A new, three-story, brick and steel office and retail building sits along East Chatham Street ushering people into Cary’s revitalizing downtown and a new era of growth.
The building is part of Mid-Town Square, a development that mixes the old with the new. Next door, the nearly 50-year-old Mid-Town Shopping Center has recently been given a facelift, attracting new tenants like Bond Brothers Beer Co. and bringing people downtown daily to enjoy beer, pizza from nearby Pizzeria Faulisi and more. Town officials believe this is just the beginning.
“You’re going to see downtown become much more – I’ll use the word – urban,” said Ted Boyd, Cary’s downtown development manager. “I think we’ll continue to see those new food and beverage type places coming downtown, which people want. But really, the big change is going to be the vertical development that is happening.”
Cary has become a city of more than 160,000 residents by growing out, not up. Since the 1970s, the town boundaries have pushed north, south and west as Cary has grown to nearly six times its acreage and 20 times its population.
When you look at Raleigh right now around Cameron Village, they used to have all those single-family neighborhoods. Now those apartments are popping up right on the edge of Cameron Village. To me, that’s what this plan does, and I hope that’s what’s going to happen.
Chuck Smith, who was on the committee that developed Cary’s 25-year growth plan
But now the amount of undeveloped land available to Cary is running low. The town is now surrounded by other cities and counties, such as Raleigh, Apex and Chatham County, and only 17 percent of the town’s land remains undeveloped. Instead of out, the town must grow up, and new projects will increasingly come in the form of infill development and redevelopment.
“No longer do we have a ton of greenfield sites to develop, so we have to think about the redevelopment of aging shopping centers,” Boyd said. “I think that in a lot of ways what we’re doing and what we’re looking at in downtown is going to have a benefit when those other places are ripe for redevelopment.”
Overall, Cary is expected to retain its suburban, neighborhood feel for the foreseeable future. But it will add pockets of more dense, walkable, mixed-use development with apartments and condos mixed with offices, retail, restaurants and entertainment.
That’s the vision laid out in the town’s 25-year master plan called the Cary Community Plan, which was developed over the last four years by a committee of more than 30 residents with input from thousands of others.
Cary last created a comprehensive plan in the 1990s when the town’s westward expansion had yet to reach N.C. 55 and expansive single-family neighborhoods cropped up in rapid succession because of the abundance of available land.
But those days are over. Cary is expected to grow to 193,000 residents by 2040 with nowhere near the amount of vacant land it once had at its disposal.
“When you look at Raleigh right now around Cameron Village, they used to have all those single-family neighborhoods,” said Chuck Smith, one of the committee members. “Now those apartments are popping up right on the edge of Cameron Village. To me, that’s what this plan does, and I hope that’s what’s going to happen.”
New growth pattern
One of the first proposals moving forward downtown that signals this new growth pattern is a mixed-use project that would bring a retail and office building to the southeast corner of West Chatham Street and South Harrison Avenue, along with adjacent apartments and a parking deck.
Most residents agree that increased density is most appropriate in downtown and the eastern part of town if done in a way that preserves the character of surrounding neighborhoods.
Do we have housing for young people and seniors? No. It’s all for middle-aged or younger people.
Cary Town Manager Sean Stegall
“I think overall the Cary Community Plan did a great job of reflecting what people want,” said Brent Miller, a senior technical staff member at IBM who lives in northern Cary. “People will not always be of one mind, but I think it’s a great blueprint.”
But Miller said while he agrees with increasing density downtown, he wants to ensure the historic character of the area, including some of Cary’s oldest buildings, is preserved as growth continues.
“Change is always difficult,” he said. “And there may be some small areas where it makes sense not to have increased density and keep the historic vibe. Things need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
The revitalization of Cary Towne Center, a mall built in the 1970s that has struggled in recent years, particularly after losing two anchor tenants, is another redevelopment project town leaders and residents hope to see over the next 20 years. CBL & Associates, the mall’s owner, hopes Cary Towne Center will become a “dynamic mixed-use destination” with retailers like IKEA, as well as restaurants, entertainment, apartments, grocery, office and green space.
Mixed-use projects like this are becoming more popular for developers because they build in their own customer base.
“Apartments popping up around Cary Towne Center, I thought, was always kind of critical to that surviving,” said Smith, who is also vice president of planning and development for Preston Development Co., which developed thousands of single-family homes around Prestonwood Country Club and its golf course in the 1990s.
But infill development and redevelopment can be painful. Constraints such as roads and surrounding neighborhoods make these sites more difficult to build on, and residents won’t always be thrilled to see an apartment complex pop up behind their single-family home.
“I wouldn’t say that because I’m a supporter of progress in downtown Cary that I don’t recognize that higher density can result in more traffic and just general congestion,” said Tim Devinney, a real estate agent who lives in the area. “But if you want the lifestyle that offers a variety of retail and dining and entertainment, you have to have the density to support that, and more single-family housing is not the answer.”
Cary officials want to offer more housing options, including condominiums, apartments and townhomes, at a variety of prices to serve a diversifying population, including millennials, empty-nesters and single-person households.
“I think any community is strengthened by diversity, not only diversity in cultural backgrounds and gender and age but also diversity in economic structure,” Devinney said. “So when you have people that live in a community that are working as say the police officer and the teachers and the bartenders and the servers in the restaurants and you also have people that own those businesses living in close proximity, I think that makes for a happier, healthier, more interesting community.”
Seniors and millennials in particular are increasingly looking for a similar living situation – a reasonably-priced, maintenance-free, often smaller home in a walkable neighborhood with access to services and amenities.
“Nobody has 9-to-5 jobs anymore,” said Kay Struffolino, a 45-year Cary resident and a member of the comprehensive plan committee. “So you don’t want to spend your free time or your weekends doing yard work and that sort of thing.”
But Cary will have to diversify its housing in the next 25 years if it wants to attract more millennials to the town and ensure that residents 65 years and older can afford to stay.
“Do we have housing for young people and seniors? No. It’s all for middle-aged or younger people,” Cary Town Manager Sean Stegall said. “So as people age in this community, they are not going to be able to stay here if we don’t get more apartments or more maintenance-free living, nor are we going to be able to attract young people to come live here.”
Proposals for more dense housing beyond Cary’s usual single-family, detached home are already starting to appear before the council, including a proposal for a four-story condo building on the corner of Chatham Street and Urban Drive downtown.
Devinney said he expects these condos to be sold within the first 30 days because of the demand for that type of living.
“There is tremendous demand for townhomes and condos in the downtown section,” he said. “I see this all the time. There is a large segment of the population – the older part of the population and the younger part of the population – that wants that type of housing for different reasons.”
But while the future of Cary means a wider variety of places to live and work and things to do, the town’s maturation also brings new challenges. As remaining undeveloped land dwindles, the town is expected to enter a phase of slower growth, which could mean a declining rate of growth in tax revenue.
During the past 35 years, an estimated 80 percent of revenue growth was generated by the addition of new development, and Cary used the money to pay for new roads, services and parks. Slowing growth would make it harder for the town to keep up with demand for new services and amenities or to maintain its aging roads and parks.
Cary’s rapid growth means many of the town’s streets were constructed within three decades, and they will need to be replaced all around the same time.
“Growth has been fueling all the great things that you’re able to do, whether it’s the greenway system we’ve got or open space we’ve purchased or the road improvements that have been made,” Smith said. “All those things take money. So if growth slows down, you’re either providing fewer services or you’re finding money a different way.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon