Corporate growth or historic integrity: That’s the debate in Chapel Hill

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By Abby Jordan

Special to North Carolina Construction News

If you were to walk down Franklin Street 100 years ago, it would look very different than it does now. Not because of the buggy style cars or the slanted parking spots on both sides of the street, but because of the dramatic difference in storefronts. In the early 1900s, Franklin Street was comprised mainly of small businesses; now, these businesses are merely sprinkled throughout the street. In their place, chains like CVS and Target.

306 West Franklin is the latest victim of this corporate expansion.

In late November 2022, The Purple Bowl—a tenant of 306 West Franklin—announced via social media the building where it resides had transferred ownership and the new owners, Longfellow Real Estate Partners, had plans to tear it down to build a new office space.

This plan, with three proposed options, includes tearing down the 100-year-old building and revamping the 1.84 acres of land to include labs and office spaces to be housed by pharmaceutical companies. This seven-story building would be the tallest building in downtown Chapel Hill.

Though the plan is only in its early stages, it has highlighted a growing concern of small business owners in Chapel Hill.

pb 2“I’m disappointed in Chapel Hill,” CEO of The Purple Bowl Paula Gilland said. “I don’t feel like small businesses are being taken care of.”

Looking at Franklin Street now, only a few of the original restaurants stand, including Sutton’s Drug Store, Mama Dip’s and Carolina Coffee Shop. The town of Chapel Hill recognizes this and says it only wants to promote growth.

“Private jobs are critically important for future paths for Chapel Hill,” said Dwight Bassett, head of Economic Development and Parking Services for the town. “I don’t think anyone can really dispute that. No one is trying to not have local businesses.”

Only 13% of all jobs in Chapel Hill are held by Chapel Hill residents, Basset said. Durham, on the other hand, boasts 30% of local jobs held by Durham residents.

“We’re simply trying to keep in Chapel Hill what begins in Chapel Hill,” Bassett said. “If you really get to the heart of part of why this is important, it’s about helping to activate our downtown 12 months out of the year so that the local businesses can thrive, and not just survive.”

Gilland feels differently.

“Many college towns try to protect what we’re destructing,” Gilland said.

The Purple Bowl, an organic health food restaurant, has been open since 2017. It employs 64 workers, a majority of whom are college students. Another portion of Gilland’s workers are disabled.

According to Gilland, Longfellow Real Estate Partners, who prides itself on helping “innovation organizations flourish by delivering world-class real estate spaces,” has offered a solution for The Purple Bowl.

“Their proposal was that we would just close for three years because that’s about how long they think it would take to build a new building,” said Gilland. “And we could get space in the bottom of their building.”

But this is not an option for her. Even if she put her business on hold for three years, she says, the bottom of a corporate office would be such an undesirable location that she thinks she would lose too much business for her model to be sustainable.

“If you walk around Chapel Hill, you see that there’s many dark bottom building spaces that haven’t been leased,” Gilland said. “That’s because things don’t do well. It’s a recipe for disaster. People and workers want to be in well-lit, beautiful spaces.”

Longfellow declined to comment.

So the debate continues: forward, corporate growth or keeping the integrity of the past.

“There’s nothing that’s black and white here,” said Adam Searing, a Chapel Hill Town Council member. “I think everybody is trying to balance competing goals of economic development and preserving the jobs we have right now.”

Abby Jordan
Abby Jordan

Abby Jordan is a senior at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Journalism and Political Science. Originally from the D.C. area, she loves to report on politics, construction and other local news

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