Residents asked the Town Council on Monday to give careful thought to new homes and businesses at Obey Creek, including a potentially smaller project than 1.6 million square feet.
The council is negotiating a 20-year draft development agreement with East West Partners to guide construction, sets minimum residential, office and commercial space requirements and create flexibility to meet market changes. The project site is opposite Southern Village on U.S. 15-501.
Roughly 43 acres would be rezoned, but Obey Creek’s 10 proposed buildings, ranging from four to eight stories, would be built on 35 acres. The space allotted to parking would be in addition to the 1.6 million figure, project manager Ben Perry said. He could say how much at the next meeting.
The project, at its proposed size, could add up to 800 apartments and townhomes, 475,000 square feet of retail space, 600,000 square feet of offices and a 400 hotel rooms to southern Chapel Hill. About 300 apartments would be designated for adults age 55 and older.
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The new plan would guarantee at least 35 percent commercial space – retail, office and hotel – as the project reaches 600,000 square feet. The percentage of commercial space would climb to at least 40 percent at 1.4 million total square feet, and 45 percent by 1.5 million square feet.
Another 85 acres to the east would be traded for a wedge of town-owned land through the Obey Creek site and become a town-owned public preserve. Council members would seek a conservation easement to protect the preserve indefinitely.
Obey Creek, if approved, would reverse a 23-year vision of low-density houses and neighborhood stores on the site. (More details, nando.com/1al)
Of the 20 people who spoke and the crowd of more than a hundred at Monday’s meeting, most still had big concerns about traffic, the plan’s size and density, and the effect on town finances. No one advocated for rejecting the project outright.
Southern Village resident George Hartmann said his petition to build a smaller project has 599 signatures, roughly 91 percent from town residents. Obey Creek, as proposed, would be better suited for Franklin Street, he said.
“We chose to live in Chapel Hill partly because it demonstrated an ability to control unbounded commercial development,” Hartmann said.
Joe Buonfiglio echoed many residents’ sentiment that Obey Creek will be approved, no matter what they and town advisory boards say.
“Letting people talk without acting on their concerns is not being responsive to the public,” he said. “It’s just a political stunt. It’s not good governance.”
Buonfiglio suggested the developer use some of the expected profits to explore a smaller development.
That would make Obey Creek less profitable, project manager Ben Perry said, but it also would reduce the public benefits, such as a pedestrian bridge across the highway and roughly three dozen affordable apartments. The affordable units would stay that way for 99 years.
Perry estimated it would cost at least $29 million to prepare the site and build stormwater controls; make road, bike and pedestrian improvements; and develop green spaces. That does not include construction-related costs, he said.
Pete Andrews, a UNC professor of city and regional planning and public policy, advised the council to have an attorney familiar with development issues review the agreement.
There are many things to like about the project, he said, but the agreement could be more clear about future changes that could trigger a council review and make an exception for some tax-exempt uses, such as a library or other civic space.
Councilman Jim Ward agreed civic uses should be allowed. He also asked developers to make sure there are multiple ways in and out of the parking decks. A design competition for the proposed pedestrian bridge across U.S. 15-501 also might create a unique gateway, he said.
The bridge would be at least 12 feet wide and open to pedestrian and bike traffic when the first buildings open. The town would own the bridge, but the Obey Creek owners association would maintain it. The town also could make repairs and send a bill to the owners association.
Councilman Ed Harrison expressed support for a stronger council role in evaluating future changes. Both he and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt advised looking to the town manager’s current policy of checking in before approving potentially big changes to projects.
Harrison also supported advice from Kimberly Brewer, a former Planning Board member, who asked for a future council review of any changes to the Wilson Creek Preserve and annual reports on the creek’s health to avoid irreversible damage.
Wilson Creek would be monitored at three sites. Stormwater runoff would meet local, state and Jordan Lake watershed standards and be treated before it reaches the creek, developers said.
The project’s effect on traffic continued to be a major concern. Martin Feinstein suggested the town look at all development in the pipeline now and consider the combined effect with Obey Creek on regional traffic.
“I think we’re headed to a place where the answer to that question is increasingly going to become that this is a much more difficult place to negotiate and a more difficult place to live,” he said, “and I’d hate to see that happen.”
Developers, town staff and others have said Obey Creek would add a small portion of the future traffic expected to fill the highway corridor. Traffic is coming with or without Obey Creek, Lynn Kane said.
“I do think a lot of people lack the view of regional planning,” she said. “I passed many signs (on U.S. 15-501 South) showing new development is coming and some is underway, and we all know that Chatham County is going to have a lot of new developments.”
Council members said later they could not support Obey Creek until hearing from the N.C. Department of Transportation about the latest plans for improving roads and building new intersections.
Councilwoman Sally Greene also asked the developers about paying more than $150,000 so the town could extend an N.C. 54 off-ramp, slow traffic through Dogwood Acres and build a pedestrian crossing at Oteys Road and U.S. 15-501.
The project’s financial benefit has gotten a lot of scrutiny. Town staff has estimated Obey Creek will generate enough property and sales taxes to offset the cost of town services or provide more revenues to the town.
The final projected value – based on 1.5 million square feet – could be nearly $300 million, staff said. Annual revenues generated for the town could be roughly $2.3 million, and town costs could be about $1.6 million.
David Schwartz argued the town could reduce the number of homes and still make a profit. Every 10 percent increase in homes adds $400,000 a year to town costs, he said.
“Reduce the project size, reduce the residential percentage,” he said. “You make just as much money for the town, but you also make the voters happy.”
A mixed-use project doesn’t consider only the town’s financial benefits, Councilman George Cianciolo said. That’s why the first project in the town’s Ephesus-Fordham district was largely residential, he said.
“It makes sense to me that if you want to put retail somewhere, you need people to shop there,” he said.
The council tabled the discussion until June 8, when town staff could bring more information about streets, trails, traffic and the effect of Obey Creek’s planned retail on existing businesses. Harrison also suggested getting trail-building experts to look at the preserve and using rush-hour traffic numbers to plan road improvements instead of a daily average.
Victor Dover, whose consulting firm Dover, Kohl and Partners has been advising the council, will review the agreement once more, town staff said.
The council could vote on the project in June. If approved, Obey Creek would be annexed into the town.
Name: Obey Creek
Location: U.S. 15-501 South, across from Southern Village
Developer: East West Partners
Property owners: Obey Creek Ventures LLC, Mueller Partnership, town of Chapel Hill
Acres: 35 developed, 8 in stream buffer and 85 in public preserve
Square footage: up to 1.6 million
Height: 10 buildings, maxing out at four to eight stories
Current zoning: Low-density residential, neighborhood commercial
Proposed zoning: 43 acres could be rezoned development agreement-1
Residential: 800 apartments and townhomes
Affordable housing: 37 to 38 for sale and rental homes
Commercial: 400 hotel rooms, 600,000 square feet of office space
Retail: 475,000 square feet
Parking: Roughly 2,800 spaces
Current Tax Value: $6.8 million
Projected Tax Value (based on 1.5 million square feet): Roughly $300 million
Projected Revenues (based on 1.5 million square feet): $1.6 million in town property taxes, $651,979 in sales taxes