Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 1, 2014

Susana Dancy: Town must put Obey Creek in broader context

Ultimately, success or failure of development in southern Chapel Hill will depend on whether or not the town takes the opportunity to evaluate more than just the parcels owned by Obey Creek Ventures, LLC.

Much of the public comment about the proposed 1.6 million square-foot Obey Creek development has focused on the lack of data about traffic and fiscal impacts. While the Town Council has voiced its enthusiasm over the potential for increased revenue, neighbors worry increased traffic may cause catastrophic failure of nearby intersections and roads and that net revenues won’t be as rosy as expected, after city services are paid for.

Ultimately though, success or failure of development in southern Chapel Hill will depend on whether or not the town takes the opportunity to evaluate more than just the parcels owned by Obey Creek Ventures, LLC. The town itself owns significant acreage, and there are other underdeveloped, privately held parcels that could contribute to U.S. 15-501 South’s evolving sense of place.

Planning for change across the area is essential, especially since the last area-wide plan was the 1992 Southern Small Area Plan, which laid the groundwork for Southern Village. Since then, rezonings and site plans have been approved piecemeal, without overriding development goals.

Understandably, the Obey Creek developer’s proposal does not incorporate other parcels or address bigger-picture planning issues, but the town’s efforts must.

Before negotiating with anyone, the Town Council should articulate a vision for both sides of 15-501, from Culbreth Road to Dogwood Acres Drive. A clear depiction of desired outcomes – including key building sites (commercial, residential and mixed-use), public spaces, streets and greenway connections – benefits everyone: Residents could trust that the council has thought through the many complicated issues in remaking the southern part of town, the town could better predict municipal needs, and developers would know clearly what the council wants, saving them time and money.

Two town-appointed committees have done much of the preliminary work. With significant community input, both the 15-501 South Discussion Group in 2012 and the Obey Creek Compass Committee in 2013 expressed a desire for Southern Village-style mixed-use, walkable development throughout the area.

The Compass Committee specifically recommended that the council use the Obey Creek design and transportation consultants to advise them on a larger vision that would build on Southern Village’s successes and not undermine its current vitality.

Over the summer – so as not to slow things down – the council should direct the consultants to develop a preliminary plan for the area. Among the ideas an area-wide plan should explore:

• Is there a better location for the town-owned park & ride lot? Is that lot an opportunity to locate a major retailer or grocery store close to where people currently live and shop and possibly to generate revenue for the town?
• Are access to and views of the 80 acres offered for park space important? If so, how can that land be prioritized for public enjoyment instead of blocked off, as East 54 has done with Finley golf course?
• What other land along 15-501, especially near the entrance to Southern Village, should be considered for redevelopment? How could this increase connection between new development and Market Street?
• How will the town want to use its Bennett Road properties as Obey and adjacent parcels urbanize?
• How much of our road capacity does the town want to allocate to Obey Creek parcel? Should we reserve some for other development in the area?

If new development doesn’t contribute to a vital new sense of place in southern Chapel Hill, if it doesn’t weave together the existing neighborhoods in a way that makes all of these places even better than their current, well-loved condition, if it isn’t worth the inconvenience substantial additional traffic will cause, then new development will be a failure, whether it generates a little revenue for the town or a lot.


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