Around Campus

Redesigning Porthole Alley

Carolina is exploring a redevelopment project in the 100 block of Franklin Street, an important entryway between the University and town.

Students with bookbags walking through Porthole Alley on a sunny day.
Current view of Porthole Alley. (Courtesy of Surface678)

Gordon Merklein remembers the first time he visited Porthole Alley, dining with his family at Carolina Coffee Shop, years before he worked at the University. The urban corridor drew him in. Now Merklein, associate vice chancellor for real estate and campus enterprises, is part of a team leading a project that will redevelop the area, creating a vibrant entryway between the Town of Chapel Hill and the University.

During the creation of the 2019 Campus Master Plan, University leaders identified Porthole Alley — the area where Carolina’s campus meets downtown Chapel Hill between 134 and 144 E. Franklin St. — as a place for potential redevelopment. The University-owned buildings along Franklin Street could be a place where the master plan could realize its goals of connection and creating welcoming hubs.

“It’s going to put the University on the map in downtown, in the commercial area,” said Merklein. “This will be a very active location. It’s already an active location; now it will become even more active.”

An aerial view of downtown chapel hill.

A Google Earth view of Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. The area outlined in yellow includes Porthole Alley and its surrounding buildings.

At its first meeting of the new year, the University’s Board of Trustees granted unanimous approval for both planning authority and approval of the site to proceed with a proposed redevelopment project that would create at least 120,000 square feet of retail and office space as well as a new home for Undergraduate Admissions and the UNC Visitors Center.

“This is a game-changing capital project that will absolutely help transform the 100 block of Franklin Street,” said David L. Boliek Jr., Board of Trustees chair, during the board’s Jan. 27 meeting. “There’s opportunity for UNC institutes and some departments to make that part of Franklin Street their home.”

The current Visitors Center is located in the 100 block of Franklin Street, but the new space will bring thousands of prospective students and their families who annually visit the admissions office to downtown Chapel Hill.

“Our goal is for the University to have a more visible presence on the 100 block of East Franklin Street,” said Merklein. “When visitors, alumni and others participate in the new interactive Visitors Center, or when they eat and shop in our downtown restaurants and businesses, it will increase their overall fondness and memories for the University.”

Real Estate Operations and Facilities Services hosted a series of input sessions both in January 2020 and November 2021, during which faculty, staff, students and community members could ask questions about the project. Many asked about the future for current retail tenants of the University-owned buildings. Merklein said that his property office team briefed tenants early during the master plan process and will provide assistance to help retailers and restauranteurs relocate, ideally downtown, with some businesses returned to a renovated space.

“The Carolina Coffee Shop is celebrating their 100th anniversary. I’m really excited to be working with them as we renovate the historic Hill Building,” said Merklein. “We’ll be upgrading the building to meet current building standards, all while maintaining the historic exterior of the building, which should give the Carolina Coffee Shop a home for the next hundred years.”

An aerial map of the proposed Porthole Alley project, showing locations of retail space and an admissions building.

Illustration of a conceptual site plan developed by the firm KieranTimberlake. (From a presentation given to the Board of Trustees’ Finance, Infrastructure and Audit Committee on Jan. 26, 2021)

This project isn’t the only major investment happening in this block of Chapel Hill’s main drag. Grubb Properties has put significant reinvestment into the old NCNB building at 137 E. Franklin St., and the Town of Chapel Hill is building a 1,000-space parking deck, with the University to lease 100 of those spaces. The investments are important milestones helping pave some roads for the Carolina Economic Development Strategy, announced by the Chancellor in March 2021.

“This is an exciting project that will establish a ‘front door’ to Carolina, signifying our University’s relationship with our community,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “We’re making investments to drive economic growth in Chapel Hill, and the Porthole Alley redevelopment will serve as an important catalyst of this initiative.”

This redevelopment has been a cross-unit effort. Merklein noted that Facilities Services, led by Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Anna Wu, has been an integral part of this planning effort.

“They are true partners,” Merklein said. “They’ve always been a driving force behind the project. They are going to continue to be one of the driving forces behind the project, especially as we go towards final architect selection and design, and ultimately construction.”

A redering of a standalone structure that will be built along franklin street.

A conceptual massing strategy by the firm KieranTimberlake. (From a presentation given to the Board of Trustees’ Finance, Infrastructure and Audit Committee on Jan. 26, 2021)

With planning authority approved, the University has issued a request for proposals for design services to take the concept plan, designed by the Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake, and work on the final design of the buildings, which may range from three to six stories.

“We will be simultaneously engaging with the Town to go through the entitlement process for expedited review and approval of the project,” said Merklein. He said he estimates those processes will take a year and a half or more and hopes construction will begin within two years.

“That 100 block of Franklin Street has been such an integral part of the Carolina brand over the years, from alumni and from visitors to campus,” said Boliek. “It’s really important, I believe, that we continue that support.”

To learn more about the Porthole Redevelopment Project, visit go.unc.edu/porthole.