On Feb. 20, the Chapel Hill Town Council heard the first plans for the CVS building on Franklin Street from Cary-based Grubb Properties. The developer wants to completely revamp the look and feel of the building, located at 136 E. Franklin St. and 137 E. Rosemary St., that used to be known as the Bank of America Center.
According to Grubb Properties’ marketing materials, it wants to put in a new façade, a new lobby in 136 Rosemary St., 16 new restrooms, new roof, new LED lighting, and it says, demolition of all interior walls.
The developer also owns the parking deck at 125 E. Rosemary St., which it wants to demolish and replace with a new parking deck. Additionally, Grubb Properties wants to demolish the existing Wallace parking deck on Rosemary Street and replace it with 200,000 square feet of office and “wet lab space,” according to the N&O.
Grubb had bought these properties last April for $23.5 million.
The redevelopment plan also calls for new “public green spaces,” behind the Chapel Hill Post Office, at part of the parking lot on Rosemary and Columbia streets, and wider sidewalks and bike lanes at 125 Rosemary St., according to the N&O.
From the plans provided in news articles of the past week, and renderings of smooth, big sidewalks, glass facades, and green spaces, this project does not sound like it suits the character of Franklin Street or downtown Chapel Hill.
They actually sound like they would pave over and sanitize the very things that people like about Franklin Street.
And wet labs on Franklin Street or anywhere in downtown Chapel Hill? That does not sound right.
There is also nothing currently going on in the world, in Chapel Hill, or on Franklin Street that feels like the demand for such a development even exists. That movement in the economy is just not there, and there is no impetus on Franklin Street for it either. This project is very out-of-the-blue.
But Chapel Hill town leaders are already expressing excitement about the project, which is dubbed the “East Rosemary Downtown Redevelopment Project.” Mayor Pam Hemminger in this N&O article said it’s exciting because fewer UNC students are eating at downtown restaurants, and that’s why Chapel Hill needs more people to live and work downtown, and that way, it can also bring back UNC startups.
Hmm. OK, let’s dissect this.
First of all, the claim that UNC students are not eating at downtown restaurants is not true. Ever go to Hops before it closed? Or Al’s Burger Shack? Or Carolina Coffee Shop, across from the CVS building? Ever drive through Franklin Street on a Friday night?
UNC students are on Franklin Street constantly. There is definitely foot traffic and a desire to walk around with friends, go to the shops and restaurants, maybe catch a movie at the Varsity Theater. The demand for Franklin Street itself, both among students and among townspeople, has not changed.
But what has been happening is political tumult and an atmosphere of fear and anger, and constant stress on people and businesses.
Going back to Fall 2018. The atmosphere around UNC and Chapel Hill fell apart immediately with the Silent Sam protests. There were police cars on Franklin Street around the post office area, and students looked down and stressed. Who would have been going to stores and restaurants around that time? What townspeople would have been strolling through Franklin Street?
Or take Black Friday 2018. Late 2018 was a very dark time, and that Black Friday was a gloomy, cloudy day. Varsity Theater had been showing “A Star is Born,” but pulled the movie just a few days before. Bandido’s Mexican Cafe was closed. Fedora Boutique was closed. So even if someone wanted to support local businesses, there wasn’t much opportunity to do so.
By the time a customer, themselves working in stressful jobs, finds the energy and desire to come out to a business, that business itself is exhausted and decides to close. So the two do not meet.
Is there anything the town can do smooth this out, or to maintain the vibrancy of Franklin Street when people and businesses on their own cannot? Should the town do something about this or support businesses in some way? Maybe those are questions the town’s leaders could be thinking about.
Back to Hemminger’s remarks about startups and the need for people to live and work in downtown. Would ongoing construction on a major redevelopment, that will reduce foot traffic and force out long-time businesses, lead to more people wanting to live and work in downtown, or lead to more startups wanting to be there?
If the developer actually proceeds with plans to demolish the Wallace parking deck and construct a new office building there, the area with Bandido’s, the old space of The Rathzkeller, and at ground-level, the Sutton’s Drug Store — will all be stressed beyond belief.
Is this really the right way to bring people downtown?
There are other red flags and other things about this project that do not make sense.
According to the N&O, the town would kick in $28.1 milion, or with interest, it would be $39.5 million, for Grubb Properties to demolish the parking deck at 125 E. Rosemary St. and replace it with a new parking deck. The new parking deck would have ground-floor retail. But is nearly $40 million really a good investment for mostly just parking?
Also, Grubb wants to use the capital gains tax credit available through the federal “Opportunity Zone” program, which is for 10-year investments in economically disadvantaged areas. Downtown Chapel Hill going down East Franklin Street to the Estes Drive area is Orange County’s “Opportunity Zone.” But, how is any part of that area economically disadvantaged?
And Hemminger has said she is against climate change. In that case then, should the mayor not be for preserving an existing property instead of wasting resources on a needless, massive redevelopment?
Finally, there is another aspect of this proposal that’s very off-putting, which is the timing of it.
This has already happened with Porthole Alley. In summer 2017, construction on the alleyway, which many UNC students take to get from campus to Franklin Street, went on for months. And that began right as young people — and the job market and work culture was more full for young people in downtown at that time — might have wanted to explore and walk around Franklin Street and the UNC campus the most.
Since then, UNC keeps wanting to make changes to Porthole Alley, including plans to change the character of that area completely with new buildings, possibly leading to the closure of Carolina Coffee Shop.
This happened again with the plans for this CVS building, which were announced right as parts of the arts community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro had just stabilized. But without giving people any time to take a breath, suddenly there were these plans for a major redevelopment looming. The businesses in that are also seem like they are just rebounding, and now suddenly, they might be faced with years of construction around them.
The CVS/Bank of America building, the Wallace parking deck, Porthole Alley, these are places that have a lot of history, and emotional and artistic potential. And since this development wants to completely remake the parking deck on Rosemary Street, maybe that also applies to that parking deck.
Maybe instead of forcing a needless redevelopment on these properties, turning them into something unrecognizable and actually stripping Franklin Street of its character, Chapel Hill’s leaders can just — well, leave them alone and let people decide for themselves how they should be used. And the town wouldn’t even have to spend $40 million for that.