Cary Towne Center’s request to allow three-story buildings at the mall prompted a mixture of responses from Cary residents Thursday in what was seen as the first step in a long process toward welcoming TopGolf, a Texas-based company that builds elaborate driving range/restaurant complexes.
A representative for CBL & Associates Properties, the company that manages Cary Towne Center, said the mall is requesting to raise the two-story height limit to secure the first TopGolf facility in North Carolina.
CBL doesn’t mention TopGolf by name in documents submitted to the town, so Cary officials asked those who spoke during a public hearing Thursday night to talk only about the height limit being considered – not the eventual possibility of a TopGolf facility.
Supporters, who excluded TopGolf’s name for the most part, talked about how loosening building-height limits could help revitalize the struggling mall. Meanwhile, opponents said it would bring traffic problems and light pollution. Both sides seemed organized.
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According to procedure, the Cary Town Council referred the mall’s request to the town’s planning and zoning board for review. After the board makes a recommendation, the request will come back to the council for a vote. The process could take several months.
Residents opposing the rezoning request submitted a protest petition against it, meaning it will take a five-member supermajority on the council to approve the request rather than the typical four-member majority.
Meanwhile, residents who identify themselves as part of a group called CaryForward have created a website and Facebook page to express support for the development. One of the leaders, John Budwine, was the first to speak during the public hearing.
Budwine accidentally mentioned TopGolf by name before the council stopped him and asked him to re-pitch his argument. He rebounded quickly.
“Three stories is excellent for the mall,” he said. “I think anything we can put in that mall to revitalize Cary and that Towne Center would be awesome. Whether it’s a golf facility or not doesn’t matter. We need to have something over there that’s going to revitalize that mall.”
Troy Dempsey, a resident and member of CaryForward, added, “It would allow more options to be put on the table for revitalizing the area.”
Imagine Cary, a group of residents and planners crafting a plan to guide development in Cary through 2040, recently recommended that the town support redevelopment of underperforming activity centers – mentioning Cary Towne Center by name.
Lawyer Jason Barron of Morningstar Law Group, which represents CBL & Associates, read the Imagine Cary recommendation before making his pitch.
“This is where we want intense development. This is where we want redevelopment,” Barron said.
Opponents questioned the notion that the mall’s health is deteriorating, pointing to a recent CBL report that says the mall is 95 percent occupied. Though a tree buffer separates the neighborhood and the mall parking lot, some said the mall’s lights already shine through their windows.
“We can clearly see light shining at night from the mall today,” said Karen Michener, who lives in a neighborhood east of the mall. “If we wanted to see large buildings right next door, we would have moved to a larger city such as Raleigh or Durham.”
Skeptics said they would feel more comfortable if CBL defined its intentions in feet rather than in “stories,” a term they deemed too vague.
“What you’re asking now is too much,” said resident Terri Hayes.
The public hearing lasted nearly an hour and featured 12 speakers. CBL has no problem providing clarity on its height request, Barron said after the hearing.
Mall management also is working to hash out the Triangle Aquatic Center’s concerns over the potential loss of parking, he said.
Triangle Aquatic Center users access the center from the mall parking lot where TopGolf might build its facility. The center is part of the protest petition but is open to supporting the project under the right conditions, said Jamie Schwedler, a lawyer for Parker Poe that represents TAC.
“They have been actively working with us,” she said.
If the council approves the mall’s request for taller buildings, CBL would still need to obtain a special-use permit for TopGolf to break ground. TopGolf facilities include high-tech outdoor driving ranges that aren’t allowed at the mall under Cary’s town rules.
Special-use permits also require approval from the council, which is discouraged from listening to arguments about such cases prior to a quasi-judicial hearing on them.
Mayor Harold Weinbrecht encouraged neighbors to work with CBL as it attempts to redevelop the mall. Most people who signed the protest petition didn’t offer a reason for doing so, according to Cary staff. And Barron said many of the people who signed it didn’t attend either of the public meetings that CBL hosted to hear concerns from residents.
While Weinbrecht said he and some of his peers are “indifferent (on the rezoning request) at this point,” others offered strong statements.
“Three stories doesn’t seem to be terribly excessive,” Councilman Ed Yerha said. “But the concerns of our residents trump that.”
Councilman Don Frantz, who lives behind Cary High School, said the school’s height is “not as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
“The three stories is not really an issue to me,” Frantz said, adding that his opinion could change before the council votes.
Cary Towne Center is located in council district C, represented by Mayor Pro Tem Jack Smith.
Smith didn’t offer a stance on the rezoning request but warned residents that the “mall is going to go away as we know it and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that it is.”