Chatham County

Where should Pittsboro look for downtown inspiration? Apex? Hillsborough?

The Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro is the centerpiece of downtown.
The Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro is the centerpiece of downtown.

Quaint downtown? Check. Historic landmark? Check. Population boom? Coming soon.

Residents who want to keep Pittsboro's downtown charm told the town board last week to look 20 miles to the east for inspiration.

"Apex has done an excellent job," Linda Jacobs said. "They've protected their historic downtown businesses. They have protected their historic houses. And they have invited growth they want on the outer edges.

"They have done an excellent job," she said, "and I would hope Pittsboro would do an excellent job."

Jacobs owns Advantage Lending a couple of blocks from downtown on East Street. She was one of 10 speakers who weighed in on the town's need for a protective overlay district in downtown. The district would tighten development standards within a quarter-mile radius of the Historic Courthouse at the center of downtown.

Consultant Roger Waldon, the former planning director of the town of Chapel Hill who is working with Pittsboro, said maintaining the Chatham County seat's downtown character is highly desirable.

"It's really cool, especially having the courthouse right there in the center of downtown," Waldon said. "They have a really recognizable feature."

The courthouse, which dates to 1881, was heavily damaged by a fire in 2010 during a renovation. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2013.

The recognizable landmark in Apex is Union Depot, and it anchors a vibrant downtown. The old train station now houses the town's chamber of commerce and has meeting rooms for special events.

During the past 30 years, Apex transformed from sleepy to sleek and has maintained its main street charm along Salem Street — its primary downtown thoroughfare.

"The key is making downtown a destination for people," Apex Mayor Lance Olive said. "In the '80s, Apex shut down. By the mid-2000s after businesses started making investments and creating an enjoyable atmosphere people started coming downtown. We're now getting people downtown every night, even on a rainy Tuesday night there might be 50 people downtown."

Salem Street in downtown Apex is the home of many local businesses. Joe Johnson

Olive said improvements will continue downtown to build on the success they're now enjoying. The downtown area will get more parking. They're also switching out LED bulbs in streetlights to a newer type that give off a warmer, more appealing glow.

"Even though we're in a great place with out downtown, we're not done," Olive said. "We're continuing to improve downtown."

Pittsboro has that same charm and feel but has yet to fully blossom, some say. The storefronts lining Hillsboro Street sit in old, one- and two-story brick buildings. Patrons still pull up and park diagonally in front of Blue Dot Coffee, S&T's Soda Shoppe or for the First Sunday crafts fair, when merchants sell handmade items from the sidewalk. Still, activity largely winds down at dusk.

"I would like to continue to see businesses downtown stay open later, especially local business," Pittsboro resident Julia Kennedy said. "We have so little space, and it is precious. To keep that downtown vitalized, you're going to need draws to bring people in, especially retail and restaurants."

Hillsborough resurgence

Another nearby town balancing old and new is Hillsborough.

Its downtown preservation efforts began in the 1970s and there have been ups and downs. Mayor Tom Stevens said even 20 years ago Hillsborough's historic district had a very different vibe than it now has.

"We've been very fortunate that in the last two decades we've seen this resurgence of interest in downtown," Stevens said. "There was a time, years ago that downtown was really, really quiet with mostly attorneys' offices or county offices, and not much going on. The sidewalks rolled up at five o'clock. Now we have a number of restaurants. We also have a very active arts scene. And so I think it's a combination of the food and beverage, an evolving music scene, and places where people could gather like a pub, or a coffee shop."

Hillsborough didn't have a catalyst like Chatham Park that suddenly sparked interest in the town. Nevertheless, the town often is pointed out as having an unforgettable charm.

"A Chatham Park cannot happen in Hillsborough, though some people might like it to," Stevens said. "We just don't have the water capacity. Pittsboro has that kind of land and water capacity. It's wrestling with its own issues, but it has to find its own solution to do what the community wants."

Overlay district

A recent spat about a planned Eagles gas station and car wash near downtown may be the first of many dustups as Pittsboro grows. The town is trying to get ahead of those disagreements by adopting the new overlay district downtown and a comprehensive Unified Development Ordinance for the rest of town.

"It is important that the downtown be protected, but the new overlay is more than keeping things out," Jacobs said. "It should be about showcasing what we have in the downtown."

In 1990, Apex looked a lot like Pittsboro today. The town's population was about 5,000, about what Pittsboro has now. Apex experienced its first boom from 1990-2000 when the population quadrupled. Pittsboro is poised for a similar trajectory because of Chatham Park and the estimated 60,000 people expected to move in during the next 25 years. Apex now has about 52,000 people and covers about 21 square miles. Pittsboro's town limits cover a little more than four square miles.

Apex adopted its historic overlay district in 2006, well after the first population boom happened. Pittsboro is trying to get ahead of the coming boom.

"We've thrown everything at the wall with this first proposal," Pittsboro Town Planner Jeff Jones said. "We're looking to hear from the public so we can tweak it before it goes to the board for their work."

The overlay district will restrict the types of businesses that can locate there. The town has put together an extensive list of businesses that could be prohibited in the future, including automobile repair shops, tattoo parlors, convenience stores with or without gas pumps and pawn shops.

The town will hold a public hearing on the proposed district at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, at Town Hall (635 East St.).

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