The Case for Public Space in Porthole Alley

By Luke Lowry

Franklin Street is undeniably the heart of Chapel Hill. It is where students rush after sports victories, where people socialize over food and drink, and where alumni reminisce about their college years.  While UNC is many things to many different people, there is one area where it objectively falls short—providing adequate public space. However, a recent proposal by UNC to redevelop Porthole Alley has the potential to change that. 

Porthole Alley is a popular pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfare from Franklin Street to the UNC campus (pictured below). The redevelopment plan centers on the alley and the buildings on either side (128 E. Franklin St., 134 E. Franklin St, Hill Commercial Building, and the Porthole Building). The university has plans to maintain ground floor retail while building an Undergraduate Admissions Center, a Visitors Center, and other university office space. However, the plans are not finalized. In January of this year, the university and the contracted architectural firm KieranTimberlake held four community engagement workshops to solicit input on the proposed designs and to determine other possible uses. This spring, a complete concept design will be released. Since the university is still deliberating on potential uses, the possibility of incorporating public space remains.

Hill Commercial Building, Porthole Alley, and 134 E. Franklin St (via The News & Observer)

Chapel Hill does have a plethora of great public spaces (see CPJ contributor Brandon Tubby’s piece on the Top 10 Best Public Places in Chapel Hill). However, for a variety of reasons, these places don’t optimally serve those who live near downtown Chapel Hill. For starters, several of these places are difficult and time-costly to access from downtown. The Chapel Hill Public Library is the quintessential public space; it offers a space to gather and additional resources such as media, workshops, and events. With beautiful architecture and ample natural light, it’s also a joy to be in it. However, it’s location is disconnected from downtown Chapel Hill and disproportionately favors vehicular access. The library is a tremendous community asset, but downtown Chapel Hill lacks a comparable facility.

Chapel Hill Public Library (via Chapel Hill Public Library)

The public spaces in closer proximity to downtown Chapel Hill are still suboptimal. Many of the “public” spaces on Franklin Street are not truly public because they require a financial investment to utilize the space. The prime example of this is coffee shops, which are regularly used as a place for people to do work, meet with friends, conduct business meetings, or other random tasks. Starbucks has famously capitalized on this latent demand for public space— CEO Howard Schulz has routinely marketed the brand as a third-place (places outside of home and work where people can gather). These places usually function well because the investment to use the space is fairly cheap—a cup of coffee. However, the cost—however small—is still prohibitive to many people. For a place to be truly public, it should be free to access. In addition, because these third places are under private control, they can be unreliable. Starbucks has been in the headlines frequently over controversial cases where certain customers were forced from the store, such as when two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks minutes after arriving for being “non-paying customers.”  This is not meant to disparage the important role of these private-public spaces for downtown Chapel Hill; however, there is still unmet demand for truly free public space. 

Even further, these private-public spaces on Franklin Street are geared towards a specific demographic—college students and young adults.  Franklin Street is known for its restaurants, retail, and entertainment, but these establishments are often one-dimensional and provide no utility for younger or older crowds. Chapel Hill can’t be blamed for this; businesses are catering to the most prevalent customer base. However, Porthole Alley offers a rare opportunity to supply that which the market would never provide—a space useful for all ages. Sometimes, public spaces will be useful primarily to only a subset of the population by necessity—for example, a teen center. However, public spaces should generally have some practical functions for all types of people, including all ages of people. As the popular public space advocacy group 880 Cities puts it, “If everything we do in our cities is great for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old, then it will be great for everyone”. 

While there is a demonstrated need for better public spaces in downtown Chapel Hill, many would argue that UNC has no obligation to provide it—and those people are correct. While the symbiosis between UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill is undeniable, the university ultimately holds no responsibility to provide this space. However, it would be acting against its own principles if it didn’t. The basis for the Porthole Redevelopment Project is the recently published 2019 University Master Plan, a comprehensive plan for the physical development of the campus. The plan establishes several overarching principles; one of them, Look Outward, says this: “UNC-Chapel Hill is of and for the public… The campus will be broadly welcoming and connected to its surroundings”. Clearly, there is a call for something which directly serves the public; the redevelopment needs something more than the Undergraduate Admissions Center and Visitors Center, which serve university objectives exclusively. 

By failing to include public space, the university would also miss an opportunity for personal benefit. UNC has discussed Porthole Alley as the potential nexus of an innovation district, a concept that has been highly popularized in recent years.  To this end, the redevelopment would include a facility for collaboration in the arts, sciences, or other fields. However, incorporating public space would be one of the best ways to foster innovation. In a joint study between Project for Public Spaces and the Brookings Institute, eight principles for successful innovation districts were determined; the first was to Make Innovation Visible and Public, the idea being that random interaction in an open environment is more innovative than purposeful interaction in a closed environment. Thus, providing public space in Porthole Alley could be complementary to broader university goals. 

This public space could take many forms, but the specific function is less important than whether it is conveniently accessible, free, and as useful for as many people as possible. If UNC were to build a space in Porthole Alley which accomplished these things, it would benefit itself and improve downtown Chapel Hill as a place to be enjoyed by all for generations to come.

Image of Porthole Alley by Surface 678

About the Author: Luke Lowry is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning with a specialization in Transportation. He is particularly interested in pedestrian and bicycle planning as a means to increase equity and create vibrant communities. A lifelong resident of North Carolina, he enjoys spending time in the mountains near his hometown.