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Column: Making downtown Chapel Hill better requires innovation and collaboration

Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Tai Huynh shares his view on the future of Town development

tai huynh town council
Photographic coverage of the Civic Digital Fellowship event for client Coding it Forward in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Tai Huynh.

This column is a part of an ongoing series featuring Chapel Hill Town Council and Carrboro Board of Aldermen candidates. Tai Huynh is a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council. 

Chapel Hill prides itself on being “The Southern slice of Heaven.” Home to a top tier research university, the birthplace of impactful start-ups and a nationally recognized site of civic activism, ours is a town of innovation and progress. 

However, as the Town’s vision grows, its downtown has not kept up. Now more than ever, to keep growing and progressing, we must revitalize our downtown. 

At its core, downtown revitalization requires more intentional, holistic planning that innovatively balances residential and commercial development. In the past seven years, we have built no new office space downtown. 

We must achieve an optimal ratio between commercial and residential in our tax base. To attain this goal, we must create a place where families can live, work and play. We can create economic opportunities for young professionals and young families. If we are to attract and retain them, we should be building transit-oriented, walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income developments. 

Along these lines, I strongly believe that our town needs to build an innovation district that supports local entrepreneurs and growing businesses. 

Right now, Chapel Hill has a thriving ecosystem that launches companies, but there are few resources that grow and sustain businesses. Often times, we see companies start their journey in Chapel Hill, and then move to other parts of the Triangle to actually conduct their business. 

Small and local business is a tax base our town invests in but does not sustain or benefit from. This shortcoming is detrimental to our economic development as a town. 

Building an innovation district will be a mutual investment for both the Town and the University. Wet labs, hubs for startups to grow and collaborative workspaces will encourage more business across sectors, from biotech to textiles, to grow and employ locally. 

Investing in transit-oriented, walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income developments will build a downtown that attracts people of all ages and backgrounds that is not clogged by parking concerns or traffic congestion, and that is a cultural epicenter in the Triangle. We must grow Chapel Hill from its current student-centered nine-month economy into a 12 month economy that is fueled by diverse and local business. 

I can write all I want about growing the local economy and promoting mixed-use developments, but the most important thing about downtown revitalization is what it feels like. 

I want to walk down Franklin Street, drop in on friends who started their business and decided to grow it locally, interact with the work of artists who work in collaborative spaces supported by the University and the Town and buy from companies that employ my neighbors. 

This Franklin Street can only become a reality through a collaboration among Chapel Hill’s most vital stakeholders. The Town, our residents, our business community and the University must work together to revitalize our downtown. 

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