When Dr. Bernadette Keefe walks out onto her patio, she gets a bird’s-eye view of downtown Chapel Hill — and she’s watched it grow for 13 years.
Keefe moved into the first mixed-use building in Chapel Hill at 308 W. Rosemary St. in 2000 with her now-ex-husband and her son.
“Our family was the only family with a young child going into the building,” she said. “From 2000, he grew up on Rosemary Street as an urban downtown, the only kid really living in this area.”
Keefe lived in New York City for 14 years during her medical residency, so she said the move downtown was natural.
“City living, urban living, was second nature,” she said.
But in 2000, downtown Chapel Hill was not much of urban living, especially when students were gone, she said.
“I was very surprised at how desolate it was, and I was kind of disappointed,” she said. “It wasn’t what I thought of as urban.”
It was an intimate place to live, Keefe said — especially for her son, Christopher Jaques.
“You’re talking to a gal who isn’t going to be surprised at anything urban, having come from New York,” Keefe said. “So the only thing that was kind of weird was being the only place that was high.”
Jaques said he remembers having all of his friends come over, and they explored and played sports on campus.
“She let us have the freedom to go out into downtown and actually be ourselves and not constrain us to the building,” he said.
It took a few years, Keefe said, but the downtown area slowly started to develop.
The Franklin Hotel. Greenbridge Condominiums. 140 West Franklin. Shortbread Lofts.
“As things rose up, it was fantastic,” she said.
An eye on the future
Thirteen years later, Keefe no longer practices medicine, and her son is a senior at UNC. But Keefe still lives on Rosemary Street.
Hope Bryan, a friend of Keefe’s whose son grew up with Jaques, said Keefe represents the downtown Chapel Hill lifestyle because she has lived there successfully for so long.
“She really is creating an urban environment for herself, sort of among the desert (of permanent residents),” Bryan said.
And Keefe has a few ideas for the future of her home.
“Because we have an aging population, I see that we need to adapt to the aging population a little more,” she said.
Keefe said when she fell last year and had to use a walker, she realized how hard navigating downtown can be for people with walkers or wheelchairs — and now she hopes to see a change.
Sidewalks should be revamped, replaced or installed in many places, Keefe said. She wants everyone to be able to explore downtown.
She said she also hopes to see more reasonable housing — reasonably sized and reasonably priced, so more permanent residents choose to live downtown.
“They don’t have to be big places. They don’t have to be tricked out,” Keefe said. “We’ve got to afford housing.”
Since they moved in downtown, Jaques said his mom has hoped to see the area become the focal point of Chapel Hill.
“When she moved here, nobody really came downtown,” he said. “You didn’t do your shopping there. You went out to University Mall. Now you go to Southpoint — she wants to bring those people back into town.”
And when Keefe thinks of developing the downtown, she often focuses on Rosemary Street. She said she has a wish list.
“I really, really don’t want to see a line of six-, seven-, eight-story buildings uninterrupted along Rosemary’s south side,” Keefe said.
Keefe said she wants to see variation and openness in the area, and she wants everything to be on a human scale. When she talks about Rosemary Street, she takes out a legal pad and an ink pen and begins to sketch in what she hopes to see downtown.
“I want everything about Rosemary to be so pleasant and so easy,” Keefe said. “The walk to everything is so delightful.”
Keefe has been an involved member of the community since she moved to Rosemary Street. She has spoken up during the developments of Greenbridge, 140 West Franklin and Shortbread, and she often attends the Rosemary Imagined social events hosted by the town and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.
“She’s put herself out there just by going to so many little committee meetings that many people just laugh off,” Jaques said.
Meg McGurk, the executive director of the partnership, said Keefe has been engaged in town development efforts for years.
“She is a very passionate and enthusiastic supporter of the downtown community,” she said.
Keefe said she knows her dreams for the downtown area will come true one day.
“I just dream about it,” she said. “It’ll happen.”
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