As town leaders finalize a plan for building a downtown from scratch, they’re divided by the influence and importance of potential private investment in their vision.
And as the Morrisville Town Council weighs its options, town staff have offered two additional sites to consider – one on Sunset Avenue and another on McCrimmon Parkway – in addition to two previously proposed sites on Jeremiah Street and Morrisville Carpenter Road.
Each vary in size and have their own pros and cons.
Some council members support a plan to develop 26 acres on Jeremiah Street with a mix of public areas – such as a park, library or recreation center – with the rest of the space filled with residential developments, and maybe some offices or other private development.
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Others would prefer to buy 25 acres on Morrisville Carpenter Road, in the hopes that restaurants and retail stores will flock to the higher-traffic area and prop up any public amenities on site.
Both sites are about half the size of what town leaders first envisioned a decade ago, Morrisville Planning Director Ben Hitchings said. The recession prematurely stopped the town’s lot-buying plans, he said.
“We know that we don’t have enough land to develop the original main street vision,” Hitchings said. “We have about half of the property needed.”
But the harsh economic times of the recession prompted town leaders to support the idea of bringing in private investment to bolster the public buildings in any potential downtown, Hitchings said.
Now, the debate boils down to those who believe public amenities alone will be enough to draw crowds, or if a significant amount of private investment – especially in shopping or dining – is required as well.
Mayor Mark Stohlman said in September he wants the council to vote on a site by the end of the year. Two months later, the council is no closer to a decision, although Stohlman said they will hold a special meeting next month to reach a consensus.
He said it’s difficult to move from planning to acting, but with this project having lingered in the planning stages for a decade, it’s time to act.
Supporters of the Jeremiah Street plan, including Stohlman, cite its heavy focus on public uses, as well as the fact that the town already owns the land.
Supporters of the Morrisville Carpenter Road plan cite its stronger potential for commercial development. They also refer to a consultant’s report from April, which suggested abandoning Jeremiah Street in favor of Morrisville Carpenter Road.
Hitchings said if town leaders choose the Morrisville Carpenter road site, it’s likely the town can sell the Jeremiah Street property to residential developers, recouping past costs.
But skeptics of the Morrisville Carpenter Road site point out that no private developers have wanted it in the past. Though highly visible to a busy street, much of the area sits in a flood plain.
Council member T.J. Cawley, the most vocal supporter of the Morrisville Carpenter Road site, asked about the flood plain at the town’s most recent meeting.
Brad West, a town planner, said the flood plain is the main reason developers have avoided the otherwise promising site. Whoever buys the land, he said, will have to raise much of the land by at least two feet, which would be expensive.
There has been little discussion of the two new proposals.
One, on Sunset Avenue, is 30 acres near the busy intersection of Aviation Parkway and N.C. 54. Town staff said it has the high visibility and traffic counts necessary to attract retail and dining, but existing homes on the site could pose problems if the town tried to buy the land.
The other, 95 acres on McCrimmon Parkway between N.C. 54 and Church Street, would be the same size as the town’s popular Park West Village mixed-use development. But it’s also under observation by the federal government, due to hazardous waste spills there in the past.
The large site is thought to be safe now, according to town staff.
Prior discussions have avoided criticism from Park West Village’s owners, staff said, because the small sites in consideration wouldn’t have been serious competitors for business.
“We’re small potatoes as far as Park West Village is concerned,” said West.
It’s unclear if that would change if the town were to buy a lot of a similiar size, but Mayor Pro Tem Liz Johnson said she’s not worried about competition.
Johnson said Apex, as one example in the area, has a vibrant downtown as well as multiple large retail and dining areas. Morrisville, she said, should be able to have the same.
Council member Steve Rao said he hopes to hear from Morrisville residents about what they want, since “the circumstances are so different today, in the amount of retail, than what they were 10 years ago.”
The Morrisville Town Council meets Nov. 10 and will likely discuss its main street plans then, ahead of the December work session on the topic.