Finding the pulse of Franklin Street | Orange County | Indy Week
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Finding the pulse of Franklin Street 

Lillie Pratt is one constant on a centuries-old street with merchants and students always coming and going. You can find her on Franklin Street, where she's been nearly every week since the mid-1950s. There she sits patiently with sweet-smelling flowers—carnations, chrysanthemums and lilies, orange, purple, red and white—at her feet, smiling at passersby.

"I'm kind of like a landmark," says Pratt, who, at 81, relies on her son to drop her off downtown. "I'm historical. Some people tell me I'm a legend."

Pratt's story is one of thousands in the history of Franklin Street, Chapel Hill's main drag and intersection of town and gown. Yet, in the cultural shift that has supplanted downtowns with suburban malls as a city's cradle of commerce and a hub for hanging out, Franklin Street has become shopworn. Once an eccentric collection of local businesses and characters, over the years most of Franklin Street's locally owned businesses have abandoned the town's center, leaving it to corporate chains that can afford the high rents. As for the characters, all but Pratt have vanished. Frank Wright, whose colorful, well-tailored suits made him the best-dressed man on Franklin Street, has died. The familiar "What do you say, Cat?" greeting from a man known as "Cat Baby" is gone, too. The guy carrying the infamous "Shoot the Whales" sign left years ago.

Downtown leaders, from business owners to economic development officials and Town Council members have ideas for how to remake Franklin Street into a destination that not only builds the economy but also community: more parking, fewer panhandlers, additional parks and concerted marketing campaigns.

Whatever the prescription, almost all acknowledge that Franklin Street, while successful compared to many other American downtowns, faces serious challenges. Just look at the empty marquee where the Varsity Theater resided for 82 years. The last picture show was July 1.

And along with flowers, Pratt now holds a cardboard sign reading,

"Please help the Flower Lady. God bless."

Who owns Franklin Street?

Pratt prefers to remember a different time, one that's honored by a permanent exhibit, Meet Me on Franklin Street, at the Chapel Hill Museum. It highlights the first half of the 20th century, when immigrants opened restaurants and men's clothing shops there, and ladies boutiques, gas stations and grocery stores were solid businesses.

"It represents kind of the heyday of when Franklin Street was a busy street," says Anne Wood Humphries, the exhibit's curator. "People went there to meet and go to the coffee shop, and everybody knew everybody's name. People who've lived in Chapel Hill a long time, that's kind of the era they think of when they think of Franklin Street."

Through the years, as the exhibit details, the street has hosted celebrations for basketball victories over Duke and the NCAA championships. It has set the scene for social change—the site of the sit-in at the Colonial Drug Store and the place for a communist to be heard when he was banned from speaking at UNC. It has served, as former Mayor Howard Lee puts it, as the "heart, soul and spine of Chapel Hill."

But even the most local of locals acknowledges that Franklin Street will never be as it once was. Don Pinney, manager of the 86-year-old Sutton's Drug Store, which runs a lunch counter with classic milkshakes and burgers and a famous Tuesday/Thursday hotdog special—two dogs and fries for $3.25—can name nearly every business that's been on the street in his 30 years working there.

"It's a shame to see them go," he says as the lunch crowd begins to line up. "It's just not the same. It's still a wonderful place to come. Franklin Street is as much a part of UNC as UNC is a part of Franklin Street, but I think it's too far gone to capture any of the good old days."

A successful street helps build a successful town, and the converse holds true. As years pass, success has become more elusive. The Franklin Street that Humphries describes didn't compete with Eastgate, Southpoint, Carr Mill Mall or even I-40. It was the only action in town. Throw in new developments like Southern Village and Meadowmont, which include their own businesses, and Franklin Street's inconveniences, once overlooked—such as a lack of parking—become glaring.

"There are vast areas of our town where people live that I run into people who do not go downtown," Town Council candidate Will Raymond says. "They don't go downtown to eat, to shop; they have no desire to go downtown. ... Maybe where we're going with this is that we don't have a Franklin Street. We have a bunch of mini Franklin Streets."

One can argue if the reasons people are reluctant to go downtown are perceived or real, but as Downtown Partnership Executive Director Jim Norton points out, "perception is reality."

While people have long thought that it's impossible to park downtown, that perception received some statistical backing in 2008 when the town received a report from parking consultants Rich & Associates. The group found that the town only controls 25 percent of the 3,362 available downtown spaces, and recommended the town obtain 50 percent, 440 more, of those spots to meet pricing and efficiency standards.

Those in charge of parking have become creative. The Downtown Partnership, working with a UNC-owned parking lot, implemented a free valet service on West Franklin. Earlier this year, the town began to give out "Thanks for visiting downtown Chapel Hill" notes, instead of tickets, for first-time parking-meter offenders.

