Council members want tall buildings and a mixture of uses in downtown Cary, but they don’t want to refer to the area as “urban.”
They want to keep a “rural” feel in southwest Cary, but fear that term is misleading.
They also want to offer a wide array of housing options across town without referring to any of them as “affordable.”
During a work session Tuesday, Cary leaders struggled to find the correct words to explain their vision in a planning document that will someday guide development in Cary. The debate further illustrated how they are grappling with what kind of a town they want Cary to be – now and in the future.
The document, which will govern growth through 2040, is being crafted by Imagine Cary, a group of residents and planners that the council formed in 2012. The associated citizen group, known as the Committee for the Future, recently released about 30 policy recommendations as part of a report.
Council members started editing the recommendations earlier this month and took up several of the topics on Tuesday.
Imagine Cary aims to answer six basic questions: Where will we live? Where will we work? Where will we shop and dine? How will we get around? How will southwestern Cary grow? How will downtown thrive?
Council members parsed words for more than an hour, saying they feared residents and developers might misinterpret their goals for southwest Cary, downtown Cary and housing across the town.
“We have to be very particular in defining what we want, otherwise we’ll get what we don’t,” Councilman Don Frantz told the committee chairmen during a discussion on housing.
Affordable housing debate
Council members already had talked about housing at a meeting on March 3, but broached the issue again after both chairmen for the Committee for the Future questioned the council’s edits from the previous meeting.
One of the committee’s five housing recommendations said the town should encourage the development of affordable housing. The committee defined affordable as a space that could be rented or purchased by an individual or family earning $50,000 to $70,000 per year.
But at the last Imagine Cary meeting, council members told planning consultants not to strictly focus on affordable housing and income levels. Consultant Leigh Anne King recapped those instructions in a PowerPoint slide presentation Tuesday.
Committee co-chairman Louis Eldridge said residents told his group in online surveys and at public workshops that they want housing that young adults and seniors can afford.
Co-chairman Ron Runyan said the council’s instruction on housing “tells everybody that we report to that you don’t want to hear about it.”
Council members said they are open to the type of housing described by the committee, but that encouraging that type would be a challenge because the high price of land in Cary dictates the market.
“We don’t want to focus on affordable housing,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want it.”
Councilwoman Lori Bush suggested changing the word “affordable” to “workforce” to prevent residents from falsely assuming that Cary would seek subsidized housing.
Planners have yet to rewrite the committee’s recommendation for more afforable housing, said Cary Planning Director Jeff Ulma. Imagine Cary will take the comments made by council and committee members into consideration as it revises the recommendations in the coming weeks, he said.
Regarding southwestern Cary, the council debated whether it should encourage a rural feel or if the term “rural” is misleading, considering developers already are breaking ground on a number of new, denser developments in the area.
A drafted vision statement for southwestern Cary suggests the area feature “a blend of historic, rural character and ‘green’ suburban neighborhoods.”
“Are we just kidding ourselves?” Councilman Jack Smith asked, noting that northern Apex is booming too. “It’s just not gonna stay rural.”
The council should strive to slow growing pains, Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson said, because development already is overburdening west Cary’s schools and roads. Current town rules call for about 2.5 homes per acre along the N.C. 540 corridor, but the committee recommended boosting that number to 3 homes per acre.
Robinson disagreed, saying she doesn’t want dense neighborhoods like those shown in movies, “where if you have too many drinks you could walk into the wrong house because they all look alike and are so close together.”
Council members said the words in the planning document carry weight, as they outline governing policies, not just broad visions.
Weinbrecht said, in theory, the town could be sued if leaders block a proposed project that developers feel meets the requirements of town plans.
In that vein, council members sought to remove the word “urban” from the vision statement for downtown Cary. It states: “Downtown Cary will be a vibrant, sustainable, historic, pedestrian-oriented urban downtown, rich in charm and character. As the heart and soul of Cary, people will work, live, visit, recreate and shop in downtown.”
“The word ‘urban’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Frantz said.
King, the consultant, responded: “I think most people understand you mean Cary’s version of urban.”
The council may not be done defining its vision. The town has plans to move the library on South Academy Street to a site near the intersection of Walnut and Walker streets.
If the council wants to use the library as an anchor to bring people downtown, Robinson said it should consider moving the library to Chatham Street.
“I’m wondering if we’re going to let a good opportunity slip away,” she said.
Council members agreed to revisit the issue at a later date.