After stumbles, Cary's Amberly development rolls on

akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2013 

— Scott Levi opened his door a year ago to find the apocalypse had disappeared.

On some unannounced cue, swarms of men had come that morning to clear jungles of weeds from the vacant lots of Levi’s neighborhood in Amberly, a massive residential project that’s emerging from the recession’s grip.

Soon after they cleared the lots, Levi said, contract crews were laying foundations where lonely stubs of pipes had peeked from abandoned land.

After years “parked in limbo,” as Levi put it, the 5,000-home Amberly project has passed a gantlet of ownership changes, foreclosure threats and financial obstacles. Construction now is in full swing, a multimillion dollar wellness center is set to open, and plans are emerging for a long-awaited commercial center.

The 1,100-acre development has become almost a town within a town at the border of suburbia. And with its completion may come a new wave of plans for growth on Wake County’s rural frontier.

New to the Triangle in 2007, Levi and his wife “literally got lost and stumbled upon Amberly.” The development sits 10 miles from downtown Cary, next door to the old tobacco country of Chatham County.

There among the pines, even half-completed, Amberly promised the walking-distance amenities of a city at suburban prices. The Levis’ neighborhood of choice, Village Square, was blocks from the clubhouse and pool, and just south of the future “Amberly Town Center,” a proposed commercial area.

With 1,100 acres of homes planned for Amberly, the young couple figured their unborn children would have plenty of friends. At the time, the collection of five neighborhoods was called the largest swath of master-planned land the Triangle had ever seen.

“It sounded like a utopia, too good to be true,” said Levi, 33, an IT specialist. “And it wasn’t too good to be true. They just ran out of money.”

Plans for Amberly, conceived in the early 1990s and birthed in 2005, faltered with the economic collapse of 2008. The small things came unraveled first.

Stormwater-drainage systems ran into maintenance issues, then developer-funded advertising all but stopped, said Beth Hoggard, who sold Amberly homes before and during the crash.

As home construction slowed and roads sat half-paved, thousands of new residents asked whether they would get the town they had been sold.

On a trip to Holly Springs, Scott Levi saw his worst nightmare: 12 Oaks, also a project of Amberly developers L.M. Sandler & Sons, had ground to a halt.

“It looked like a post-apocalyptic ghost town,” Levi said. “We’re thinking, at some point, the shoe’s going to fall on our neighborhood.”

Fall it did

The failure in 2009 of AmTrust Bank, the lender for the project, signaled major trouble for the undeveloped portions of Amberly.

“Everybody kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way, this is a successful neighborhood,’ ” Beth Hoggard said.

But the questions about the project’s short-term future only intensified, coming to a head when the town of Cary refused to issue new home-construction permits for several months in 2010 because of questions about promised funding for roads, water and sewer.

During the next two years, construction crawled and froze. With fewer than half the planned homes of Village Square sold, Levi and his neighbors couldn’t take control of their homeowners’ association.

Instead, the neighborhood board was controlled by “this developer that didn’t even exist for a while,” Levi said, referring to the builder’s representative.

It was an apt symbol for the recession: Homeowners caught in a half-built neighborhood, wondering just who was in charge.

Amberly’s future

In April 2011, Amberly’s vacant lots came under the control of Iota Amberly, a partnership of the federal government, the Toll Brothers development company, Milestone Asset Resolution Co. and Oaktree Capital.

Their financial questions answered and housing demand growing, homebuilders eventually returned to the empty land by Scott Levi’s home.

A representative of Iota Amberly did not return a call for comment, and the complexity of the project makes it difficult to tally just how much unbuilt land remains in Amberly. But what’s obvious is that there’s an appetite for housing in western Cary, and it’s driving once-stalled housing projects along the suburban fringe.

“Did the downtime last longer than we expected? Of course it did. But we see it moving now,” said Merry Ann Cutler, a Cary real-estate broker with ReMax United.

In Amberly, the last unknown is the future of about 140 acres at the site’s north end. One 70-acre lot is zoned for multi-family development, but Iota Amberly hasn’t sold it to a builder. North of that are about 57 acres meant for Amberly Town Center, planned as the retail hub of the self-contained community.

That vision appears to have shrunk in scope. Fifth Third Bank has sold more than half of the land for the center to M/I Homes, which has permission to build 184 townhomes on its lot. However, Fifth Third has the remaining 29 acres of Amberly Town Center under contract for sale to a mixed-use developer, according to a bank representative.

Rural frontier

David Wrenn, 80, can hear western Cary’s rebirth most days. The sounds of hammers and saws echo across his wooded lot, wedged between Amberly and Cary Park, another mega-development.

“This was strictly rural,” Wrenn said of the place he grew up, which is filled now with a sea of rooftops. He and his wife lament their lost privacy, but the past doesn’t bring on much nostalgia.

After all, they paid their tax bills by selling 18 back acres for a subdivision in Cary Park.

As the Triangle’s growth machine revs into gear, the super-subdivisions planned before the recession will likely approach completion and the development process will begin again.

“I’ve seen many of these large projects get into trouble,” said Tim Bailey, engineering director for Cary. “But as long as there’s land to develop, there’s somebody that’s going to pick it up.”

In the next few years, rural landowners like the Wrenns may once again see developers at their doorsteps, and the growth debates of the 2000s likely will return to Town Hall. In Cary, town staff, elected officials and a resident board already are plotting the next 20 years.

They’re planning for the day that Cary runs out of room for new subdivisions, a topic that’s new to the conversation.

But for the town famous and infamous for growth, the end of suburban construction may be a long time coming. West of Amberly waits Chatham County – Cary’s final frontier.

Kenney: 919-460 2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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