At 306 West Franklin Street on a weekday afternoon, the Purple Bowl looks like a carefully curated Pinterest board that somehow oozed out of a computer screen and splattered itself into the third dimension in a Chapel Hill storefront.
Sunlight and 2010s-era alternative music flood the space while peppy young workers in purple aprons take down $8 smoothie orders in front of a wall of alternative milks and locally sourced coffee beans. An adorable child smears purple sludge on his face while happy folks slurp nutrients through “100 percent plant-based biodegradable” straws. A purple cornhole set, propped up against the counter, almost demands to be dragged onto the patio to be used by a couple on a first date or a family of four.
But a small yellow sign, planted a few feet from the Franklin Street curb, seems to prevent the music, the joy, the smiles, from spilling out beyond the patio. No one looks at it, but the large letter Z in the sign’s center, with its jagged edges, threatens to pierce the bubble of the violet utopia.
“ZONING NOTICE,” it reads. “Development Application Pending for this Property.”
Since 2022, the town council has been weighing a proposal to level the Purple Bowl and several other businesses and replace them with a nine-story life sciences center that would span the block from Franklin to Rosemary Street. The developers, Boston-based Longfellow Real Estate Partners, have been continually updating the proposal, but they maintain that the facility would be around 150 feet tall and include first-floor retail space below at least 400,000 square feet of commercial wet labs and offices. With a central courtyard, the developers also hope it would open up pedestrian traffic between Franklin and Rosemary Streets. A Longfellow statement to the council said the building would create “space for hundreds of new jobs for office, research, life sciences, technology, etc. and opportunity for supporting jobs and existing businesses in the heart of downtown.”
Longfellow has argued that the building is at the “low point” of Franklin Street, so its nine stories would not appear as tall. But it would still mark a shift in the economic and aesthetic future of the town. That’s why it’s also become a major talking point for the candidates in next month’s mayoral and town council elections, not to mention for voters, residents, and other stakeholders who have been weighing in.
A town nearly as old as the nation itself, Chapel Hill has faced countless decisions about its identity since its founding in the 18th century. In the 21st century, each election year, the town council has been the rope in a tug-of-war between those who eagerly want to grow the town’s housing, commercial development, transit, and connectivity and those who want to see it stay nearly the same. The former group includes younger residents, renters, students, and the many workers who commute into the town daily because they can’t afford to live there; the latter group is composed of mostly wealthier, largely white homeowners.
Now the Purple Bowl is caught in the middle of it all. Owned and operated by a Chapel Hill family, the Purple Bowl has been popular with UNC students and athletes since it opened in 2017. In 2022, it expanded into the adjacent storefront, creating an airy space with plenty of room for Chapel Hill residents to coexist alongside students and their laptops. When the landlord put the whole building on the market, the owners of the Purple Bowl tried to buy it. They lost their bid to Longfellow.
To Mayor Pam Hemminger, who has served as mayor since 2015 but decided not to run for reelection this year, the Longfellow proposal is an opportunity to expand the town’s commercial tax base. She hopes it would not only attract new businesses but also just keep more Tar Heels in town after they graduate from UNC.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurship and innovation going on with the medical faculty, staff, and students,” Hemminger says. “We’re unusual in the fact that we have a world-class university and a health care system in a small, compact downtown that [all] want the space.”
Because UNC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it doesn’t pay taxes on its massive land holdings. It’s also awarded even more privileges due to its public status. While private universities like Durham’s Duke pay taxes on their noneducational land (such as the Washington Duke Inn), UNC buildings like the Carolina Inn are exempt.
Additionally, UNC is one of the largest landlords on Franklin Street, with holdings including 138–144 East Franklin Street, the building that hosts the popular Carolina Coffee Shop (“Chapel Hill’s oldest original restaurant”). Durham and other college towns face similar issues with large, nonprofit university property owners, but the issue is especially noticeable in Chapel Hill because of the relatively high student-to-resident ratio.
Hemminger points to this college-town characteristic as one of the reasons behind recent property tax hikes.
She adds that UNC has been “desperate” for lab space, envious of Durham’s Chesterfield building on Main Street and the new Durham ID on Morris Street, another Longfellow building. The developers approached Hemminger and the council, pitching lab space as a way to slow the bleed of STEM talent to Durham, the Research Triangle Park, and bigger cities nationally.
To some, though, that promise is not enough to justify the demolition of the Purple Bowl.
With a patio that looks across Franklin Street to Panera and Chipotle, the Purple Bowl and its neighboring stores stand out as rare small independent businesses in a town currently fixated on the ever-shifting opening date of the new Raising Cane’s. At a town council meeting in March, the Purple Bowl CEO Paula Gilland led a group of UNC students who spoke out against the Longfellow proposal.
