TURNAROUND TIME: Chapel Hill leaders jockey to make Franklin Street a dynamic space.

AuthorHarff, Noelle

Franklin Street, Chapel Hill: A famous avenue where students and residents meet, greet and rush alter winning national championships. Some believe it should remain a classic college town, while others argue that the streetscape adjoining the UNC campus should evolve into an "innovation hub." Instead of either coming to fruition, Franklin is evolving into a strip of shuttered windows and chain restaurants.

Public relations professor Lois Boynton can attest to this regression. She joined the UNC Chapel Hill faculty in 2001 and began eating lunch regularly at Spanky's, a venerable restaurant on Franklin Street known for the caricatures of famous UNC athletes that adorned its walls. She got to know the staff and was periodically invited to employee events.

When Spanky's closed in March 2018 after 41 years of business, "I was kinda lost," she says. "They were so supportive when I went through cancer treatment. It was a sad day." Lula's lasted two years before becoming a COVID-19 victim. Raising Cane's, a fast-growing friedchicken chain based in Louisiana, was expected to open at the prime location, but has been delayed.

Like main thoroughfares of college towns across the country, Franklin Street experiences its ups and downs. Retailers and restaurants struggle when students leave for the summer. Chapel Hill became a town after the university was opened to students in 1795. This highly dependent relationship exists both in the town's origins and its future. It's a common struggle nationally, with many universities and towns struggling to understand their mutual reliance.

Now, the town, The Downtown Partnership community development organization and the university have devised a strategic plan they hope will attract enough consumers on a consistent basis to return Franklin Street to its former glory.

Five large developments have been approved along Franklin Street and the parallel Rosemary Street, including a high-rise apartment building, parking decks, a wet lab, office space and an innovation hub. These developments focus on three main objectives: revitalizing downtown, creating a better "front door" for UNC and increasing jobs and tax revenue.

"Chapel Hill's peers, places like Boulder (Colorado), Madison (Wisconsin) and Ann Arbor (Michigan), are ahead in attracting industry that provides collaboration opportunities for faculty and internships for students," says Rod Stevens, a development consultant specializing in urban revitalization. "Chapel Hill won't be able to compete for talent if it doesn't bring industry up the hill."

Charlotte developer Clay Grubb, who has been working on...

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