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Utopia South

Carrboro envisions its future, beginning with one important intersection

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Imagine that your town's most central downtown intersection could be demolished and built anew. What would you want to put there?

About 50 people spent a recent Saturday in Carrboro's Century Center contemplating this question and throwing out ideas for the future of the town's main intersection, Greensboro and Weaver streets, across from Weaver Street Market. Right now, the space is occupied by a decrepit bank building, which used to house Norina Technology. The one-story brick box has a wide, flat roof and is surrounded by asphalt broken up with creeping weeds. Next to that is a dentist's office in what looks like an old house, surrounded by a parking lot. Soon, the dentist will relocate and the corner will be transformed into something yet to be determined.

When the corner property went up for sale, it almost fell prey to the same fate of so many important intersections in the Triangle: The CVS drug store chain wanted it. Luckily, the developer CVS hired dropped the ball by allowing the land to fall out of contract, and Weaver Street Market stepped in.

"A lot of people in the community didn't think that would be a good use for the downtown intersection," said Ruffin Slater, the store's general manager. "Weaver Street stepped forward because we didn't want to lament a space we didn't want." The group fielded two offers from CVS to buy the land back--$50,000, then $100,000--but the co-op held firm. (There is already a CVS across the street from the site, next to the Harris Teeter that's behind Weaver Street Market. Is CVS the Starbucks of the Triangle?) Slater expects to close on the land in June.

The site's potential is great. Slater says Weaver Street Market, acting as the developer, would have had to get approval from the planning board anyway, but they decided to take it a step further by opening up the planning process to The Village Project (http://thevillageproject.com/), a nonprofit group in Carrboro made up of landscape architects, smart growth advocates, designers and city planners interested in community-based design for Carrboro.

"The whole idea is for the community to take control of its future, instead of having outside developers come in," Slater said. "The town's very supportive of this process, because then it doesn't all fall to them to open it up to the public." On May 10, volunteer designers will present preliminary sketches based on ideas from the public.

The area is zoned for mixed-use, and the idea of a three-story building with at least one floor of affordable housing was popular. Ideas were utopian and diverse: pocket parks, community gardens, car sharing, a collective taxi service, bike rentals, composting public toilets. The idea of a downtown public library was very popular (Carrboro doesn't currently have one), as was the notion of a small 150-seat cinema, and a new home for the Indymedia Center currently housed at the Internationalist.

In fact, the brainstorming session came up with so many ideas, one couldn't help but chuckle at the image of a single place with all the proposed offerings: a nonsmoking nightspot, record store, jazz club, teen center, bowling alley, taqueria, consignment store, permanent indoor farmer's market, massage therapy, tattoo parlor, kids' tumbling gym, flower shop, meat market, soda fountain, youth hostel ... the list goes on.

"One thing we've realized is that we're getting a lot more ideas than we could ever fit in one space. But that's probably a good thing." As more space opens up downtown, he says, people will have more concrete ideas of what they'd like to see there and what services aren't currently available within walking distance of downtown. Small working groups narrowed down the bevy of ideas into more plausible sets of uses and priorities.

Carrboro's utopianism is even more striking when you look at the way Chapel Hill is envisioning the future of its downtown. UNC-Chapel Hill insists on the need to widen South Columbia Street and create more parking. The town recently banned panhandling at night, solving a nuisance by striking part of the Bill of Rights.

These were some of the issues discussed at a daylong forum on the future of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County sponsored by WCHL radio and The People's Channel. At a panel discussion, titled "Downtown--Is It a Problem, or Just Changing?" developers lamented the impact of Southpoint Mall on Franklin Street's businesses. Panelist Ken Kaufman of Campus Retail Planning Development and Leasing, a company that specializes in developing shopping areas next to campuses, argued that the best way to compete was to put all stores of a certain type--men's clothing stores, for example--in the same part of the street. Scott Maitland, the outspoken owner of the Top of the Hill bar and restaurant, said the biggest problems were still panhandling and parking, problems "rooted in perception, reality, and in some cases fiction." He said Franklin Street should make an active effort to appeal more to families. Commercial landlord Johnny Morris said he was weary of the "relentless topics of conversation" of panhandling and parking, and said he thinks the buildings should be better cared for and preserved.

Everyone on the panel, including moderator Jim Heavner of WCHL, agreed that the 100 block of Franklin (between Henderson and Columbia streets) is the most lacking in the street's "old vitality," as Heavner put it. They seemed to agree that the problem was "too many bars and T-shirt shops." No one mentioned the fact that this particular block has a Gap, a Starbucks, a Miami Subs and a slew of banks--the highest concentration of corporate tenants of any block of Franklin Street.

While the Chapel Hill and Carrboro forums aren't directly comparable, they do say a lot about how the business leadership of each place envisions the town's future.

Slater says Carrboro's small size helps make the community input model work. "I think the common thing between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is that both towns are aware that their downtowns are very important, and they're trying to determine what the path is to make them better. Carrboro is more compact, so with fewer things, we can have a very vibrant downtown, which is why this corner is so important." EndBlock

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