Nostalgia v. innovation: UNC takes suggestions on revitalizing Porthole Alley

Nostalgia v. innovation: UNC takes suggestions on revitalizing Porthole Alley

Read in The Daily Tar Heel 2/4/20. Reported with Senior City Writer Brent Van Vilet.

A sleepy trickle of students passes through Porthole Alley — the brick walkway that runs beside the iconic Carolina Coffee Shop.

But Gordon Merklein wishes the area felt more alive. 

The associate vice chancellor for real estate operations at UNC, Merklein recently partnered with KieranTimberlake, a large international architecture firm that has worked with universities in the past, to create a new development plan for the 100 block of Franklin Street. The group held a meeting on Jan. 27 at Chapel Hill Town Hall and again on Jan. 28 in the Carolina Union to speak with community members about the project. 

The meetings discussed moving the University Visitors Center, Campus Ticket Office and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to Franklin Street, as well as expanding resources for graduate students and athletics fans. The University recently gained ownership of the area from previous private landlords. 

“We recognize that downtown has a certain scale, sense and feel to it that people are very familiar with,” Merklein said. “Some people are more resistant to change than others.”

Richard Maimon, a partner with KieranTimberlake, said many of the buildings on the 100 stretch of Franklin Street are historically significant.

“Porthole Alley: it’s the entrance from town to the University, but also significantly from the University to the town,” Maimon said. “We have had a lot of discussion on how to take those blocks on Franklin Street and make them more vibrant than they have been in recent years.”

He said in the future, he sees Porthole Alley continuing to be a pedestrian walkway and space for bikers. 

“I love that there is this focus on welcome because, as it exists right now, Porthole Alley does not look like the entrance to the University,” Director of Administration of UNC Summer School Michael Smith said.  

Maimon’s work and concept design, he said, will continue through spring 2020, at which time he will propose a plan and a budget. Surface 678, a landscape and architecture firm, is also involved. 

During the first meeting, Chapel Hill residents said they hoped to revitalize Franklin Street while avoiding large building developments. 

Maimon said there is a tendency toward nostalgia about the Franklin Street of previous years in their minds — that may or may not have ever existed.

“The nostalgia piece is interesting to me because — yes, people have that nostalgia for Franklin Street — but the turnover rate is so high that the Franklin Street people are experiencing now is going to be so different that the Franklin Street people experienced in the past,” Vice Chairperson of the Employee Forum Katie Musgrove said. 

Musgrove is an alumna herself, and her department office resides at 134 East Franklin St., next to Porthole Alley.

Elizabeth Malcom, a UNC alumna, said a brighter Franklin Street might require looking forward instead of backward. 

“There’s an idea that people’s children and grandchildren will come back to a setting that has historical and architectural significance,” she said. “Maybe beyond nostalgia for the past, we need stewardship and investment in the future.”

Attendees mentioned parking is a deterrent for going downtown.

“Parking is a problem already, in downtown Chapel Hill,” one resident said at Town Hall. “If you had 50,000 more visitors to downtown Chapel Hill, who are now using the Admissions building, it will be horrific.”

Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said the commercial rent in Chapel Hill is 30 to 50 percent higher than in downtown Durham.

The topic of high rents was discussed by several members of the public during the first feedback session at Town Hall, where several residents said they feel it discourages authentic local businesses.

Meeting attendees mentioned that they would like to see Franklin Street better highlight the BeAM Makerspace, student technology and innovation and visual and performing arts. 

“I would like to see a leaning-in to the arts aspect of this area,” Smith said. 

Gladdek said he would like to see more wholesome, Chapel Hill-based businesses — like the new coffee-bookshop hybrid Epilogue — thrive. 

“What is the space there designed to do?” said Andrew Parrish, assistant director of development at the Ackland Art Museum. “Is it designed for passage, for people just walking, or is it designed for lingering?”

Parrish said having a culture of lingering — having a social space — would be positive for UNC students while instilling excitement about the University in visiting high school students and their families. 

A redesigned Porthole Alley, Parrish said, would also entice community members to explore exhibits in the Ackland Art Museum. 

Redevelopment efforts for the 100 block of Franklin Street, home to Porthole Alley, are still in the conceptual stages. But Maimon is clear on his goal for the space. 

“It’s not only a passage, but a destination,” he said.