DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane D. Brown
I love going to the farmers’ market at University Place. It has everything I want – beautiful breads, fresh greens, all kinds of tomatoes, fresh pasta and even pita and hummus. Chocolates and bacon if I’m in a splurging mood.
This summer, it’s been especially hot out there on the parking lot pavement, though, and I don’t even think of going if it’s raining. This caused me to wonder why the official Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market doesn’t have a shady designated shelter like Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
I know what we used to call the “Mall” will be redeveloped soon. Will the redevelopment include a pavilion for the farmers’ market? Turns out, that’s a good question.
After digging through mountains of Chapel Hill’s town council’s meeting minutes, I learned that a “Market Pavilion and Beer Garden” was clearly included in the developer’s original proposal last year (see Illustration A below). The council was happy about that and saw a permanent pavilion for the market as a selling point for the redevelopment proposal.
But by the end of two more meetings, only this sentence was included in the Special Use Permit approved by the council: “The developer shall provide adequate space to accommodate a farmers’ market or a substantially similar business and to negotiate in good faith a lease or other appropriate agreement with a local farmers’ market entity.”
The developer, Ram Realty Advisors, apparently had decided they couldn’t afford to build the structure they originally proposed. The council approved the plan anyway.
Last week, the developer posted a glitzy new website about the redevelopment set to begin the end of September. A picture of a farmers’ market vendor is included with this description: “The heart and soul of the community, The Commons is a flexible, programmable, outdoor public space for art, culture and community events including the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market.”
But the new master plan (see Illustration B below) depicts only open green space where the “Market Pavilion and Beer Garden” were in the original plan.
Ram Realty has not answered my inquiries about what happened to the planned pavilion.
I think Ram Realty is right that this could be the “heart and soul of the community.” We are privileged to already have a thriving 14-year-old farmers’ market—some 450 to 500 customers buy from 30 or more vendors on Saturday mornings. Tuesday’s afternoon market is smaller but equally popular.
Kate Underhill, the market’s manager, who has a master’s degree in costume design, said, “I love working with these people. It is so much fun and kind of like a theatrical event. All these people coming together for this special performance every Saturday and Tuesday. And it’s important for our community. The small vendors are so appreciative as they get their foot in the door. It’s a wonderful customer base, too, so the vendors can really succeed.”
A former board member of the Farmers of Orange said that he and the other vendors are “happy we have a place to sell” and that the “rent is more than gracious and fair,” but “we’re in the middle of a parking lot and it’s hard on our customers and vendors.”
Underhill said the need for a pavilion has been exacerbated because of climate change – the heavier rains and hotter summers hasten the need to be under a shelter as it gets harder to be on hot pavement.
The market would like to stay where it is. Underhill said, “We think the location we’re in is very good right now—visible from major roads, on bus routes, accessible to pedestrians. Moving is very difficult for a farmers’ market; customers think we’re gone, even if just on the other side of the mall.”
The market’s location committee has established goals to help move toward a permanent, sheltered space on the Mall property. They’d like to obtain the cost estimates for the pavilion as shown in the original plans and work with town staff to secure grant funds to construct the pavilion. They also want to negotiate a long-standing lease agreement that includes a permanent location that Farmers of Orange can afford.
Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Karen Stegman, who had expressed support for the local farmers’ market in last year’s council’s deliberations, said, “I’d be really disappointed if the developers don’t follow through with the physical structure the council expected.” She said she would be happy to help with negotiations to ensure that the physical structure the council discussed is constructed.
So maybe there’s hope that Chapel Hill will eventually have a shaded, accessible farmers’ market where we can continue to support and be sustained by our local farmers and artisans.
In the meantime, if you are a grants writer or know of someone who might help, please let Kate Underhill know via email@example.com. And keep shopping at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market. We are lucky to have such fresh, local food available in our community.
Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.