Chapel Hill has always been synonymous with the university that calls it home. But it, too, is growing—and it, too, faces affordability and identity challenges. Here, four residents—a town council member, the head of the downtown merchants association, a UNC lecturer, and a county commissioner (who lives in neighboring Carrboro)—assess the next two decades.
In twenty years, I envision a Chapel Hill in which my grown children will enjoy living as much as their parents do. We will continue to welcome people from across the state, nation, and world who come not only for UNC but also for our excellent elementary and secondary schools and the chance to live in a historic, exciting, and progressive community.
The North-South Bus Rapid Transit project will be part of a larger regional transit system that takes people wherever they need to go—including work, school, and the airport. We will expand Chapel Hill Transit’s fare-free service—the first in the nation—across town and county lines, where our neighbors will join us in helping our region become more affordable for all to enjoy.
Development will provide our residents with opportunities to live near where they work and shop, making our town friendlier toward non-motorized travel. Our beautiful older buildings will be joined by modern construction that accentuates our character and charm. New development will encourage green design and preserve our tree canopy while providing a variety of housing and employment options that are convenient to our network of transit options. Our investments in affordability will enable those who make our town work—such as bus drivers, teachers, and nurses—to live here.
Our downtown will grow to be vibrant, fun, and beautiful, featuring things to do for young and the old alike. People will have green spaces and outdoor venues to mingle and meet their neighbors, friends, and visitors. Greenways and trails, as well as protected bike lanes, will allow people to get downtown and across town without getting in a car, while reasonable parking options will bring everyone downtown regardless of ability or mobility.
Of course, all of this depends on cooperation, partnership, and a community vision (not just mine). However, I truly believe that once our community sets a course, we can make great things happen.
Jessica Anderson was first elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2015.
I don’t know why the INDY chose me to predict twenty years into the future. Wouldn’t have predicted that. Maybe it’s because I moved back to Chapel Hill twenty years ago after moving here the first time as a student twenty years before that. Or maybe it’s because anytime I drive around town with my two teenagers, I find myself gazing wistfully out the window and starting sentences with, “You wouldn’t believe what this looked like twenty years ago …”
Maybe it’s because, as a journalism teacher at UNC, I issue an annual class assignment to project twenty years into the future. In those papers, my students often conjure a society full of human holograms or a world not unlike The Jetsons of my youth (Google it). If I’ve learned anything from that exercise, it’s that one can only reliably predict that there’s no reliably predicting the future. Exhibit A: Twenty years ago, would you have predicted Trump? Or Twitter? Or Trump on Twitter? Me neither.
Anyway, with that cowardly caveat, I’ll take a few tentative swings in the Nostradamus batting cage. What will Chapel Hill look like in 2040? Let’s start with the easy stuff. I feel relatively safe in guessing that our political leadership will favor Democrats. (Can I quit now?)
Because so many of us can’t help blabbing about how wonderful it is to live in Chapel Hill, our population will continue to grow, and the expansion of our commercial border, which have already merged with Durham and RTP, will continue to bleed out in the other directions, graying a lot of the green space toward Hillsborough and Pittsboro. My grandkids may be among the first alums of South Chapel Hill High School.
In 2040, I fear that Franklin Street will offer nothing but pizza joints, coffeehouses, T-shirt shops, TOPO, and Target. (He’s Not Here, not here?) And, assuming we’re still driving cars, perhaps the realization of my inspired idea for a subterranean parking bunker that burrows halfway to China.
I believe all of our UNC athletes will be paid laborers and, because the NCAA will have been forced to allow more freedom of movement, sadly, the Cole Anthonys, Coby Whites, and potentially even the Sam Howells won’t bother to toil even briefly on campus anymore.
Hopefully, we will maintain the quirks that make this village unique: Carolina Blue fire trucks, Pit preachers, jumping the bonfires, etc.
Finally, as a resident of Chapel Hill in the early ’80s, the early 2000s, and now the early 2020s, there is clearly one tie that binds all of these eras together—and thus, should I be lucky enough to still call this place home in 2040, there is one thing about which I am absolutely certain: We will still be arguing about Silent Sam.
Tim Crothers, a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, is a lecturer at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
Over the last twenty years, the world changed around downtown Chapel Hill; we need to spend the next twenty years taking control of our destiny. After hundreds of meetings with residents, business owners, property owners, and other downtown stakeholders, a vision for the future is beginning to take shape. Here are a few of the things I’ve heard and seen.
