Council members started a nearly three-hour discussion Monday night by saying they wouldn’t vote until next week on the Obey Creek project across from Southern Village.
The Town Council is wrapping up six years of talks and eight months of negotiations with East West Partners for a proposed residential, retail and office development. A 20-year draft development agreement, if approved, would set minimum commercial, residential and office space requirements for the proposed 1.6 million-square-foot plan, but give the developer flexibility to meet market changes.
New information provided in the last few weeks – and earlier Monday – outlined possible road improvements and how smaller-scale projects could affect both traffic and the town’s potential revenues and costs.
The council, because of that new information, shouldn’t make people sit through a long meeting waiting for a vote, Councilwoman Donna Bell said.
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“We’ve all gotten emails and concerns about how there has been late-breaking information and for us to possibly hold off making a decision at this meeting and make it at a future meeting,” she said.
Obey Creek, if approved, would reverse a 23-year-old community expectation that land east of U.S. 15-501 was set aside for low-density homes and neighborhood businesses. The council’s approval would trigger the annexation of more than 120 acres into the town.
The current plan shows 10 buildings, four to eight stories tall, on 35 acres. The maximum proposed could add up to 800 apartments and townhomes – about 300 for adults 55 and up – plus 475,000 square feet of retail space, 600,000 square feet of offices and 400 hotel rooms.
At least 35 percent of the square footage would become retail, offices and a hotel as the project reaches 600,000 square feet, the agreement states; 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 could become a town-owned public preserve. (For more details, go to nando.com/1al)
The maximum retail space, as proposed, would be 1.4 times the 350,000-square-foot space at University Place (formerly University Mall). The maximum office space would be nearly twice as large as the mall, while the amount of residential space would be 3.5 times as large.
Supporters have argued it could bring the town more retail options, tax dollars, affordable housing and other public benefits. Others worried the size would bring traffic that clogs U.S. 15-501 and smaller neighborhood streets, while costing the town more in services than it generates in tax dollars.
The council engaged speakers in the discussion Monday, challenging assumptions and asking questions. They also heard from N.C. Department of Transportation district engineer Chuck Edwards, who confirmed a letter last week recommending more turn lanes and intersections at Obey Creek.
The DOT’s letter also addressed road improvements that would be needed if the town redevelops its 8.4-acre park-and-ride lot at Southern Village. Planning for that project could take several years and more conversations with DOT officials.
Edwards said the final road improvements would depend on the construction plans. Those plans, under a development agreement, are filed as the developer prepares to build each phase of the project.
The council should consider reducing Obey Creek’s traffic impact, resident Jeanne Brown said, to give itself more flexibility for residential, office and retail traffic at the parking lot.
The town’s project is expected to generate up to 4,800 daily trips, in addition to roughly 16,000 daily trips to and from Obey Creek.
“I agree (about) the importance of the density of a place, but I think there comes a point when there’s too much of good thing,” Brown said. “I think that redistributing can meet the goals ... by removing (taller stories from Obey Creek) but not removing things from the spaces that people can do.”
Resident Susan Lindsay also asked the council for a firm commitment to funding traffic-calming devices, such as speed humps, on Dogwood Acres Drive. The neighborhood south of Obey Creek expects to bear a large amount of cut-through traffic from the project.
“The town has, at times in the past, ignored its impact on adjacent areas until physical harm has been made clear,” Lindsay said. “It would be a real shame for this to happen in this case.”
The developer is paying the town $250,000 toward that work and other improvements, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said, but Dogwood Acres residents first must form an association and work with the state to draft plans. It would be unwise for the town to make a commitment now, he said.
“If that doesn’t happen, the council needs to be able to use the money for other things, other traffic issues,” Kleinschmidt said.
Other residents were concerned about limiting traffic expected from Obey Creek, while maintaining its financial benefit to the town. A recent staff analysis shows Obey Creek, at smaller sizes, would provide roughly the same benefit, but cut the traffic nearly in half (More details, nando.com/1c8).
Resident Joe Buonfiglio challenged council members to respond to that analysis, before saying he knew it was a waste of time.
The council is looking at those numbers, Councilman George Cianciolo, but profit is not the only thing they have to consider.
“There’s a number of things that go into it,” Cianciolo said. “There’s benefits to town, like the 85 acres of conserved area. There’s the housing that’s generated – not just affordable housing, but the fact that there’s going to be 600 units ... that provides (housing) for thousands of people that want to live in Chapel Hill. There’s the retail, and yes, we may not get as much as everybody would like ... but the retail we get will be beneficial.”
The town can still get those benefits without a larger development, David Schwartz said, because residents are paying for them either way.
“The way that works is we permit the developer to build a lot more housing and that housing generates profit for the developer, but imposes costs on the town, and the developer takes some of that profit and uses that to give us these amenities,” he said. “We can get all the same things, just pay for it ourselves.”
The council is expected to discuss the project again June 15. The council also could vote at that meeting.
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 for development agreement-1
Residential: Up to 800 apartments and townhomes
Affordable housing: Up to 38 for-sale and rental homes
Commercial: Up to 400 hotel rooms, 600,000 square feet of office space, and 475,000 square feet of retail
Parking: Roughly 2,800 spaces