Then there's panhandling. A common problem in cities and college towns, it's purportedly being addressed through "Real Change From Spare Change," a program operated by the Downtown Partnership that advises against giving money to panhandlers, instead asking people to support an initiative to provide mental health services and permanent housing.

Many town leaders hope that moving the Interfaith Council's men's shelter and kitchen out of downtown will distinguish the truly homeless from the hustlers and career panhandlers. The Town Council will review a plan Sept. 21 to relocate the shelter north, at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Homestead Road.

While that may make for a more comfortable experience for some, it'll take much more than moving a homeless shelter to create the atmosphere many want.

"We need to see the whole of the community, not just those who are looking for another Disneyfied college town." —Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt

"I would say I do miss some of those defining characters of the street, but the way to bring that back is not with spit shine and polish and sweep the streets of people of lower economic means," Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt says. "We need to see the whole of the community, not just those who are looking for another Disneyfied college town."

Chapel Hill does have a local ordinance that prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of a bank or ATM or 6 feet from a bus stop, and outlaws aggressive requests for money.

But the ordinance is hard to enforce, and its effectiveness is debatable, Assistant Police Chief Chris Blue says. "We can go down and arrest people all day long, and some days we do, but it clogs up a burdened court system," he says, adding that officers see the same faces repeatedly. "You create this cycle that really does nothing to fix the problem."

It's also tough to catch panhandlers, who are streetwise enough to avoid officers. Blue says most people don't report them. "Instead they walk down the street saying, 'Wow that was a threatening interaction or unpleasant situation,' and they have bad things to say about Franklin Street."

Councilman and mayoral hopeful Matt Czajkowski agrees. He has proposed banning all panhandling within 15 feet of a building. "The ability to say to all those people who've written off downtown, 'We've now enacted an ordinance which prevents panhandling downtown,' is something tangible to them and gives the possibility they'll say, 'Hey, I'll give it another shot,'" he says.

Panhandling citations have remained steady in recent years, Blue says, adding that the street is safer now than it's been in years past. The police department has added a dedicated unit to patrol downtown. Within the past year, there has been a 52 percent decrease in serious crime (homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, etc.) There were 23 incidents in all, 12 robberies, eight aggravated assaults and three sexual assaults.

"Downtown is kind of getting a bad rap just on urban legend," Blue said. "I don't think downtown is any less safe than it's ever been, but I think there's a real discussion about panhandling and real discussion about naked storefronts, and those are legitimate discussions, but we're kind of talking ourselves out of enjoying our downtown in this community."

click to enlarge Lillie Pratt - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Pratt was a young girl accompanying her mother when she started peddling on Franklin Street for a buck a bouquet. As many as five flower ladies lined the sidewalks, and they became so popular that other street vendors joined. Soon town leaders passed a local ordinance that allowed vendors to sell only in what was then NCNB Plaza (now Bank of America), where Pratt sells her flowers today. However, she now competes with farmers' markets and commercial florists.

"There's more people, a lot of noise and less business," says Pratt. "I help beautify the street, and people tell me, 'I'm glad to see you're still here.' They still don't buy flowers, though."

Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill's economic development officer, estimates that 40 percent of the town's retail base is downtown. Norton, who held a similar post as a downtown ambassador in Tulsa, Okla., disputes the notion that Franklin Street has a problem with empty storefronts. "Tulsa had probably 30 percent vacancy rate on its first-level streets in its downtown. You've got a 5 percent vacancy," he says. "Nobody wants vacant stores. Nobody wants underutilized properties, but in the great scheme of things, Chapel Hill is in pretty good shape. Now, do we need to fill that 5 percent? Absolutely."

The buildings remain vacant in part because of a lack of interest, but also because of the high rent, which runs in the thousands. Norton estimates it costs $15 to $30 a square foot per month.

Franklin Street has become a commercial monoculture aimed at UNC students with restaurants, T-shirt stores and bars.

Kleinschimdt said he frequently hears that criticism.

"We want there to be greater diversity, but in order for that diversity to occur, we need a market for it, part of what's been the inspiration for our Lot 5 project."

Near the intersection of Church and Franklin streets, the Parking Lot 5 project, dubbed 140 West Franklin, and across the street, University Square, a 12-acre property including Granville Towers, which UNC purchased in July for $46 million, are being touted as the link between East and West Franklin streets.

Ram Development, which the town is paying more than $7 million, is charged with turning what's now a parking lot bordered by Church, Rosemary and Franklin streets into condos, retail, open space and parking.

"That is why the whole project moved forward the way it did, to create that heart," said Shari Meltzer of Ram. "We have a commitment as part of the project to build a plaza with public art and a commitment to entertainment and art."

The project is scheduled to break ground in the middle of next year. Meltzer says lower construction costs have helped sales, but declined to share any specifics.

Councilman Ed Harrison, running for re-election, has supported this new type of development.

