sammy Slade said he’d like to see reduced parking downtown to encourage public transit and limit vehicle emissions.

“We just had a typhoon in the Philippines, we’re likely to have disasters here, and we’re supposed to be a town that’s leading the way in mitigating climate change,” said Slade. “It is very frustrating to not be able to register this reality and move forward with a bold plan.”

Others, including Jacqueline Gist, disagreed, saying such a move could hurt downtown businesses.

“I cannot say ‘reduce the number of parking spaces and support our downtown businesses and keep downtown accessible,’” said Gist. “I think the study will give us some facts to do that, but I’m not going to support something, the premise of which is come up with a plan that reduces parking.”

Mayor Mark Chilton said while he sympathized with Slade, the request to lower the current number of spaces is not consistent with the town’s growth plans.

“There are other aspects of where our planning is headed for the downtown area that call for additional businesses and additional residences to come into the downtown area,” said Chilton. “It seems to me it is not very realistic to think of continued growth without having some continued growth in the amount of parking.”

Chilton suggested that changing the parking ratio for future developments might be a workable alternative.

The town collaborated with UNC students in 2008 to conduct a parking survey, but Randee Haven-O’Donnell said it’s time to update the plan as conditions downtown are rapidly changing.

“You know the data that’s in there is based on the lots that existed or were in use at the time, but things are changing, and I think it’s important for us to look at what’s really on the ground now and what’s going to change in the next year or two,” said Haven-O’Donnell.

The comprehensive parking plan outlined by town staffers would not only include a survey of available business and residential parking, it would also lay out a policy for managing the town’s parking supply.

Although board members agreed on the need for such a plan, the potential $100,000 consultant fee gave some pause.

“Obviously one of the issues here is the cost of undertaking a project like this. It has pretty big implications for a budget the size of ours,” said Damon Seils. “There will need to be some discussion about that.”

The board directed staffers to refine the proposal and said they want to gather public feedback to clarify the goal of the parking plan. Funding for the project will likely be discussed at the board’s planning retreat scheduled for early next year.

Parking Rates Could Rise in Downtown Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL-The Chapel Hill Town Council is poised to increase some parking fees to make sure the town’s parking fund stays solvent.

According to the town’s business management director, the parking fund assets have declined since the closure of Lot 5, which has been subsequently redeveloped into 140 West.

The town borrowed $7.2 million dollars to build 161 public underground parking spaces in that development, and although the debt service for the project is less than anticipated, the parking fund will continue to operate in the red without a price increase.

In response, town officials suggest raising the rates for on-street metered parking on Franklin Street by 25 cents to $1.50 per hour. That rate increase will also affect parking on Mallette and Graham streets. Parking at the lot on the corner of Rosemary and Columbia will go up 20 cents to $1.50 per hour.

If approved, the rate increases will be included in next year’s budget plan.

As always, on-street parking is free after 6 p.m., lot parking is free after 8 p.m., and all downtown parking is free on Sundays.