“Purple Bowl has created a very special sense of community with Chapel Hill,” said Gilland. “It serves as a location where students, student athletes, young families, and retirees can all congregate. They come and enjoy healthy food together. It must be cherished, not demolished.”
Gilland has also said that the money spent in the voluntary expansion and renovation last year would be lost in any move. (The INDY’s efforts to schedule an interview with Gilland before press time were unsuccessful.)
“When I think of Purple Bowl, I don’t think of it as a restaurant,” Julia Herrington, a UNC field hockey player, told the council. “Yes, Purple Bowl has created the perfect acai bowl. But it is much more than that. Paula [Gilland] has created a safe space for UNC students and student athletes.”
The proposal has even drawn some attention from out of town.
“It is very easy to kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” wrote Mary Jane Calhoun Donelan and Michael Donelan of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in an email to council members. “Often smaller cities and towns are like that girl in high school who doesn’t know she is pretty. Chapel Hill is pretty. Chapel Hill has its own magic. Putting up a nine story building on Franklin street? Really? Must be hunting season, and the goose is about to be shot.”
One of the people inspired by the movement to save the Purple Bowl is Adam Searing, who announced his bid for mayor in July. He currently serves on the town council. One of his first campaign newsletters said the Purple Bowl story “pushed me over the edge and into the race for Mayor,” calling the business “a community gathering place, an institution.”
Searing’s comments while campaigning frequently draw on a nostalgia for the Chapel Hill he grew up in.
He told the INDY that the friendly atmosphere of the Purple Bowl reminds him of the bike shop where he got his first job, fixing tires when he was a teen. His pitch to voters has centered around his love of the town’s nature, arguing that the town spends too much on consultants and not enough on parks.
Searing’s opponent, Jess Anderson, is also a current member of the council. She was endorsed by Hemminger and five of the six other council members (excluding herself and Searing). This split is reminiscent of the past two years on the council, with Searing on the lonely side of some 8-1 council votes.
That’s why Searing is running with a slate of four candidates: David Adams, Breckany Eckhardt, Elizabeth Sharp, and Renuka Soll. If Searing and his slate all win next month, they would hold a majority on the council.
Searing and his slate are backed by Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, or CHALT, an advocacy group with an associated political action committee, the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC (CHL-PAC), used to bankroll candidates and campaigns. CHALT’s allegiances and effectiveness have shifted over recent years, with the group first supporting Hemminger in 2017 and 2019, then unsuccessfully supporting her challenger in 2021. CHALT also supported Anderson in her 2019 reelection campaign, before endorsing Searing in his initial 2021 run.
None of the other town council candidates are officially running on a slate, although NEXT Chapel Hill, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates for sustainable transit, housing, and growth initiatives, has endorsed Anderson and council candidates Melissa McCullough, Jon Mitchell, Theodore Nollert, and Erik Valera. (NEXT also has an affiliated 501(c)(4) political advocacy arm.)
All of the CHALT- and NEXT-endorsed council candidates would be newcomers. Amy Ryan is the only incumbent council member up for election this year who is running to defend her seat.
This alphabet soup of Chapel Hill politics isn’t exactly accessible to new residents or people who work long hours and can’t afford to take the time to dig through campaign finance reports. And with a void in local journalism, candidates and their supporters have been doing their best to portray one another in the most unflattering light possible. Most recently, Searing and Triangle Blog Blog, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that shares some personnel with NEXT, have been trading blows online.
In August, Triangle Blog Blog published emails that showed several wealthy Chapel Hill residents planning to spend $120,000 to elect Searing and his slate. Those plans were scrapped after they became public. Searing sent out an October newsletter titled “Dark Money in Chapel Hill Elections,” calling Triangle Blog Blog and NEXT “secretive dark money groups behind attack politics” and disputing their fact checks.
Searing also linked to public incorporation and tax documents that listed the names and addresses of several of their founders and officers. Anderson called that out as “doxxing” on X (Twitter), and Triangle Blog Blog wrote a response fact-checking Searing’s fact check about Triangle Blog Blog’s fact checks.
Searing says he struggled to recruit like-minded candidates, because many didn’t want the scrutiny that comes with being an elected official. And there has been scrutiny, especially when it comes to fundraising. Following reporting on the formation of the new PAC, rumored donors instead gave money directly to candidates and to CHALT’s already-existing associated CHL-PAC.
As it happens, this has been the most expensive mayoral race in Chapel Hill history. Searing has raised $34,857, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, while Anderson raised $26,588. Many donors who gave large sums of money to the CHL-PAC also donated to Searing’s campaign, including CHALT cofounder Julie McClintock and some of the residents reported to be connected with the PAC that was later abandoned.