Imagine a space in downtown Chapel Hill—nothing too big, but a space of respite, with trees and shade, comfortable seating, old and young gathered together playing board games, students at tables with noses deep in books, someone picking at a guitar. Good public spaces increase equity and inclusiveness. They provide places for the community to gather and interact across boundaries. We need this in downtown.
The Walkable City
In the next twenty years, Franklin Street will move away from being automobile-centric and back to the human scale. As we prioritize people walking, biking, and taking transit, our sidewalks will become more welcoming to sidewalk dining and stores spilling out to the street. People who need to drive will park in a nearby deck and find inviting, safe, and well-lit connections to sidewalks. Buildings that stitch together our walkable, human-scale, urban fabric will replace (swaths of) surface parking and curb cuts that make walking less attractive.
Locally Owned Businesses
Rising rents and the retail apocalypse brought on by changes in technology have adversely affected downtown shopping. But there is hope. Epilogue Cafe, which opened this past October, shows how a locally owned bookshop with a great landlord can respond to what the community wants. As we fill in vacancies, we can attract and cultivate unique shopping and dining opportunities. We need to patronize these businesses to encourage more entrepreneurs to take risks.
Unemployment is at record lows, and the competition for employees means that many employers are locating in urban areas with easy access to restaurants and amenities. Downtown Chapel Hill is experiencing this demand already. Well.co is converting the old Carolina Ale House space and the Chapel Hill Visitors Bureau building into office space because Franklin Street did not have any suitable space available. Providing office space downtown supports our existing businesses and reduces the tax burden on our residential properties.
One hundred percent of housing in downtown Chapel Hill is full, and rental rates are increasing year after year because of high demand. More units will be built to meet this demand. These new residents will help businesses weather the summer doldrums as students leave and will support the walkability we all want.
We all want a Chapel Hill that is unique and true to itself. If the past twenty years have taught us anything, it’s that inaction is not an option; without a cohesive, proactive plan, we lose to the forces of sprawl, poor connectivity, and car-focused infrastructure that make being, living, and working downtown less and less appealing. The collective vision is clear and strong; it’s time to pick up the tools at hand and get to work on arriving there.
Matt Gladdek is the executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.
I approach the question of what Chapel Hill and Carrboro will look like in 2040 from my standard perspective: I believe in the goodness of people.
The alternative is simply too grim.
With that context, in 2040, we live in a metro area—which includes Hillsborough, Mebane, Pittsboro, and eastern Alamance—that has embraced its role as part of the Greater Triangle.
Critical changes in the previous two decades have fostered opportunities to accommodate new growth at a rate more consistent with that of surrounding communities but in a manner consistent with our social justice and environmental values. Frustrated by increasing wealth disparities (among the highest in the state) and incremental gains in affordable housing, and in line with our commitment to containing suburban sprawl, the community increased density within its towns by allowing multifamily development on all residential parcels. Targeted housing programs have made it easier for public employees to live in the towns where they work.
Higher-density housing was also incentivized along transit corridors. After the closure of UNC’s coal-fired power plant, the railroad right-of-way that served the university is now part of a greenway and bike-path network that connects key transit hubs in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough.
High-speed internet access is available to every household in the county (and the state), creating widespread opportunities for telecommuting and enhanced online education and training, thereby helping relieve traffic and transit problems and the related environmental impacts.
Carrboro’s downtown has continued to develop as an economic engine, with new commercial and residential development along Roberson Street (including buildings back-to-back with the existing ones on Main). In Chapel Hill, the redeveloped multistory University Place includes affordable and mixed-income housing, with units dedicated to residents displaced from the affordable but chronically flooded properties across the street, which have been restored to their natural state.
Universal pre-K has helped reduce the racial achievement gap and improve equity in our public schools, as has a strategic commitment to recruiting and supporting a diverse educator workforce, all of which has been substantially bolstered by the state finally living up to its constitutional obligation to fund a sound basic education for all students. Health care reform and living-wage policies have reduced some effects of poverty in the community. In the courts, we’ve eliminated cash bail and restructured the use of fines and fees so that the system no longer criminalizes poverty.
In recognition of the reality that the challenges we face are bound by jurisdictional lines, many local governments have strengthened their collaborations. Similarly, in recognition of the community’s many strengths and resources, which some of our neighbors may lack, there are numerous intercounty collaborations with Person, Caswell, Alamance, and Chatham Counties, similar to models already in place with Durham and Wake.
Carrboro-Chapel Hill 2040: Now with more inclusion, equity, and diversity. And the Cat’s Cradle turning seventy!
Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Regional Office, was first elected to the Orange County Board of Commissioners in 2012.
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