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Thursday January 20th

'We're a part of the campus:' UNC's long-term plan for Cosmic Cantina

The sign for Cosmic Cantina hangs above Franklin St. on Thursday, July 11, 2019.
Buy Photos The sign for Cosmic Cantina hangs above Franklin St. on Thursday, July 11, 2019.

Correction: a previous version of this article misidentified UNC's plan for the Porthole space. It will serve as a campus entryway. The new visitors center is already underway at 134 E. Franklin, next door to Cosmic. The Daily Tar Heel Apologizes for this error.

After media reports detailed a UNC plan to recreate a stretch of its Franklin Street property — which would make beloved late-night eatery Cosmic Cantina the site of a grand campus entryway — the cantina’s owner emailed the University asking for details. 

Not around campus? Still want to experience Cosmic Cantina, even if it's through your computer screen? Check out The Daily Tar Heel's photo gallery at of the infamous Porthole Alley shop that has brought so much joy to students across campus. 

Cosmos Lyles celebrated Cosmic Cantina’s 20th anniversary in Chapel Hill on July 4, and said he was caught off guard when stories about his restaurant’s future came out.

“Any news about this would be appreciated,” he said in an email to UNC, along with a link to an article. 

“We are in the very early preliminary stages to see if a plan would be feasible for this area,” responded Theo Sullivan, UNC Real Estate Operations' property manager. “When we bought the place Gordon and I sat down with you to answer any questions you had and explain our position with the building.” 

Sullivan was referencing the associate vice chancellor for University Real Estate Operations, Gordon Merklein, who Lyles said proposed promising renovation plans after UNC purchased the building that houses Cosmic Cantina a few years ago. 

“I just learned like everyone else that there was a draft plan to demolish and rebuild. In retrospect it should have been obvious,” Lyles said. “I should’ve known because it would’ve been tough to renovate without starting from scratch.”

Lyles said the building he leases, part of the Porthole Alley entry to campus, is old and has its issues, but the prime location on Franklin Street outweighs the problems.

In the email chain, obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, Lyles asked Sullivan for an update on UNC’s stance. 

“You’re (sic) position then was that you were not going to sell it or demolish it. You were just going to upgrade the space and the tenants would be able to stay. So this came as quite a surprise and a change to that position. Theoretically when would this plan take effect?” he emailed.

Sullivan told Lyles the Master Plan reflects a slate of projects for the next 10 to 20 years. 

“As the Master Plan was only recently approved, we are in the very beginning of any planning. We still need to determine if this is a financially feasible project and would then need to complete several rounds of design and then approvals from the University, the State and the Town,” Sullivan emailed back. “In other words, if this comes to pass, it is years off.” 

He added Merklein is scheduling meetings with all of UNC’s tenants to answer questions. 

“Everyone kind of freaked out,” Lyles said. “I don’t know what to think so I’m not going to worry about it until we know more.”

According to the Master Plan, “6.4 million gross square feet – 30% of campus space – is located in buildings rated as worst, severe, or poor condition,” and it proposes 1.9 million square feet of major renovation.

UNC said in the Master Plan that renovations are opportunities to modernize campus, infusing "fresh energy" into buildings where major changes are proposed. It lists the Porthole building as a top candidate for demolition.

“The Master Plan envisions Porthole Alley’s Franklin Street location as a gateway to campus, Carolina arts, and innovation. Redevelopment could include multitenant office uses, innovation space, and retail. A new visitors center is in progress and nearly complete,” it says in the plan, which was ratified in May by the Board of Trustees.

UNC estimates it could support nearly 200,000 gross square feet of space for early-stage companies, support services, and amenities within the next 10 years. 

The Porthole Alley project reflects UNC’s desire to enhance connections between the University and Franklin Street, creating “a place where the University can showcase programs and visitor resources at a major campus entry and builds upon recently completed landscape investments to make the area more welcoming,” the plan says. 

Cosmic Cantina has been in Chapel Hill for 20 years.

Known for its high quality, late hours and low prices — the mini veggie burrito goes for $2.73 — Cosmic Cantina is a local favorite among UNC students. 

When news of the plan broke, UNC student Jake Sackstein created a Facebook event in the group “Carol Folt’s $4.25B Memorial Meme Stash (UNC)” titled, “Chain The Entire Student Body To Cosmic So They Can’t Demolish It.” 

His post has nearly 700 likes and the event has 567 “attendees” at the time of publication.

“When I heard that Cosmic was in danger of being shut down I wanted to do something about it immediately,” Sackstein said. Like many students in the UNC community, he professes a deep love for the popular Mexican restaurant. 

“For me and many other students, Cosmic is an integral part of the UNC experience. There's something magical about stumbling down Franklin Street at 2 a.m. and entering the wooden enclave that houses Cosmic. The neon sign that hangs outside the store holds so much promise, not unlike the Statue of Liberty,” he said. 

Rumors circulated among social media about Cosmic Cantina closing down. The restaurant was open for regular business hours on Thursday July 11, 2019.

“Considering the divisive nature of today's world, we could use more places like Cosmic to bring us together.”

Resident Advisor and rising junior Aaron Park shares Sackstein’s passion for Cosmic Cantina, and holds a special place in his heart for the chicken quesadilla. He first heard about the restaurant in his first-year seminar. 

“I had a friend who brought a bag of chips and salsa to class,” Park said, “And I was like ‘Where’d you get this? Salsa’s pretty dope.’ He was like ‘Cosmic.’ I was like ‘Where is that?’ He was like ‘Franklin Street, in the little nook.’”

Lyles, the cantina’s owner, said he hopes UNC will work with him and other tenants in the upcoming years as they figure out how to actualize their Franklin Street plans. The University emphasized the project is still in the very early exploratory stages and there are no definitive plans for Porthole Alley at this time. 

“I hope that we can stay right there on Franklin Street. We definitely want to have Cosmic Cantina in Chapel Hill for students,” Lyles said. “I hope the University realizes that we’re a part of the campus.”

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