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July 2008

Walking the walk on Franklin Street

Part of what makes Carolina special is that the campus flows right into the town of Chapel Hill. Majestic McCorkle Place sits right next to Franklin Street. The walk from the Pit to Sutton's is less than 10 minutes. But with the recent departures of longtime downtown institutions, the future of Franklin Street seems far less certain than ever seemed possible.

That thoroughfare bustled more when I was an undergraduate here in the 1980s. Students crowded into the Record Bar or Schoolkids Records for the newest music or lined up at the Varsity and Carolina theaters for the latest movies. I went to the Varsity to see "The Gods Must be Crazy" at least 15 times.

Back then, we could easily walk to a drugstore, a grocery store or the bus terminal from campus. Those in search of homey fare could descend Amber Alley for lasagna at The Rat or load up on carbs with those "fabulous Porthole rolls." The corner of Franklin and Columbia provided the Happy Store where you could buy gas and last-minute supplies. I might have even gone there to get a pack of Nabs.

Some things haven't changed on Franklin Street. You can still get orangeade at Sutton's or a Big Jim's Omelet at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, a place that still serves sweet tea at breakfast. But the dining has definitely become more exotic, with pan-Asian, Vietnamese and Malaysian restaurants, to name a few, plus a couple of brewpubs and a wine bar. And a trend in upscale development marked by the construction of the Franklin Hotel on the site of the old Trailways terminal will continue with 140 West Franklin, an $80 million retail-and-condominium development to be built on town-owned Parking Lot 5 at the corner of Franklin and Church streets.

The university has always had an interest in Franklin Street. Who can imagine Carolina without it? It is our front door, but while we lease office space in some buildings and own a few others, with the UNC Chapel Hill Foundation's planned purchase of the University Square shopping center and Granville Towers residences by next summer, we are poised to become a major investor in the street's success.

This 12-acre site offers an abundance of opportunity to make a difference downtown and to benefit the university. For example, existing arts venues, such as the Ackland and Memorial Hall, are drawing more people than ever before to campus, and our new arts complex will bring more. They would benefit greatly from the addition of more parking nearer that northwest quadrant of campus. So would the downtown merchants. Through Granville Towers, we can continue to offer undergraduates an alternative to on-campus residence halls and off-campus apartments that is within easy walking distance to classes.

As for other retail or residential development on the property, we have not yet decided how we will proceed, although a project that would complement and enhance the new 140 West Franklin development across the street may be an attractive option. Meanwhile, the foundation will continue to pay property taxes that support local governments and schools.

Beyond this, the university remains committed to the revitalization of Franklin Street through its continued participation and leadership in the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. This non-profit group with representation from town, gown and businesses, is not just a business booster. It also offers thoughtful solutions to difficult problems, such as the Real Change from Spare Change initiative to address the issues of homelessness and panhandling. We have enjoyed working over the years with the partnership's original executive director Liz Parham, who took a new job with the state Department of Commerce this month, and look forward to an equally productive relationship with her successor.

I still enjoy frequent trips to Franklin Street. Mayor Kevin Foy and I had a chance to have lunch at Sutton's during my first week in office. Don even took our picture for the wall. We talked about how important a healthy Franklin Street is to both the town and the university.

We can't go back in time to an earlier downtown. We've never been able to. When my dad came to Chapel Hill for his first visit while I was in college, he offered to take me downtown to buy me a suit. When I asked why, he said, "To wear to class, of course." Time marches on: we're delighted that The Varsity and Julian's still grace our beloved street, but multiplexes are with us to stay, and men stopped wearing suits to class a long time ago.

The street I walked as an undergraduate was different from the one I walked when I returned as a faculty member and different still from the one I walk as Carolina's new chancellor. But I am excited by the opportunity before me to help shape and guide this change and to breathe new life into this most vital part of downtown.

Let's walk that walk together.


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

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