"The big trend that the council I've been on has pushed is bringing residents to downtown, which has not been universally well received," he said. "But we think it's the right direction to go, because we want a 24-hour, 52-week downtown."

Harrison says 140 West Franklin and University Square will help fill the "missing tooth."

UNC's plan, albeit preliminary, is to demolish the existing square and the brick wall separating it from the sidewalk and move it flush with the street, which would make this stretch of the street more pedestrian-friendly. A parking deck would be built behind it.

"There is no really street-level experience, because you have retail at University Square that's set back. There's a whole break along Franklin Street," says Gordon Merklein, UNC's executive director for real estate. "Our project, along with 140, creates a real opportunity to fill in that gap and re-create a sense of place."

Just last week, UNC named Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects for the project, and Merklein says UNC will begin seeking public input at forums in the fall.

Norton, like many others, argues that the street isn't broken, perhaps just fragmented. "Ninety percent of other leaders would give their left arm to have our downtown," he says. The town is trying to unify the street and attract new businesses with efforts such as the six-week pilot program, "Franklin Street Comes Alive."

"I think we should make the street alive, and the only way to do that is with people making it alive," says Council member Laurin Easthom, also seeking re-election.

Artists also could get a permanent space. A group is considering moving into the old Kerr Drug space and creating an "art co-op," with local work for sale. It's similar in essence to Kidzu, the children's museum that many say is bringing families back to the street, while anchoring other businesses.

Those ideas, along with plans to create public common spaces are ways of manufacturing what used to happen organically. Therein lies the danger: The new Franklin Street could feel contrived, as if it were a movie set. The new characters are merely extras.

Though Pratt sees far more feet pass than stop on a daily basis, she takes her role as a fixture of the street seriously. She's something that no growth or comprehensive plan can create: a living legend.

"It mean's we're making somebody happy," she says proudly. "I enjoy it, meeting with people, making new friends. They're been very nice to me down here."

Varsity and The Rathskellar are gone, but there are some success stories to be told. Sutton's, for example, has thrived in the same space since 1923. Owners have seen other drug stores come and go, including chains. Walgreens is moving in down the street in the old Carolina Theatre space, but Sutton's has provided a lunch counter and down-home charm that owners say will keep it thriving.

Pictures of local legends and longtime customers line the walls and hang from ceilings. "We have 10,000 in storage," says Pinney, whose parents met while working at Sutton's in 1958. "Everybody can't be on the wall all the time."

It's an old-time space that new students have come to love for its inexpensive grill items and local flavor. "It's the personalities and the fun and the atmosphere. We appeal to everyone," he says. "It's not only UNC students. We have locals who come up here and support us."

The store has lasted because it hasn't been afraid to adapt. When the Hallmark Store on Franklin Street closed, Sutton's added to its card selection. Pinney points to a handful of examples and says other businesses didn't change, and died.

Eddie Williams, who's owned Time Out Chicken for 31 years, says the key to running a successful business downtown is simple.

"I don't think it's anything we've done outstanding except that we've just been consistent and tried to stay there," he says. "I think since it's my dream and my passion, that that's why we're still there. When the original owners of the Rathskellar left, and it's someone else's pickup, they don't drive the same loyalty to that business, and therefore it kind of peters out. It doesn't have the same pizzazz."

Williams still works the register during the lunch rush, always greeting regulars by name and sharing a story or two. That personal touch is what keeps it going, and the famous chicken and cheese biscuits don't hurt either. Time Out was recently featured on the Travel Network's Man v. Food, and a few weeks ago AT&T shot a national commercial featuring Tyler Hansbrough at the 24-hour eatery.

Scott Maitland, proprietor of Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, is expanding, adding a great room for private parties and a second bar with pool tables and dartboards above the former Gap space. He's also purchased the Chapel Hill News building down the street, where he plans to put a liquor distillery.

Maitland was a second-year law student when he heard that T.G.I. Friday's sought the space he now occupies at the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets. "I didn't want to see a historic downtown that had operated the same way since 1789 loaded with chains," he said. "What intrigued me was having a product that you can only get here. It's like the opposite of a chain."

He's waved the local flag ever since. He lined the patio walls with "Targoyles," gargoyles depicting local characters, like bartenders, athletes and, of course, the flower lady. (The Targoyles are getting refurbished. Even cement characters are temporarily absent.)

Maitland says he has the country's largest brewpub in beer sold per square foot and that he's the largest purchaser of alcohol in the state. Customers drain 60 kegs a week, including housebrews like the "Frank Graham Porter." He says the street is in the middle of a "correction." "I think the glory days of Franklin Street are in the future."

Perhaps he's right, but who will be the "flower lady" then?

  • Chapel Hill's main drag tries to recapture its eccentric, homegrown feel: Is it possible?

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