UNC-Chapel Hill plan could raze Carolina Coffee Shop, other Franklin Street buildings

Carolina Coffee Shop will celebrate a century on Franklin Street in 2022. What happens after that depends on how UNC-Chapel Hill acts on a new campus master plan.

UNC’s plan calls for demolishing three buildings on East Franklin Street in the next seven years, including one that contains the storied coffee shop that’s been popular with students and alumni for decades. A roughly 200-foot stretch of buildings would be razed from Johnny T-Shirt and Cosmic Cantina to the Bank of America ATM near University United Methodist Church.

Salon 135, bevello and the recently opened Blue Spoon Microcreamery are part of the stretch, as well as UNC’s 134 E. Franklin St. offices and the Porthole Building, which houses Carolina Performing Arts. The buildings surround Porthole Alley, a busy gateway to campus named for a popular restaurant that operated in the Porthole Building from 1942 to 1985.

In the plan, UNC’s new buildings could be four and five stories tall, offering 190,000 square feet of office and commercial space. The project could close the businesses for a couple of years, and if they are able to return, there’s no guarantee the rents won’t rise, some said.

UNC officials declined repeated requests for an interview about the redevelopment plan. But Gordon Merklein, UNC’s associate vice chancellor of University Real Estate Operations, issued a statement Friday via email.

The plan is part of UNC’s vision for “a more vibrant Porthole Alley that will help create a gateway to the University, house a new UNC Visitors Center and also support retail activities along this commercial area,” Merklein said. “Plans for Porthole Alley are in early exploratory stages and will involve working closely with the Town of Chapel Hill and our building tenants in a collaborative process.”

The UNC Board of Trustees approved the draft 2019 Campus Master Plan on May 30.

Early stages of plan

The proposed changes come at a time when business at the Carolina Coffee Shop is going strong, general manager Kyle Shea said. The owners — a group of friends with UNC ties — have made extensive renovations since they bought the restaurant in 2017, brightening up the decor and adding new lights, flooring and outdoor seating.

The owners are aware of the university’s plans, Shea said, but they don’t have a lot of details yet. The future of the business is unknown at this time, he said.

Other affected stores didn’t know about UNC’s plan when contacted Monday, but it’s not surprising, Cosmic Cantina manager Yeshua Sanchez said. Efforts to talk with corporate representatives of Johnny T-Shirt were unsuccessful.

“Since they bought those buildings on Franklin Street, I think everyone was expecting (something to happen),” Sanchez said.

Unlike previous plans, this one is not a building program, the plan states. UNC significantly grew its main campus under the 2001 Master Plan and its 2006 revision. The 800-acre campus, which includes UNC Hospitals, now has more than 21 million square feet of labs, classrooms, administrative offices and living spaces.

Roughly 6.4 million square feet — about 30% of UNC’s space — is in severe or poor condition, it reports. The goal is to renovate those buildings, find ways to create new, mixed-use spaces, and improve bike, car, pedestrian and transit connections. That includes 134 E. Franklin St., which houses a variety of UNC offices and is reportedly in severe condition.

Although an important part of Franklin Street’s history, the East Franklin Street buildings are not part of the town’s Franklin-Rosemary Historic District or the Chapel Hill National Register Historic District. Both lie north and east of East Franklin and Henderson streets.

Franklin Street and Porthole Alley present key opportunities, the plan states, especially as a gateway to the arts. Porthole Alley takes visitors past the Ackland Art Museum, Hanes Art Center and Hill Hall. It was redeveloped in 2016 to create an Arts Common, connecting those buildings with the Kenan Music Building on South Columbia Street.

The $2.8 million project closed Porthole Alley to traffic, improved its appearance, and added lighting and signs. A new, two-lane entrance to adjacent parking lots was built off South Columbia Street, between the Ackland Art Museum and Top of the Hill restaurant.

The redevelopment also could bring UNC’s admissions office and its 55,000 annual visitors closer to Franklin Street, Merklein said. The office is located now on Country Club Road, near The Forest Theatre.

“If you put 55,000 people in the 100 block of East Franklin Street, that’s a lot of people that should have some indirect and direct impact on merchants on East Franklin Street, as well as have a neat town-gown opportunity,” he said. “Not only are you visiting the university, you’re also visiting Chapel Hill, Franklin Street, all at the same time.”

Property taxes

Merklein’s real estate office and the UNC Property Office buy, manage and sell real estate on behalf of the university and Chapel Hill Foundation Real Estate Holdings Inc., a not-for-profit corporation founded by the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation.

UNC and REH own the four buildings identified in the master plan, including Benny Cappella’s and the former Asia Cafe on East Franklin Street. REH also owns the redeveloped Carolina Square property at 123 W. Franklin St.

REH pays property taxes on its buildings and will continue to do so if they are redeveloped, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said when contacted recently about a now-defunct deal with UNC to build a new Chapel Hill Police Department on Estes Drive Extension.

The deal collapsed last summer after UNC officials asked the town to swap a downtown parking lot or deck for the Estes Drive Extension lease. The town rejected the deal and has asked Ram Realty about building a municipal services center, and the new police department, at University Place mall.

More parking would support UNC’s plan for an arts-oriented gateway at Porthole Alley, Merklein said. However, the master plan shows over 100 surrounding parking spaces could be lost to redevelopment, including behind Carolina Coffee Shop. It notes that transit and other alternative transportation could help reduce the parking demand.

Whatever UNC decides, buying the East Franklin Street properties has given the university more control over the edge of its campus, Merklein said.

“In the past, we had issues with the trash accumulating in the back alley, pizza boxes, food left out, rats,” he said. “You walk out of the back of the Ackland or out of Hill Hall, and you go down Porthole Alley, and you stare at the back of those buildings, and we didn’t have any control or opportunity.”

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.