New life for old Town Hall: share your ideas!

Now that the IFC Community Kitchen has gained the zoning it needed from Carrboro, its move out of the old Chapel Hill Town Hall building will certainly happen over the course of the next few years. What will become of the empty building, which holds so much historic significance for the Town, not to mention occupying a prime downtown location?

Since October, it has been my privilege to chair a committee to consider whether it’s feasible to repurpose the building to house a new community museum/cultural/history center and possibly a relocated Visitors Center as well. Our answer is a resounding “Yes,” though we know many questions remain. Our report will be presented to the Council tonight.

We explored what contemporary museums and visitors centers are like. We went on field trips to the City of Raleigh Museum and the Durham History Hub. (One museum we didn’t have a chance to visit, but which serves as a great model, is the Levine Museum of the New South, in Charlotte. The Anacostia Community Museum in the District of Columbia provides another model of a museum that has been driven by its community from the beginning.) We considered whether the Chapel Hill Historical Society belongs in this mix.

By the time we concluded, we understood that (1) the nature of museums is evolving toward dynamic, community-driven sites where recognition of the past meets engagement with the present, (2) the nature and space needs of visitors centers is also evolving, (3) the Historical Society is well situated in the Library and can stay there for the foreseeable future, and (4) there is a pent-up demand for space for cultural activities across a variety of interests.

In addition to a museum and visitors center, these interests include artists’ studios for demonstrating and marketing their work; as well as a forum for the practice of the public humanities, particularly a site for scholars of history, literature, and related fields to engage in conversations of importance to the life of the community.

Such needs are reflected in other Town plans. The West Rosemary Street Development Guide (2017), for example, calls for a historical and cultural center near Northside. (Indeed, the foundational work of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, which included oral histories and documentary photography of longtime residents, stands as a model of community engagement through connection with history.) This West Rosemary goal, moreover, advances the primary goal of the Cultural Arts Plan (2016), which is “to engage, educate and empower people of all ages by expanding access to a variety of arts and cultural opportunities in community settings.”

At UNC, Chancellor Folt sees the present as “a defining moment for the arts at Carolina,” with Carolina Performing Arts “look[ing] to tear down the borders between artist and audience.” The space that will soon open at Carolina Square is called CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. It “will provide a space for Carolina Performing Arts to fully engage with downtown Chapel Hill, its businesses, and residents,” writes the Chancellor in the introduction to a recent Sunday insert in the New York Times. She links its creation to the Town’s vision for a downtown cultural arts district. Further, UNC’s Visitors Center will soon move to the 100 block of East Franklin Street, and our committee recognized the accompanying opportunities for increased collaboration.

Amidst all of our dreaming about possible scenarios, we confronted the stark reality that the building offers only 7,534 net usable square feet.

The next phases of conversation will need to be framed by larger questions. The first is whether the Town’s goals are best served by continued civic/community use of the building, or whether we should sell or lease the property as a taxable asset. If we decide to continue to contemplate civic uses, the next question is whether other downtown locations offer any opportunity to support, in a complementary way, some of the uses that the community is expressing interest in. The work of another Town committee, also concluding its work tomorrow night, should help us with this question.

Finally, there’s an emerging national conversation about equity in museum design. Here’s a selection of resources for thinking about this question,

Museum for All Blog

Museums and Race: Transformation and Justice

The Incluseum

I’ll work to make sure that these considerations are front and center if the Council agrees that we should go forward in this direction.

My Council colleagues and I are very interested in what you think about this idea. Please let us hear from you!

(Thumbnail: Temporary exhibit on city planning in Raleigh, at City of Raleigh Museum.)

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