Petition calls on Chapel Hill leaders to explore local control of Franklin Street downtown

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – A new petition calls on Chapel Hill leaders to explore getting local control of Franklin Street downtown.

A memo sent to Town Council by the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, an organization that advocates for downtown businesses, suggests the town look into taking over about a mile stretch of Franklin Street.

The road is currently controlled by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger supported exploring the issue in an October 22 letter to her Town Council colleagues.

“Having local control of this very important street in our downtown would make a tremendous difference for our entire community,” Hemminger wrote.

She pointed out it would eliminate the need for the town to get NCDOT approval on a variety of decisions, like closing the street temporarily, painting the pavement, fixing flooding issues, or expanding sidewalk dining.

Hemminger said the town has the right to expand outdoor dining, but expanding the sidewalk to accommodate more tables needed NCDOT approval. She said the temporarily expanded sidewalks could remain but would require NCDOT approval again.

The latter is a key reason the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership brought the idea forward.

Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said the expanded outdoor dining has been critical for downtown businesses during the pandemic, and has led to record sales for some restaurants in recent months.

He said a more permanent setup for sidewalk dining would allow businesses to invest in making their outdoor spaces more wheelchair accessible, while also improving the look of the setup.

“We want to make sure we can get rid of the orange barriers, make that a more beautiful experience, while still providing the extra space for people and for restaurants,” Gladdek said.

Town leaders told CBS 17 Wednesday it’s too early to know how much it would cost Chapel Hill to take control of the downtown stretch of Franklin Street, since so far, this is just an idea.

Cara Johnson, of Chapel Hill, is in favor of the town owning the road.

“They have a better understanding of what the residents are looking for and what could help this area thrive, so I think that does make a lot of sense,” Johnson said.

The town formally heard the petition from the Downtown Partnership at Wednesday night’s council meeting. The Community Design Commission also weighed in and said the committee is unanimously in favor of the town ownership of the road.

The mayor said she’s spoken to NCDOT about this.

CBS 17 reached out to NCDOT who said they haven’t heard anything from the town but would be glad to have a discussion with them about this.

If the town were to go through with the change, the North Carolina Board of Transportation would need to approve it.

Hemminger said she and the town manager will now work with staff to get details on what the costs and responsibilities would be. Then it would come back to the Council for a public hearing and vote, which would probably come sometime after the first of the year.

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