Building Tomorrow’s Chapel Hill


By Laurie Paolicelli

Downtown Chapel Hill, circa 1945.

If you want to see a native Chapel Hillian smile, bring up memories of the Chapel Hill they remember. For some, it’s the village of the 1960s. For others, it’s the Franklin Street Flower Ladies, ice cream at Swensen’s, a ‘Big O’ orange drink at the Colonial Drug Co. — the list goes on and on.

As Aaron Nelson, longtime director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce is fond of saying, “everyone wants to rediscover Chapel Hill exactly as they remember it when they were here.”

Folks who have been around for a while will tell you straight-out that Chapel Hill is changing. And it’s true. Chapel Hill is changing — but it has to. No community has ever achieved and sustained any kind of economic prosperity without urbanizing to some degree. And that change also comes with a generational opportunity to re-define the social, economic, and environmental fabric of community.

This means growing pains and disruption, because once a no-growth reputation is born, developers and business owners will often take the course of least resistance and move on to greener, neighboring pastures.

“Tradition and progress can work together to ensure Chapel Hill remains a vibrant place to work, live, play, and shop,” said Dwight Bassett.

“Neighbors in Chatham, Durham, Wake, and Alamance County are attracting future focused projects. Chapel Hill can’t remain static surrounded by innovation, housing, jobs, and new ideas. There are smart ways to do this, though, and leaders from across the University and Town of Chapel Hill are engaged in planning,” said Dwight Bassett, Economic Development Director with the Town of Chapel Hill.

At a recent meeting of the East Chapel Hill Rotary, Bassett talked about the projects on the horizon and why they are necessary to prepare for the future.

Bassett gave the East Chapel Hill Rotary an overview of changes on the horizon in downtown Chapel Hill.

“As the next generation comes of age, they need a good reason not to leave. The availability of local employment may be the best reason, but other factors can’t be overlooked. They’ll want good schools for their children, sufficient retail shopping and services, and good quality housing they can afford. Any town not perceived to be providing a high quality of life for its residents and businesses is not likely to survive over the long haul,” said Bassett.

Dwight agreed with many members that at its core, the University of North Carolina makes Chapel Hill the desirable place it is.

“In Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina gives life to innovation and modernization at the intersection of campus and community. Chapel Hill is working to become a more sustainable and resilient community. This includes the Council’s commitment to uphold the Paris Agreement by reducing greenhouse gas emissions between 26-28 percent by 2025 and creating vibrant, walkable places within identified growth areas. These areas will provide homes, services and jobs, attract riders to transit, link to surrounding neighborhoods, and connect public and private sectors to achieve sustained implementation of our comprehensive vision.”

Pat Phelan and his wife Tara O’Donnel celebrating the opening of Edward Jones at their new location.

“I hope Chapel Hill continues to move towards growth and doesn’t become stagnant like the town I grew up in, St. Louis, MO,” said Pat Phelan, local resident and member of East Chapel Hill Rotary.

“The young-and-hungry demographic that was necessary to revive downtown St. Louis and any downtown started flocking elsewhere. I was one of them and so were many of my friends. I want Chapel Hill to be smarter,” said Phelan. “I’d also like to see the next generation have more reasons to stay.”

And as the cost of rent and home ownership in Chapel Hill continues to climb, the Town of Chapel Hill has increased its housing budget. This past year, the Town made a series of allocations to a variety of affordable housing projects, a substantial effort to rectify the ongoing housing disparities.

Graduate Hotel Balcony View.

Growth happens — and in the long run that’s a good thing. By any estimation these plans and changes will bring with them elements of disruption. Some familiar routes will be temporarily closed while construction occurs, and the skyline tomorrow will not be the same one we have today, much less like the village so many residents and visitors fondly remember.

“I believe Chapel Hill is special, but it’s not immune to the consequences of a future we meet unprepared,” said Phelan. “What I learned in St. Louis is that if change is inevitable, then the goal is to make it work, for a community, not against it,” said Phelan.

In tandem with the innovators at the University and the creative class we are so lucky to have as part of this community, we have an opportunity to secure, maintain, and enhance the sense of place and identity that has drawn us here and kept us here, a tomorrow not to lament but to look forward to — bold dreams of the future one day becoming the shimmering memories of the past.

Lantern Restaurant Patio.

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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