Young families and students filled every chair in the Purple Bowl at lunchtime on Thursday. Despite the late summer heat and little protection from the sun, customers trickled to the outdoor seating.
Manager Paula Gilland knows the acai bowl shop could use a bigger building for its operations. She said she knew that before Purple Bowl even opened its doors.
But when selecting the business’s location two years ago, she and her son, owner Taylor Gilland, chose a smaller, more expensive space to take advantage of an increasingly hot commodity in downtown Chapel Hill: parking.
“We knew we needed parking to survive on Franklin Street,” Paula Gilland said. “We’ve seen all the other places come and go.”
The Town of Chapel Hill's focus on downtown development has surged in recent years, most notably with the opening of Carolina Square in 2017.
But the fact remains: people still need a place to park.
Franklin Street at a glance
Eleven downtown businesses have closed since July last year.
Hops Burger Bar, MidiCi and Tama Tea each closed around one year after opening. Several other restaurants and stores that closed, however, had been on Franklin Street for much longer.
Noodles & Co. shut down in August 2018 after a decade of operation, and BSki’s closed after 13 years. Asia Cafe, the oldest restaurant to close in the past fiscal year, was open for 19 years before closing last January.
Two boutiques, Fedora Boutique and Bevello Clothing, also closed.
Six of the nine closed restaurant locations have been leased to new occupants. Durham-based Dame’s Chicken and Waffles plans on opening in BSki’s previous location. Blue Spoon Microcreamery, Peño Mediterranean Grill and Curry Point Express have already taken the place of other closed businesses and are open.
Downtown Partnership Executive Director Matt Gladdek said Franklin Street businesses face several challenges, such as increasingly competitive businesses in Durham and Raleigh, and improved food options on UNC’s campus. Franklin Street businesses also compete with other Chapel Hill commercial hubs like University Place and Meadowmont Village.
“For the number of businesses that are here and the amount of wealth that is in that trade area, you would expect businesses on Franklin Street to do very well,” Gladdek said.
Casey Fox co-owns four Mellow Mushroom locations: Raleigh, Durham, Wake Forest and Chapel Hill. He said the Franklin Street location brings in only a fraction of the revenue of his other restaurants.
Many business owners think the difficulty of parking downtown is making customers choose to shop and dine in more convenient locations.
“It’s very frustrating watching people go elsewhere,” Fox said.
With three parking decks, 12 downtown lots and street parking, the town manages 1,442 public parking spaces downtown, according to Meg McGurk, the town's community safety planner.
But Chapel Hill is still struggling with public disapproval of its downtown parking, Gladdek said. Nearly 50 percent of participants in the town’s 2018 Community Survey said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the availability of parking downtown.
The town revamped its parking program, Park on the Hill, in the summer of 2018 with the introduction of new pay stations, as well as an app that allows customers to pay for parking online. It also replaced parking lot attendants with downtown ambassadors. Two lots — the Rosemary/Columbia Lot and the Wallace Deck — switched from parking booths to meters.
The town updated what McGurk called a “woefully outdated” parking system while enhancing efforts to inform the public of its parking program. It also updated its website with information about different parking options and the duties and priorities of its Parking Services Division.
Efforts to raise awareness of the system overhaul included the implementation of the Lots to Love campaign, with a monthly photo contest encouraging downtown customers to post a picture incorporating both parking and kissing. Participants had the chance to win $50 gift cards.
But even a kissing contest couldn’t change the reputation of downtown parking.
“There’s such a negative feeling about parking in downtown that many people that I meet, like families, will say ‘Oh I would come down to the store, but we don’t like to go there because there’s no parking on Franklin Street,’” Gilland, the Purple Bowl manager, said. “So they haven’t even given us a chance.”
Business owners aren't just concerned about parking for potential customers. Their employees need to put their cars somewhere, too.
Yogurt Pump manager Emily Jefferson said she makes a point to talk about parking during interviews with potential employees. YoPo shares alleyway parking with other businesses, making it difficult to guarantee a space for employees.
But not all business owners think parking is to blame for the difficulties of operating downtown.
“Parking is an issue,” said Don Pinney, owner of Sutton's Drug Store. “But decline of your business is not the parking situation. It does cause inconvenience.”
Pinney said parking hasn’t changed during his 41 years on Franklin Street.
“I lost a lot of customers to parking that are older and don’t want to park three blocks away," he said. "If it’s somebody coming in town specifically to come to Sutton’s, they’re gonna park in the deck and come on in.”
Still, business owners are expressing their concerns with the town and the Downtown Partnership.
“We knew we were going to be fighting an uphill battle with this whole parking thing,” Gilland said. “I go to so many meetings with the Downtown Partnership and I’m constantly trying to brainstorm how to overcome that misperception about parking downtown.”
Despite any concerns downtown businesses have about the future, downtown shops and restaurants are excited about the coming months.
Gilland and Jefferson said they think UNC’s football season and the return of head coach Mack Brown will bring alumni and other visitors to Franklin Street. Gilland is also feeling positive about the return of women’s sporting events to campus following construction that closed several UNC fields.
Gladdek said businesses hold on to Chapel Hill because they love the town, regardless of business interest.
“We’ve got some really fantastic business owners here that are here and working and fighting because they care," he said.
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