After serving for a year and a half on our Chapel Hill Town Council, many issues left me considering a run for Mayor. Among them: a Council majority that refused to listen to the concerns of residents on issues from opposition to single family zoning changes to a decade of requests for more parks amenities and more equitable and expanded green space; and a Council majority that moved to house families or build new town offices on top of our toxic coal ash dump without removing the waste. With over 30 years of experience as a public interest attorney and health advocate in North Carolina and other states, I’m accustomed to fighting uphill political battles like these. I know they can take time. Why, then, would I jump so soon to another political office? Paula Gilland’s story pushed me over the edge and into the race for Mayor.
Even if you are one of the few people in Chapel Hill who don’t know Paula, you probably know the restaurant her family owns downtown, the Purple Bowl. It’s open and airy, in a revitalized part of the old Fowlers Grocery Store building where as a young Chapel Hill kid I’d go with my mom to do the weekly shopping. Paula and her merry crew serve fresh acai bowls, provide catering for multiple UNC sports teams and sell, along with amazing coffee and many other beverages, a selection of natural energy drinks with enough caffeine in them to satisfy even me.
I first heard in-depth about the Purple Bowl when Paula called me up and invited me over last year. We had just seen a presentation from the Town’s economic development people about a proposal for a new 150-foot glass high rise from a Boston-based developer that would replace the building housing the Purple Bowl and other local businesses. Paula learned of the development plan the same day and had some pretty big concerns – the main one being the threat of losing the home of her beloved business. This was a big deal, since the proximity to campus, ample parking and catering access, not to mention the open, sunlit space, are all critical to its success.
Paula showed me around the Purple Bowl a few days later, and I was immediately hooked. It’s locally-owned and employs over 60 folks, including an amazing diversity of people, some of whom happen to live with a disability. One worker with a disability who testified during a Council hearing on the project said she loves taking orders and “being part of this family and part of this community.” I felt exactly the same way as a teenager growing up in Chapel Hill and working at a local bike shop with a similar community spirit as the Purple Bowl. The restaurant isn’t just a place to get food – it’s a community gathering place, an institution, and exactly the sort of business we want to attract to downtown Chapel Hill.
Now this out-of-state developer had purchased the building and surrounding parcels, apparently with the encouragement of Town leadership. The hope seemed to be that the company could get a positive vote from the Chapel Hill Town Council to rezone the property to allow another giant development in downtown Chapel Hill, demolishing small historic brick structures and replacing them with the tallest building in downtown, a glass- front mini-skyscraper complete with parking garage. This massive redevelopment’s stated purpose is for a “wet lab” development. Not only was I concerned about the effects on our local businesses of this proposal, but I did some research into the project’s feasibility. I discovered large funding shortages and falling office space demand for “wet lab” developments like this one, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal – increasing the likelihood that this large specialized office building would sit vacant.
Well, I might be only one Town Council member with one vote, but after learning more about the Purple Bowl’s amazing story and its place in our community – not to mention all the other uncertainties with this type of industry – I couldn’t vote for this rezoning. Not only would it displace exactly the sort of businesses we want here in downtown, but I have little interest in turning Franklin Street in Chapel Hill into a valley of generic glass-fronted 150-foot office buildings with a few spots for chain-store businesses in the bottom floors.
I am so proud to have worked with Paula and her family, including her son and owner Taylor Gilland, to bring the Purple Bowl’s story to many more people in our community. Working with them and the many, many other amazing supporters of the Purple Bowl has been the most inspiring action I’ve taken on as a Town Council member.
As I considered running for Mayor, being an even stronger voice for our small businesses like the Purple Bowl loomed large in my decision – and eventually pushed me into the race. A critical job for a local elected official is to represent the people and businesses so key to their community, welcoming the new but preserving what makes our town special as well. I hope to continue to be an even stronger advocate for this principle and our local small businesses as Chapel Hill Mayor.