Upgrades for Amber Alley?

With stairs aslant and floors uneven, Amber Alley has tripped up many a Franklin Street pedestrian over the years.

In fact, the well-traveled shortcut between Chapel Hill's main drag and the Wallace Parking Deck is almost as famous for its slippery slopes as it is for its former tenant: the legendary Rathskeller restaurant, which called the alley home for nearly six decades.

That could change tonight if the Chapel Hill Town Council votes to spend $53,879 on the dim, narrow corridor.

George Draper, who owns the Bandito's Mexican Grill half of the alley, says the renovations would make the privately owned thoroughfare safer and more accessible.

In a letter to the Town Council, Draper noted that “the primary reason for wanting to make improvements to Amber Alley is a safety issue ... with inclement weather the alleyway becomes slick because of the terracotta finish.”

Passersby largely agree.

“It's very dangerous, especially when it's wet,” said Bob Epting, an attorney who's used the alley for 40 years. “The steps have been worn down, though on the other hand that's also part of its charm.”

It is because of the alley's status as a “private alley that is used as a public right of way” that Draper says Chapel Hill should pitch in to upgrade it.

He's found a contractor, Accent Construction, to replace Amber Alley's slippery floors with concrete stamped to look like brick or cobblestone.

He also hopes to replace the alley's uneven stairs and the sluggish drain line that leads to “waterfalls cascading down the stairs” on rainy days. Draper added that he and the alley's co-owners have pledged $43,850 to install new awnings, paint the surrounding buildings, remove unsightly aluminum chutes from the buildings' sides and paint a crosswalk.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos says the deal is a first for Chapel Hill. In exchange for the town's funding the repairs, the alley's owners will keep it open to the public for 30 years.

Now, if only the town could bring the old Rathskeller back.