Gilland and her son, Taylor Gilland, the owner of the Purple Bowl, each donated $357 to Searing’s campaign, the maximum amount allowed under town rules.
Elizabeth Sharp, whose family owns local restaurants Hawthorne & Wood and Bluebird, is a Searing slate candidate. She led the fundraising pack for council candidates, raising a reported $19,228, buttressed by a $6,500 donation to herself. Theodore Nollert, a UNC-CH graduate student endorsed by NEXT, was the second highest fundraiser, hauling in $18,193.
While Gilland has pushed for the town to choose the Purple Bowl over the Longfellow building, Anderson says she doesn’t see it as a zero-sum game. She often says that the town can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“We have to be able to follow our strategic plans and also take care of people who are already here along the way,” Anderson says.
She has touted the town’s Complete Community framework, developed in 2022 and adopted into town plans through this year, as a cornerstone of her vision. It’s a guide that, through changes like amendments to the land use management ordinance (LUMO), aims to balance the town’s needs for housing, transit, retail space, and other categories that Anderson says provides structure to the council’s future decisions. And she thinks the Longfellow building could be a part of that long-term vision.
“We can’t say no to these opportunities when it’s not easy to get investment in our downtown at this point,” she says.
In an online candidate questionnaire, Searing pointed to “eight years of fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement by the Town Council.” He told the INDY that the town should stop paying for outside consultants to create plans like Complete Community and spend that money on existing projects instead. Anderson sees the use of consultants as necessary for a small-town government without a huge staff of full-time workers.
“We want to do really cool things, and we need people with expertise that we wouldn’t make sense to hire for,” she says.
Hemminger, speaking on her endorsement of Anderson, told the INDY that Searing is “unresponsive” to other council members. “He doesn’t like to have conversations with any of us,” she says. “He won’t talk to his colleagues.”
Searing says he “tried very hard to reach out to other members, but because Pam [Hemminger] and the members of the council had a supermajority and could do what they want, they were not very interested in addressing these issues.”
“I just chose to build outside coalitions with people very unhappy with the current leadership on the council and beyond,” says Searing. He worries that plans like Longfellow’s would leave the town “a soulless municipality that is just built up but lacks any character of what everybody loves about Chapel Hill.”
But Hemminger doesn’t see this as part of an inevitable rush of big or corporate business to Franklin Street. Between the Longfellow proposal and the Grubb building going up on Rosemary Street—an $80 million investment that will also include labs and office space—“I think that’s pretty much our commercial capacity,” says Hemminger. She says she’s been friends with Gilland, and the town has been doing its best to help her look at relocation grants for the Purple Bowl. The proposal is listed for review, but not a final vote, on the town council’s October 25 agenda.
At the meeting in March, council members raised concerns about institutions that didn’t mobilize battalions of UNC students to speak for them.
Council member Tai Huynh pushed for Longfellow to prioritize all current tenants of 306 West Franklin Street, including the owner of Bella Nail Bar, who doesn’t speak English. Council member Paris Miller-Foushee mentioned the historically Black Northside community that borders Rosemary Street and encouraged the developers to continue to build an “understanding” of that community and its civil rights history.
Because of the often heated campaign rhetoric, it’s easy to think of Searing and Anderson as diametrically opposed. But Searing says he was with the majority of the council on “probably 80-plus percent of the votes.”
Both mayoral candidates are Democrats running for office in one of North Carolina’s most liberal enclaves. Searing has an LGBTQ Pride flag in his X (Twitter) account’s name. Anderson has a pro-choice sticker on the side of her car. They’ve both voted in favor of the town’s new affordable housing plan and development strategy, and both expressed worries about displacement of residents in low-income housing. If they were members of the state legislature, they would probably vote in lockstep.
Half of the seats on the council, including Anderson’s current seat, are up for election this year. Searing’s is not. That means that an Anderson victory would require the two to continue to work together. And the newcomers to the council will quickly have their campaign rhetoric put to the test when they’re faced with the reality of eager developers and agitated residents who aren’t afraid to voice their feelings at meetings and in inboxes.
If the Longfellow proposal is approved, it will take more than a year for construction to begin at 306 West Franklin Street. The Purple Bowl, and the debates about growth and change, aren’t going anywhere yet.
But even the youngest of the students who spoke at the town meeting in support of the Purple Bowl will have graduated in four short years. At the meeting in March, council member Amy Ryan directly addressed some of the student supporters of the Purple Bowl about the reality of student transience.
“Purple Bowl isn’t a building,” Ryan said. “It’s the people and it’s the place. I think everyone at this dais wants to make sure that continues in this town. We know you guys are great customers. But you leave us in the summer.”
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.