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Blog post: Did Chapel Hill just change the definition of retail for the entire town?

Local government wonks, where are you?

Among Chapel Hill Town Council’s recent votes on covid, police brutality and climate change was the kind of small local government change that could have huge ramifications down the road.

In February, Mayor Pam Hemminger petitioned to allow flex office and “experiential retail” to help 140 West sign an escape room. (What are escape rooms? I haven’t been to one, but they look like those mobile games that are kind of boring but creep me out, and I stop playing.)

Hemminger petitioned to make this change in downtown. But by June, when the new ordinance was approved, the change was much bigger and seemed to apply to the entire town.

Wait, the entire town? Is that true? I checked in with Anya Grahn, the planner who drafted the new ordinance. The answer was: Yes.

“We amended our definition of Business, General to include all commercial establishments that provide retail sales and services,” Grahn said over e-mail. “This allows experiential retail to be permitted in all areas where Business, General is currently allowed throughout Town.”

“Business General,” defines the types of retail allowed.

For anyone interested, the new ordinance is here.

And here’s an excerpt:

Ordinance business general

This is fascinating to me. Crossing out the language of, “in addition to serving day to day commercial needs of a community, also supply the more durable and permanent needs of a whole community, including…,” and replacing it with just, “provide retail sales and services.”

Grahn also confirmed that this change does apply to Neighborhood Commercial and Community Commercial, which include: the shopping center with Flyleaf Books, University Plaza mall, the Glen Lennox and Fresh Market centers, the site of the future Wegmans and the Lowe’s shopping center across U.S. 15-501, the commercial stretch with Caffe Driade.

But it does not affect the Whole Foods and Living Kitchen area.

Grahn also clarified that the flex office change was only for downtown, and that pool halls and arcades are still allowed, even though the language for them was removed.

But if Hemminger’s petition was mainly to help 140 West, and was for downtown, then why was this change made for the rest of Chapel Hill?

Grahn replied: “As we started looking into our Use Table in Land Use Management Ordinance 3.7 we realized that many of our current definitions limited retail opportunities. The retail industry has substantially changed and expanded since our codes were adopted, and we used this as an opportunity to make additional changes that would broaden the definitions in our code to include many of these new types of businesses.”

So there will be new retail in Chapel Hill soon. But it seems that removing that language of “durable and permanent needs” could open the floodgates to retail that even the town leaders and planners didn’t expect.

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