Consultant calls for more detail on region-shaping Chatham Park project

akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2014 

— Late last year, Pittsboro’s new mayor laid down a new challenge to the developers of Chatham Park, the behemoth project that could turn the small town into a city-sized corner of the Triangle.

As he prepared to take office, Mayor Bill Terry told a packed courthouse meeting that he wanted to see an outside firm review Preston Development Co.’s plan to bring an estimated 60,000 new people to town. At a cost of $12,000, a consultant firm has spent a month picking through the controversial preliminary plan for Chatham Park.

Now the results are in. Lawrence Group, of St. Louis, has issued a 29-page report on the decision Pittsboro faces in the coming weeks and months.

“It really does lack a coherent vision,” said consultant Craig Lewis, speaking before yet another crowded town meeting on Monday. He said that Preston at times has outlined an admirable plan, with clustered, walkable neighborhood areas – but he warned that the developer hasn’t nailed down that vision in its proposal to the town.

“This project and this scale of project can be well-designed, and it can complement this community, or it can be a continuation of sprawl,” Lewis said.

The project’s supporters, including about a dozen wearing “GO CHATHAM PARK” shirts at Monday’s meeting, say Chatham Park will be a region-shaping jobs magnet of unprecedented scale for North Carolina. Preston Development’s Tim Smith argues that he can beat the ills of suburbia if the town grants him some flexibility to work in the 7,500 acres that his firm has accrued for its project.

The outside review, now in the hands of the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners, finds a bit of merit in those arguments, saying that Preston needs freedom from some of the regular zoning rules in order to embrace a potentially forward-thinking style of design.

However, the Lawrence Group report repeatedly dings Preston’s plan for a lack of goals, benchmarks and “narrative” in the overarching proposal submitted for approval.

For example, Chatham Park’s “vision statement” reads: “Chatham Park is designed and built as a place where people and businesses can fulfill their aspirations in harmony with nature, a place that will inspire.”

The Lawrence Group report responds: “Besides being grammatically incorrect, the statement in no way speaks to the manner in which the overall development plan will be innovative.”

Turning opinions?

Months ago, the town’s elected officials seemed ready to approve the project’s central document, a “planned development district” that would establish the huge scale of Chatham Park, set up a more-flexible planning process and allow the developer to begin building a first wave of about 1,110 homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office, research and retail space.

Preston has been buying up land for its project since 2006, and it was in talks with town officials through much of that time, according to former Mayor Randy Voller and Tim Smith. Preston Development put its grand master plan on the table in May, beginning a pingpong match of demands and revisions.

Beneath the logistical debate is an emotional argument about the future of Pittsboro, which came to a head when Voller asked for a final board vote on the plan just before Christmas, during his last meeting as mayor.

That meeting brought hours of arguments from residents and neighbors of Pittsboro. The harshest critics said Chatham Park’s scale would crush Pittsboro and its environment. Others called for more detail, and supporters touted its economic potential.

Terry, the new mayor and a former town manager for Pittsboro, has put himself somewhere in the middle. He sees how Chatham Park could work for Pittsboro, he said last month, but he also has asked a detailed set of questions about the development.

The consultant’s report

The Lawrence Group review challenges Chatham Park’s developers for more detail on several fronts.

“(T)he application fails to detail how it promotes quality urban design and environmentally sensitive development,” the report states.

The solution, according to the consultant, is detailed imagery and other illustrations of how Chatham Park will uniquely fit into Pittsboro, “as opposed to creating another Triangle area suburban campus.”

In other sections, the report recommends that the developer give some clues about how each of the project’s smaller sections will develop, though it concedes that Preston needs flexibility to deal with decades of changing tastes and demographics.

More broadly, the document suggests that the town of Pittsboro’s current plans for its roads – which are reflected in Preston’s plans – could “have the effect of cutting the heart out of the community” by rerouting traffic around Pittsboro’s lively downtown.

Critics claim victory

The largest organized opposition to Chatham Park – a group called Pittsboro Matters – claimed the report as a victory, saying it agreed with the consultant’s calls for more detail.

Terry and the council seemed amenable to the report, and perhaps to the project, with questions focusing on many of the finer points of the planning process, from transit to public art.

Commissioner Michael Fiocco said he was eager to allow a portion of the development to start, rather than delaying while the town and developer suss out more final “small area plans” and other rules. “I see the economy turning, and I want us to take full advantage of this opportunity,” he said.

“I think in every way, we’re just blocking this developer from going forward,” said Commissioner Jay Farrell.

“If you don’t do it the right way, it can’t be undone,” said Commissioner Bett Wilson Foley countered.

By the consultant’s prediction, the town board could approve the overarching Chatham Park plan within the second quarter of this year, with limited construction in the coming years.

Tim Smith said that his firm already has made plans that match some of the consultant’s recommendations.

“We’re encouraged,” he said. “We’re looking forward to moving forward.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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