Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street is in transition. A look at what’s in, what’s out.

TOPO Distillery, a sister company of downtown Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, is among several Franklin Street businesses to close in recent years.

The area around TOPO Distillery, which occupied space at 505 W. Franklin St., has been in transition for much of the last decade. The Chapel Hill News, a former News & Observer holding, occupied the building until its staff moved in 2015. The newspaper closed in 2017.

In the area right around TOPO Distillery:

Next door to the TOPO space, two county-owned buildings are vacant. One formerly housed the visitors bureau — now the Chapel Hill & Orange County Welcome Center — which moved to 308 W. Franklin St. last year. The other was the Skills Development Center, which is now at the Europa Center but will move into the future Orange County library building, under construction at 203 S. Greensboro St. in Carrboro.

In September, the Orange County commissioners approved a 10-year lease for the buildings with Well Dot Inc., a high-tech healthcare solutions company located at 419 W. Franklin St. The lease gives Well Dot, which plans to add up to 360 full-time positions, the option to renew for two additional five-year terms at 501 and 503 W. Franklin St. The company also has the option to purchase the buildings, which town officials have said could lead to those older buildings being replaced with taller office space in the future.

On the west side of TOPO, Carrboro businessman Michael Benson opened the popular Franklin Motors Beer Garden last year on the site of a longtime auto sales lot.

Across Franklin Street, a number of small local businesses have transformed the block, including Al’s Burger Shack, Rumors, The Baxter Arcade and Beer Study, which recently relocated to the former Mint restaurant at 504 W. Franklin St.

The beloved Chapel Hill, N.C. breakfast spot, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, announced Tuesday, December 1, 2020 that it will be closing as a result of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. The Franklin Street restaurant had been serving the community for more than 48 years.
The beloved Chapel Hill, N.C. breakfast spot, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, announced Tuesday, December 1, 2020 that it will be closing as a result of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. The Franklin Street restaurant had been serving the community for more than 48 years.

Recent closures on Franklin Street

Chapel Hill’s downtown has a reputation for being a tough commercial market, with prognosticators regularly bemoaning the demise of Franklin Street. Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, Spanky’s restaurant and The Library are among some of the popular spots that have closed.

In November, residents and UNC students kicked off a campaign to save another business, Purple Bowl at 306 W. Franklin St., sending hundreds of emails in support of the business to the mayor and Town Council.

The restaurant’s owner Paula Gilland invested over $500,000 last year to renovate and expand the space, and then made an offer to buy the building, but was outbid by Boston-based developer Longfellow Real Estate Partners, according to Gilland’s son Taylor Gilland.

Longfellow has plans replace the low-rise building, which covers nearly two acres between Franklin and Rosemary streets, with a taller life sciences building. The future of the tenants, which include Blue Dogwood Public Market and Chimney Indian Kitchen & Bar, remains uncertain, but the plan could take up to two years, once it is submitted, to wind through the town’s approval process.

Spanky’s has been on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill since 1977. It closed March 31, 2018.
Spanky’s has been on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill since 1977. It closed March 31, 2018.

Is there a turnover problem on Franklin Street?

Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said the town isn’t lacking new businesses that want to be downtown, among them The Gathering Place, which is drawing crowds to Rosemary Street, and Raising Cane’s, which could open this spring at 101 E. Franklin St.

Another iconic restaurant, Crook’s Corner, closed its doors in 2021 but held several pop-up events last year and could reopen, possibly sometime later this year, Gladdek said.

Two businesses, Sutton’s Drug Store and Carolina Coffee Shop, have been there for 100 years.

“We haven’t had any closures for over a year. We’ve been really healthy,” Gladdek said. “Even when we’ve got the closures, people don’t understand that if we have five closures in a year, we’ve got 200 businesses downtown — 200 street-level businesses. Five businesses closing, maybe you love one of them, but we don’t have a big turnover problem on Franklin Street.”

High land values distressing local businesses

Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill’s director of economic development and parking services, said the town can’t do much about the high land values, which results in higher leasing rates and makes it harder for small businesses to survive.

But the town is taking steps to increase the number of year-round employees and residents, who could patronize those businesses.

That includes the construction of a new 1,100-space parking deck at 125 E. Rosemary St. and the partnership with UNC and developer Grubb Properties to build an economic hub with more commercial space for startups and research companies, including those being spawned by UNC’s two downtown incubators, he said.

Grubb Properties is also renovating the former CVS building at 137 E. Franklin and 136 E. Rosemary streets to create an Innovation Hub and got the town’s approval last year to build a new, 238,000-square-foot office and research building at 150 E. Rosemary St.

“I think there are a lot of good things going on, and I think that downtown is in a much better place than it’s been in a really, really long time,” Bassett said. “It gives me faith and confidence that we will continue to see positive trends and, hopefully, we will be able to revitalize downtown one day.”

More about TOPO’s exit

TOPO Distillery’s equipment was purchased in November, and the business will be out of their space on Feb. 15.

The distillery closing does not affect the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, located on the top floor at the intersection of East Franklin and South Columbia streets in Chapel Hill. That will remain open.

TOPO Distillery is no longer making any of their signature hand-crafted liquor, but some unbought bottles of spirits remain, and can be bought online and picked up at the distillery for one more week.

Raleigh’s LODEN Properties purchased the building. It’s unclear what the space will become, TOPO’s founder and owner Scott Maitland told The N&O this week.

The Raleigh-based real estate development company owns several Triangle spots, including Raleigh’s Gateway Plaza and 122 Glenwood, Durham’s Rogers Alley, and Cary’s South Hills.

LODEN Properties already noted Chapel Hill’s 505 W. Franklin St. as one of its properties on the company’s website.

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