Jeanne Brown: Council needs vision before negotiating Obey Creek plan

06/20/2014 11:31 AM

06/20/2014 5:46 PM

A recent multi-part radio interview between WCHL’s Jim Heavner and East West Partners’ Roger Perry returned community attention to development of Obey Creek – a topic that Town Council will take up again Monday night.

The interview focused on the development’s potential for increasing the town’s commercial tax base and making room for large format (big box) retail – just two of many important topics that deserve careful consideration before complex negotiations begin for the Obey Creek development agreement.

As a member of the Town Council-appointed Obey Creek Compass Committee, I was particularly frustrated that the Heavner-Perry interview painted an out-dated, unflattering picture of public participation (referring to “the neighbors” as an anti-development monolith). The interview incorrectly portrayed the strong and constructive body of work done by involved citizens and the Compass Committee and failed to enlighten the public about the issues at stake in the ongoing development agreement process.

It’s now time for council to decide Chapel Hill’s vision for Obey Creek and the trade-offs we will make between conflicting goals. These issues are covered in detail in the Obey Creek Compass Committee’s 40 page report to council. Our 17 member committee – which included developers, small business owners, environmental professionals, town advisory board members, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and neighboring residents and business owners – unanimously determined that the current concept plan falls short in several areas and recommended it be revised before negotiations begin.

Our recommendation was a strong statement to Town Council that the 1.6 million square foot, inwardly focused plan Mr. Perry has been proposing does not yet achieve important town and small area goals – especially those related to creating a place that complements Southern Village and supports a vibrant Market Street business district.

While the committee and Mr. Perry agreed on many aspects of the proposed development, It was the committee’s sense that fundamental changes to the plan were needed. Such changes are best considered by planners and the developer before contracts are discussed, not as part of a “nibble around the edges” process once actual legal negotiations have begun.

The Compass Committee also pointed out that the town has a unique opportunity during this process to plan for creative use of both sides of U.S. 15-501 South. The town-owned Southern Village Park and Ride lot presents an opportunity for redevelopment that in conjunction with the development at Obey Creek would bring new life to both sides of the road – creating an income stream for the town, building an active commercial “bridge” between Market Street and Obey Creek, providing additional retail within the Southern Village walk zone, and ensuring that roadway and intersection plans will accommodate this future growth opportunity.

On Monday, it is my hope that council members will discuss the Compass Committee’s recommendations and then weigh whether the current Perry plan has addressed their concerns and meets council’s goals for the southern area. They should not feel pressured to move forward prematurely, before they have a plan before them that works for them and the town and the information they need to understand costs, benefits and trade-offs associated with various options.

Fortunately, the development agreement process is flexible, allowing the council to begin discussions with Mr. Perry without the need to vote to move into formal negotiations. The upcoming summer break offers staff the time needed to gather missing technical information, especially on traffic, and work with Mr. Perry to develop a better plan for the site. When council is back in session in the fall, they will have the information they need, and hopefully a plan aligned with the interests of the southern community, and then they can begin fruitful negotiations in earnest.

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