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October 2009

Changing and preserving at 123 West Franklin

University Square is still open. Really open. While we have lots of ideas for the site, we're still at the beginning of the process. So there's never been a better time for a Time Out biscuit, a haircut or a new pocketbook from Fine Feathers.

Yes, I like a Time Out chicken biscuit as much as the next Tar Heel, and I want to preserve that beloved tradition for the next generation of hungry students. That's why as we look at making changes at 123 West Franklin, the site of the current University Square shopping center (including Time Out) and Granville Towers student housing, I want to reassure the tenants there, and their happy customers, that we want to keep them in business as we make their venue more attractive.

But we do need to make some changes. As it is now, that block just doesn't fit with the rest of Franklin Street. The sea of asphalt surrounding the stores, restaurants and offices there sticks out like a red shirt in the Dean Dome. Its suburban design gives me an irresistible desire to hear KC and the Sunshine Band.

Luckily, we are now in a position to change all that. Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings, the not-for-profit corporation that assists with real estate projects for the university, has hired Cousins Properties Incorporated to help redevelop the property, guided by Elkus Manfredi Architects. (And even though Cousins is based in Atlanta, its CEO is a Carolina alum, and one of the Boston architects grew up in Shelby and married a girl who lived in Granville Towers, so they know about Franklin Street.)

Although we know we want to change how 123 West Franklin Street looks, we're not locked into any particular plan yet. Yes, we do want the retail shops closer to the street. Yes, we need to provide parking for the site and beyond. Yes, we want to keep our current tenants. Yes, we figure the project will include a mix of stores, offices and housing, like it does now, but better. That's why we are wide open to your ideas. We heard many good ones at our first round of public meetings Oct. 15 and expect to hear even more in the other two public meetings we have planned in the months ahead.

Carolina and the Town of Chapel Hill have been enthusiastic about this project since we first announced our intention to redevelop this 12-acre tract more than a year ago. We're excited because this prime property connects Cameron Avenue, the main street through campus, to Franklin Street, the main street downtown. Our arts complex and venues like Memorial Hall and Ackland Art Museum can benefit from parking available on the site. And our students can benefit from the alternative housing that Granville Towers offers while also taking part in the student life activities and programs that UNC can now offer them in this transition period.

The town is excited because the foundation's purchase of the property keeps it on the tax rolls and producing revenue that supports local governments and schools. Not to mention that the owner of the property is an institution they have known and worked with for a long time -- and one that's not going anywhere.

The way town and gown have come together about this property reminds me that I want to mention how proud I am of Student Body President Jasmin Jones for bringing both communities together for a revival of the Homecoming Parade on campus and East Franklin Street before this year's UNC-Duke football game on Nov. 7. She has worked tirelessly to encourage student organizations to participate in this demonstration of school spirit that has been missing from campus for more than a decade now.

And with Halloween just around the corner, I also want to congratulate the town on its continued success in scaling down this event to more of a hometown, homegrown tradition downtown. Franklin Street is the university's front door, and we are doing our best to keep it attractive and vital -- and not at all scary, even on Oct. 31.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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