Published: Aug 04, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 04, 2012 06:02 PM
There has been an ongoing (going on most of the 25 years I have lived here) debate about how to revitalize downtown Chapel Hill. The problem is that while we debate, the central business district continues to deteriorate.
It is true that there are new and very expensive condominium projects, but those projects by themselves will not recreate a vibrant downtown. The size and price of those units will prevent most families from ever living on the hill and a vibrant community needs more than the very well heeled.
The first issue that must be addressed is parking. As much as we would like to believe that buses will bring people downtown, they will not. People might ride the bus to class or to work, but they will not ride them to the theater or a restaurant. This is not, and never will be New York City or Chicago. Bus service is too infrequent for leisure travel outside of business hours.
People should be able to visit the galleries and eateries without having to worry about whether or not their car will be where they left it when they return. Signs have been springing up everywhere warning customers that if they walk off the property, their car may be towed. This may be lucrative for the towing companies but further discourages people from coming downtown and therefore harms the city.
The next issue is the vacant storefronts that line Franklin Street. The recent difficulties at the old Chrysler dealership underscore the problems associated with long-vacant buildings. In a market system, the market decides what the rent for a store front should be. If the building doesnt rent, the rent is too high. It is obvious that in too many places absentee landlords would rather sit on a vacant eyesore than lower the rent to the point where some mom and pop retailer could afford to come in. That dynamic has a huge negative influence in the viability of the downtown business district.
The city should pass and enforce some ordinances that make it difficult and expensive for landlords to simply sit on vacant building. This could be accomplished be enforcing strict appearance regulations or public nuisance laws. That might alienate some people who claim the total inviolability of private property, but what have the current absentee owners added to the town besides decay?
If landlords came to realize that it would be more cost effective to actually maintain and rent buildings than just use them as tax shelters, more retailers would relocate downtown. True, we would not be attracting the big retail chains, but it would be nice to have a book store on Franklin Street again. Asheville has a vibrant downtown full of local retail, why dont we? Why doesnt this college town have something like the Battery Park Book Exchange or Dubras tea shop? Is it because the chains are the only ones who can afford the rents and the permitting process? If so, those things must be changed.
Overall, Chapel Hill could learn a great deal from Asheville. When my wife and I moved here in the 1980s Chapel Hill retained some of its traditional quirkiness. The town actually reveled in her weirdness much as Asheville continues to do. We have more people, more money, more big boxes (in Durham), more homogeneity, but we have lost our soul. One never sees Keep Chapel Hill weird bumper stickers and its a shame.
Ken Jones lives in Chapel Hill.