Welcome to “A Vibrant Chapel Hill, Today and Tomorrow!” a monthly interview series with Chapel Hill’s Economic Development and Parking Services office, exclusively on 97.9 The Hill WCHL & Chapelboro.com.

Every month you’ll get updates from department staff and special guests, to learn about initiatives the town is taking to ensure a Vibrant Chapel Hill, Today and Tomorrow.

This month’s guest: Katie Bowden, Economic Development Manager for Town of Chapel Hill Economic Development.

Listen to the full conversation with Aaron Keck or read the transcript below, which is lightly edited for clarity.


Aaron Keck: Good morning!

Katie Bowden: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Keck: We talked about the Streetscape project before in the mobility study, but catch us up for folks who are just joining us or need a refresher. What is the mobility study?

Bowden: The project was initiated as a post pandemic downtown revitalization effort in 2021. UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill announced the Carolina Economic Development Strategy, which was a new partnership to revitalize downtown and further economic development in Chapel Hill. It’s really aimed at retaining and attracting more innovation-oriented businesses, talent, and full-time residents to downtown. The following year, our (Town of Chapel Hill Economic Development) department requested ARPA funds to implement this work. Much of those funds being dedicated to a two-part streetscape enhancement and mobility plan that create a vision for public right of way improvements in downtown.

Keck: We’re talking first, about mobility. How will this lead to downtown being different or transformed or better?

Bowden: Mobility is looking at movements, specifically the way people move in, around and through downtown. Whether that be by car, bike, transit, or on foot. The focus is creating a vision and design for our downtown street system and public right of way that achieves economic vitality, improves the pedestrian experience, and creates safety and accessibility for everyone who comes downtown.

Keck: So that’s mobility. What is streetscape, we talked about that before. That was kind of like the look of downtown, right?

Bowden: Right. The streetscape is everything in the public realm. Building face to building face and understanding that great streets make for a great place.

Keck: What’s been accomplished so far?

Bowden: Believing that downtown Chapel Hill is the heart of our community, we want it to work for all users, downtown business owners, our workers, shoppers and diners, resident students, but also kids and seniors, people with limited vision, mobility, our neighbors in need. Truly everyone. This is a multi-stage endeavor with many stakeholders. And we’ve been utilizing a consultant group based out of Raleigh, Toole Design, to ensure all recommended improvements are safe, accessible, and sustainable. Our first phase was the mobility plan, and that concluded late last summer. It resulted in several options that fit within those previously stated goals of economic vitality, safety, and such. We were looking at things such as widening sidewalks, extending the tree canopy, and creating additional pedestrian connections between Franklin Street and Rosemary Street. The mobility study was focused on how our street network functions today, understanding who currently goes downtown and who doesn’t.

Keck:  And ideally trying to bring those people in, right?

Bowden: Yes. And for the people coming downtown, to find out why they are coming, and what their experiences are when they’re here.

Keck: That’s always the hard part with studies like this because you end up focusing on the people who do come downtown and there’s these other people who don’t. Why don’t they, let’s bring that in. That must be the hardest part of the whole thing.

Bowden: Yes. This next phase is more detailed. It will result in block specific designs that include things like material selections and addresses, everything from streetlights and benches to our public gathering areas, which are those things that will hopefully help to bring people downtown, even getting down to the type and placement of trees. And there’s going to be a lot of public engagement touch points, one in the spring and then another one in the fall. And these are designed to be interactive and to do just what you were saying to help us hear from others in the community and hear what they want downtown to be.

Downtown Chapel Hill Overviews 1.9.20

Keck: You started by talking about this as growing out of a vitalization/revitalization of downtown and bringing in businesses and getting the downtown to a place where it’s really growing and moving and thriving. Connect that dot for us a little bit more because I don’t know if everyone will automatically be able to make the connection between “better tree canopy” and attracting really good businesses to downtown Chapel Hill. Right. So what’s that connection?

Bowden: We know people like to be around other people. If you think about your favorite city that you’ve ever visited. A lot of times I hear about people that have traveled to Europe and they think about Paris and all the street seating opportunities and the cafes and just the way that people are in the space without necessarily having to patronize a certain business. It’s just a nice place to be and to stay and you want to come to that space, and you want to spend all day.

Keck: We were just in Barcelona last year. It’s exactly like that. Nooks and crannies here and there.

Bowden:  That’s the idea. You, you’re creating a place that’s of interest, that’s a draw that serves everyone and serves everyone really well.

Keck: How does the public get involved? You mentioned a couple of upcoming events and one of them is this spring.

Bowden: Engaging with the public is going to be a very critical piece of this project. The purpose of right of way, as we just talked about, is that it’s for everyone to utilize. We want everyone to be involved in shaping its outcome. So please we ask that you all get involved through this public engagement opportunity. We’re going to be launching the programs in the next few weeks. The first being our Great Streets Workshop  on Tuesday, April 9th. It will be hosted at The Junction on East Rosemary Street, doors opening at 5 p.m.

Keck: People should be checking The Junction out anyway because it’s new and cool and exciting.

Bowden:  It’s going to be really fun, and this is a really exciting event in particular because we’ll have speakers coming from other communities who have gone through a streetscape enhancement design process themselves. Basically people who have been there, done that, having gone from a vision through construction and come out on the other end, really speaking to their experience and the positive impact to their respective communities. So that will really set the stage for what’s possible in downtown Chapel Hill. And the following day, Wednesday, April 10th, we’ll have a series of community walks downtown, starting times at 9:00 a.m. 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. We’ll meet on East Rosemary at the Rosemary/Columbia intersection. Our town and consultant team will be walking downtown with community members, giving them an opportunity to talk through what is currently great about downtown, the things they love, but also pointing out the things that are missing, or that they wish there were more of. And then beyond those dates, we’ll have opportunities for some virtual interaction. And then we’ll be coming back in the fall for a whole new series of engagement opportunities.

Keck: Awesome. I know you’re accepting any and all comments at this point, but have you drilled down to specific questions or narrow questions that you really want answers from the public on yet?

Bowden:  Not specifics yet. This is really an opportunity to hear what’s working well, what’s not, and we’ll be gathering all of that to then start drilling down in more specific design concepts over the summer. And then that’s what we’ll be bringing back in the fall to really get, I think, much more specific questions answered.

Keck: And what’s the timeline on next steps after that?

Bowden:  After hearing feedback, and again in the fall, we hope to finalize designs and then present the final plan to Town Council by the end of the year.

Keck: What else should folks know about this project or anything else going on in town through economic development?

Bowden: Just continue to check the and social media feeds for more information about this project and other initiatives.

Keck:  Katie Bowden, thank you so much for being with us.

Bowden: Thank you!

Aaron Keck and Katie Bowden