Carolina Square: Changing the way we work, live and play downtown

Posted | by Davis Rhodes |

Carolina Square: Changing the way we work, live and play downtown 

By Davis Rhodes

Picture Franklin Street: A string of bars, t-shirt shops and casual restaurants frequented by undergrads and visiting basketball fans — with Top of the Hill at the street’s intersection with Columbia Street.

Carolina Square, opening soon, aims to change the focus. To the west, to the arts, to an urban work-live-play model aimed at more than undergraduates.

The $123 million development will provide downtown Chapel Hill with new offerings and experiences, according to Jeff Furman, director of operations and vice president of development of Northwood Ravin.

“I think this development is one of those perfect case scenarios,” said Dwight Bassett, economic development officer for Chapel Hill. “The performing arts facility, the Target — these are economic engines that can drive new and additional traffic downtown is a perfect case scenario.  We believe that this will bring customers downtown and help strengthen our local businesses.”

Carolina Square Development

UNC leaders promised to transform downtown Chapel Hill after the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation announced the purchase of Granville Towers and University Square in 2008 for $45.75 million. The sale closed in June 2009, according to The Daily Tar Heel archives, and the planning for redevelopment started almost immediately.

Over eight years, plans changed and then solidified — the plans the town council approved in 2014 was set to benefit the downtown tax base, create jobs and help provide traffic to downtown businesses. The iconic University Square towers were demolished, and the longtime businesses inside them, such as Time-Out Grill and 35 Chinese, moved or closed.

The physical transformation of 123 West Franklin is nearly complete, and now it’s time for it to change how residents experience downtown. The Carolina Square development is comprised of three buildings — two facing West Franklin Street and a third in the back.

“We’ve always described this as an economic development project because it’s going to provide around 500 office employees,” said Furman. “Obviously those are folks who will eat and shop on Franklin Street.”


Half of this retail space will house Target, according to Furman. It will help shift the business mix of downtown, which is heavy on restaurants.

“Target will help to fill a gap that exists in downtown,” Furman said.

This urban concept Target will be just shy of 22,000 square feet, much smaller than larger Targets that can be more than 160,000 square feet. Target will provide students and residents with on-the-go grocery shopping while offering Starbucks and a CVS Pharmacy counter, a nice addition to downtown Chapel Hill.

“They know a lot of their traffic is going to be people walking by, so they will tailor their offerings for that market,” Furman said. “And with 1,300 students being next to us in Granville Towers and a lot of the Carolina Square Apartments having residents affiliated with the university, I can only imagine they will work to fit their needs.”

Jeff Furman, director of operations and vice president of development of Northwood Ravin, motions to the Carolina Square plans. Photo by Aramide Gbadamosi. 

Carolina Square Apartments

Carolina Square Apartments will house 550 residents above the retail space in both buildings facing West Franklin.

“Most of the downtown product is fairly limited in what they have beyond their apartments,” said Furman. “We’ve got a big pool, elaborate plan for the pool deck, dog park, multiple social rooms, sundeck and a gym twice the size of what we typically build.”

Furman sees these amenities, paired with the location, as a huge advantage over other apartment complexes in Chapel Hill.

Carolina Square residents and visitors alike will have access to an urban lawn centered between the three buildings.

Below the office space offered in the third building will be Carolina Performing Arts’ newest studio, CURRENT.

The 8,000 square foot space is expected to showcase artists and innovators in immersive, engaging performances and installations, according to Carolina Performing Arts Director of Marketing and Communications Mark Nelson.


Carolina Square features 246 apartment units. Photo by Aramide Gbadamosi. 

CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio

“The biggest thing people should know about this space is what it’s not,” said Nelson. “This is not a miniature Memorial Hall — the big shift with this is the concept of reinventing the audience experience.”

For Carolina Performing Arts, CURRENT is about providing audience with a more immersive experience compared to the more traditional offerings of Memorial Hall or Paul Green Theatre, according to Nelson.

Carolina Performing Arts  intentionally avoided use of the word theater in CURRENT’s title, opting to call it an art space instead.

“People hear the word theatre and have preconceived notions of what happens in those spaces,” Nelson said.

Nelson sees CURRENT as a blank slate for performers and artists alike — the space is highly flexible due to its retractable seating, stages that are built and customized per performance and sliding glass doors that open the art space to the outdoor greenspace.

“In a traditional performance, the audience would sit in their seat, the performer performs and the experience is received in a passive manner,” said Nelson. “At CURRENT, it’s going to be about to total experience instead of the transaction of receiving something from the artist.”

One such performance is Gob Squad: Revolution Now! opening Feb. 22.

Fifty audience members, working with Gob Squad, will collaborate to start a revolution, said Nelson.

They’ll create a manifesto, write protest songs and work together under the guidance of Gob Squad to start a movement.

The performance concludes only after the revolutionaries manage to convince a random passerby on Franklin Street to join the cause, Nelson said. They’ll use a live-camera feed with two-way communication from the art space to a monitor and microphone on the street, Nelson said.

“For most of these things there isn’t a script, they may have a rough outline they follow but there are hundreds of possible outcomes and variants in the experience,” Nelson said.

Economic / Social Impact

A small-business owner himself, Bassett sees the Carolina Square development as a huge boost to small-businesses on Franklin Street that currently struggle to generate traffic.

“Unless you’re just a natural destination it can be hard to attract customers,” he said. “Carolina Square should become quite the destination all on its own.”

Chapel Hill’s downtown has always been student-driven, but Bassett hopes that with Carolina Square the town will see students and residents come together to support the development.

Target, CURRENT and the retail space will provide Chapel Hill residents with a compelling reason to make the trip downtown, Bassett said.

 “I think with this development we’ll see a lot of emphasis shift down to the West Franklin side with a lot of energy and buzz surrounding it,” Nelson said. “Having this brick-and-mortar presence on Franklin Street will bring a lot more awareness to the arts in Chapel Hill.”