Planning 101 at Carolina isn’t 101–it’s PLAN 46, and if you took it in the early ’90s like I did, chances were that your prof was Jonathan Howes, who at the time also held the title Mayor of Chapel Hill. Professor Howes took us on a walking tour of downtown Chapel Hill pointing out some of the quandaries the town faced in trying to keep the area a vibrant place.

We talked less about Franklin Street than Rosemary Street–a stretch of pavement and dirt paths every bit as important to the vitality of the area, but considerably less utilized. The mayor called the surface parking lot at the corner of Columbia and Rosemary streets–Parking Lot 2 in the town parlance–one of the most underutilized urban spaces in the state.

Now, a decade and a half later, changes in the works for Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill and Main Street in Carrboro (the street Rosemary runs into) have the potential to turn a couple of old Southern thoroughfares with a mixed bag of brick storefronts, old houses, parking lots and watering holes into one of this region’s most interesting and inviting stretches. Throw into the mix the evolution of Carrboro’s Jones Ferry Road, and you have the makings of a truly grand meridian extending from the Chatham County line to the heart of Carrboro and the academic barrio of Chapel Hill. Both towns have active plans to increase the amount of commercial and residential space along the streets. Success will depend on how well those executing the plans manage to sustain the unique nature of the streets as they fill in the blank spots and underutilized spaces.

Ghost Story
The name Rosemary Street, the old Chapel Hill story goes, comes from the fact that a woman named Rose lived at one end of the street and a woman named Mary lived at the other. I’m not sure which lived where or even if that old saw is true, but at the easternmost end of Rosemary, before it slips into one of those mysterious, tucked away residential areas of downtown, is the Horace William House, now an art gallery and popular wedding spot, and home, it’s said, to the ghost of UNC’s first professor of philosophy (and Chapel Hill land baron). From that sleepy and possibly haunted spot the sidewalks–dirt paths composed of a small-pebbled substance known as Chapel Hill grit–take you past grand old homes and upscale sororities toward the corner of Henderson Street, where the commercial district starts. You pass the little building that houses Hell and a new rock club called the Wetlands, the Rosemary Street parking deck (topped by a well planned but hopelessly unused plaza) and the hulking Bank of America plaza that’s been home for years to a variety of bookstores, head shops, eateries and the occasional nightclub.

Further west is that underutilized parking lot (Parking Lot Number 2, remember). And cattycorner from it is the soon to be official former home of the InterFaith Council Shelter and Community Kitchen. Both spaces are set for major changes. Slated for Lot 2 is a mix of commercial and residential space. The same is true for the town-owned Lot 5, a block further west and just across the street from an expanded La Residence, the town’s first French restaurant.

Whether you think it’s good or bad, the shelter’s move–where to is as yet undecided–will free up another public building and launch, undoubtedly, another project and guarantee a vastly different feel to that core area.

The timeline for change farther down is a little shorter. Developer Tom Tucker is in mid-construction of a set of luxury condos on the corner of Mitchell Lane and Rosemary Street. That’s a welcome project if you happen to own or work in the handful of restaurants like the nearby Breadman’s or Fuse across the street or Mama Dip’s next door or Carrburritos down the street. But the introduction of seriously priced real estate to that stretch of the street underlines one of downtown’s biggest challenges: how to provide additional living space without obliterating the traditionally African-American, working-class Northside neighborhood. To do that, community leaders and the town recently were able to pass rules that should stifle a trend toward student-oriented, giant-sized “duplexes” (sometimes five bedrooms to a side) that were springing up in the area. But Tucker’s project, if successful, is probably a harbinger of the type of housing along the main drag.

Shifting Sands
Once you cross over the Chapel Hill-Carrboro line, the sidewalk gets a little more predictable (in Chapel Hill, it mysteriously shifts from one side of the street to the other in places). You can still walk by the remnants of the mill town Main Street in the town Thomas Wolfe called Sands (a somewhat coarser place than Look Homeward Angel‘s Pulpit Hill). Over the years, as the plumbing supply, hardware stores and furniture shops left, they’ve been replaced by what’s become a core entertainment and dining district. Here, too, major changes are planned thanks to Carrboro’s efforts to build up rather than out. Within the next two years, the spaces occupied by Cat’s Cradle, the ArtsCenter and adjacent shops will disappear and those businesses will shift to a new set of buildings in an elaborate restructuring of almost a whole block of downtown that will include a parking deck, a new home for the Cradle in the Performance cycle shop warehouse, and a new ArtsCenter building. The rest of the shops will be in a new building along the street, giving that part of Main a look more consistent with the buildings housing eateries and clubs like Armadillo Grill, Spotted Dog and the Orange County Social Club. heading west From Cliff’s Meat Market, one of the first local shops to hire Latino butchers to accommodate a new kind of customer, to the excellent taqueria El Mercado Central, to Old Well apartments, it’s clear that Main Street and Jones Ferry Road are the Carrboro confluence of Latino and Southern culture. The stretch is likely to become a major new gateway into town. Crossing over Morgan Creek not far from the entrance to University Lake (where you can still spend a lazy afternoon rowing about for less than 10 bucks), the grand meridian winds out toward Chatham County, where the development rules are a world apart from the high density, slow growth philosophy of governments in southern Orange.

From there, specifically from the recently approved, Siler City-sized Brier Chapel, an influx of thousands of commuter students, hungry customers and suburban teenage rockers–all in search of a quicker way into town than the soon-to-be packed U.S. 15-501–will make their way along the meridian and into town.

And all along the way, dozens of new shops and new hangouts will be waiting for them and anyone willing to consider that there is something happening–big things, really–off Franklin Street’s well-beaten path.