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Proposal aims to accommodate social distancing, increase foot traffic on Franklin Street


An empty Franklin Street on Monday, May 18, 2020. With the new petition, Franklin Street may see a return of people and life without breaking social distancing orders.

The Chapel Hill Economic Development Office is reviewing a proposal for traffic lanes in downtown Chapel Hill to be repurposed this summer to accommodate social distancing while encouraging economic recovery. 

Matt Gladdek, executive director for the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said he submitted a five-part request of downtown modifications to Laura Selmer and Dwight Bassett of the Chapel Hill Economic Development office last Thursday.

The temporary modifications included in Gladdek’s five-part proposal include: 

  • Using the sidewalk for dining and sidewalk sales, and transforming the lane closest to the sidewalk as a pedestrian walk-through lane
  • Designating specific spots along the street for curbside-pickup use only, not allowed to be on-street parking
  • Ceasing enforcement of sign ordinance rules for things such as a restaurant advertising curbside pick-up
  • Let parking be free during this period of phased reopening 
  • Allowing parking lots to be used for socially distant special events or entertainment

Gladdek said the temporary modifications are intended to be in place as long as restaurants can't serve at full capacity.

“Many of our favorite restaurants have a very small capacity, which means adhering to good public health practices and social distancing makes it difficult for them to pay their rent and their employees since they can’t fill up their restaurant,” Gladdek said. “This is the best way we could come up with providing them more space to help them get through this pandemic.”

Mary Parry, a Chapel Hill resident and self-employed communications consultant, said she began to notice “the roadways around town kind of turned into a giant sidewalk” due to the low volume of driving since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and she created a petition to advocate for lane closure after she read articles about other towns transforming their downtown roadways.

“As we start reopening in a safe way in our community, we are going to need more outdoor destinations that feel safe, and our downtown seems like the perfect place for people to social distance and support our community,” Parry said.

Parry created a petition to the Chapel Hill Town Council on May 17 called “Feet on Franklin,” advocating for Chapel Hill to repurpose the two outermost traffic lanes of Franklin Street into a protected pedestrian lane and a space where restaurants can expand outdoor seating. The petition currently has over 550 signatures.

“I’m hoping it will reach more people, not because I want them to sign the petition and see the number go up, but I just want as many people as possible to see this as an opportunity to use downtown as a place for us to social distance and help our economy,” Parry said.  

Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Michael Parker said he supports the idea of repurposing traffic lanes to allow outdoor space for restaurants to safely serve patrons and maintain social distancing.

“The interior space inside a restaurant is constrained, and as we come upon nicer weather, if they can move business outdoors so they can maintain the patrons they need to be financially stable while having the space to allow patrons to be socially distant," Parker said.  

Laura Selmer, an economic development specialist for the Town of Chapel Hill, said that she and Economic Development Officer Dwight Bassett are currently collaborating with other government offices, including Chapel Hill's planning department and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, to create a plan to present to the Town Council.

“We are still in the preliminary stages, and it takes a lot of internal coordination to make it happen,” Selmer said. “It’s going to take us a little time to work out the details and safety concerns before we can move it forward.”

Parry said she was not aware planners were already taking action on creating plans to transform downtown, but she said the petition is still a helpful way to raise community awareness of this unique opportunity to temporarily transform the downtown scene.

“It never hurts for the public to come together and say, ‘this is really important to us,’” Parry said.

Selmer said there is no time frame yet for the temporary downtown modifications, but she said she hopes the changes will be in place for summertime.

“I hope our whole community will take part in this conversation and get excited about how we can adapt together. I think we need a little community-building right now," Parry said. "We all feel kind of alone in our homes, and I think this is an opportunity to work together to help our community.”

@DTHCityState | 

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