Western Cary is booming – but at what cost, and for how much longer?

Growth in western Cary is booming

Just 18 percent of the land within Cary remains available for development. With the town out of room to the north, south, and east, the west is Cary's last frontier for expansion.
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Just 18 percent of the land within Cary remains available for development. With the town out of room to the north, south, and east, the west is Cary's last frontier for expansion.

Part of Jenny Geska welcomes the residential and commercial growth reshaping western Cary.

She enjoys, for example, her neighborhood, Amberly, a planned community that is one of Cary’s largest.

“We were attracted to the area because it is a family-friendly, quiet community,” said Geska, a 36-year-old real estate agent and small-business owner.

“The HOA is amazing here,” she added, offering “its own mini water park, kids’ activities, community events, a clubhouse with a gym and fitness class, and plenty of greenways.”

Geska enjoys the proximity to shopping too. “I do like the convenience of more stores and shops, especially the ones going right into the Amberly community,” she said. “For example, we have Aldi, Harris Teeter and a new Publix going in, and that’s in addition to the Target and Whole Foods and additional Harris Teeter right on (N.C.) 55 and within five minutes.”

But Geska also sees the toll development is taking on western Cary. “I personally loved walking the quiet greenway trails, but at this time, most of the natural habitat has been destroyed, and it is no longer calm and peaceful,” she said.

She pointed to a pond along one of her greenway walks. “The pond has become murky and contaminated from the excavation,” Geska said. “It’s kind of sad, honestly.”

The last frontier

Geska lives in what Cary could call its last frontier — the area west of N.C. 55 and north of Green Level West Road that’s developing but far from built out.

A spreadsheet of active developments there shows 60 projects in various states of development. The numbers are equivalent to a small town:

36 single-family subdivisions with 2,087 lots.

10 commercial projects with 302,000 square feet.

Five multifamily projects with 1,293 units.

Three mixed-used developments, including one with 57 townhouses and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

One townhouse project with 190 townhouses and 17 detached residential lots.

One medical office building with 100,000 square feet of space.

Also on the list: two schools, a daycare and a church expansion.

The numbers are impressive but not surprising, at least not to the folks who work in Cary’s planning department.

Western Cary is “where the developable land is,” said Debra Grannan, Cary’s assistant planning director.

By one recent measure, just 18 percent of the land within Cary remains available for development. The town long ago bumped up against Raleigh, its neighbor to the east, and homes and businesses now fill the areas north and south of downtown.

That leaves western Cary, a fact not lost on homebuilders, whose current projects range from the small — seven lots in the Garden Ridge subdivision on Green Level Church Road, to the large — 144 single-family lots in Ridgefield Farms Subdivision on Ridgefield Drive.

And retail is following those rooftops into western Cary.

Among the 10 commercial projects: Lowes at Greystone, a nearly 72,000-square-foot shopping center on Green Level Church Road that will have a Lowes grocery store as its anchor. Also in the works: the Publix-anchored Amberly Place, a 77,000-square-foot shopping center at the intersection at Green Level Church Road and Carpenter Fire Station Road.

Convenience, including health care

Doctors’ offices are following the rooftops too.

UNC Health Care is behind the 100,000-square-foot medical office building that is scheduled to open on McCrimmon Parkway in late 2019.

It makes sense to bring medical care to where people live, hospital spokesman Alan Wolf said in an email.

“UNC Health Care’s goal is to offer convenient access for patients in the rapidly growing West Cary community, in a location between the UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill and UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh,” Wolf said.

“By providing access and services close to home, we expect to better serve residents and their families with a mix of primary and specialty care,” Wolf added. “Now and in the coming years, the Triangle’s aging and growing population will need additional medical services that are easy to reach.” (Wake County’s median age was 36 in 2016, up from 34.5 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.)

The new building will be home to a mix of primary care and specialty services, including family medicine, pediatrics, OBGYN, orthopedics, urgent care, internal medicine, neurology, general surgery and digestive health. Also, a joint venture between UNC Rex Healthcare and Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic will offer ambulatory surgery for orthopedic cases.

UNC Health Care’s campus at SW Cary Parkway and Lake Pine Drive currently offers outpatient surgery, urgent care, a wellness center, physician practices, imaging and more.

No thank you

But not everyone in western Cary wants convenience or, for that matter, new neighbors, whether residential or commercial.

Earlier this summer, Adina Lev of Batchelor Road appeared before the Cary Town Council to oppose a residential development that she said would forever alter her rural neighborhood.

“The definition of rural, as defined by Webster, is ‘of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture,’” Lev said during a public hearing. “I think that aptly describes Batchelor Road.”

Lev said her neighborhood has fewer than 30 houses, around 50 vehicles and probably fewer than 100 people. “That’s what makes it rural,” she said.

She worries that the neighborhood could grow substantially.

“We live where we live because we like the rural setting,” Lev continued. “We want to be in the middle of the woods with the wildlife, the solitude and the peacefulness that can only be achieved with minimal human influence.”

Lev fears she will lose that and more. “Our neighborhood is a community,” she said. “We all know the cars that travel Batchelor Road and who that car belongs to. We know who has dogs and who doesn’t.

“We know that come spring Dick Greenfield will be out there mowing the vacant lot and that the Johnsons at the end of the other street will open their pool. We know that the other Mr. Johnson will come home at 8:30 in the morning from breakfast with his cronies, and I will wave at him while I’m walking my dog.

“Tom has a great garden. Dick puts out pumpkins every year that he grows for the residents of Batchelor Road to take for their own. Doesn’t charge. That’s what a neighborhood does.”

Growth fuels traffic congestion

Daisy Buitrago, 34, lives east of N.C. 55, in the Huntington Athletic Club Apartments on Morrisville Parkway, but her job takes her regularly into western Cary.

Buitrago is a driver for a Wake County nonprofit, picking up donations of furniture, building materials and appliances from homes and businesses.

“I am not a fan,” Buitrago said of the residential and commercial growth, or at least the consequences of that growth. “I feel like this area is constantly adding housing and retail without adding, fixing or maintaining roads.”

She wishes Triangle towns would put road building and maintenance above their desire for the increased tax base that comes with new homes and businesses. “I have seen an explosion in traffic congestion that could have been avoided had the towns involved considered this over developer money being thrown at them,” she said.

Geska, the real estate agent and small-business owner, has traffic complaints too. She referred specifically to the intersection of Green Level Church Road and Carpenter Fire Station Road.

It “appears to be somewhat dangerous for people turning left from Green Level Church Road onto Carpenter Fire Station Road,” Geska said. “I anticipate that this will cause problems if not altered in some way. I am sure this will also cause a ton of traffic eventually.”

One problem is the economics of developing in Cary: High demand for scarce land drives up the cost of buying acreage for a residential subdivision. To earn an adequate return on their investment, developers today build more houses on one acre of land than they would have, say, 30 years ago.

“Developers are being allowed to squeeze houses onto minuscule lots, and buyers are accepting this as the new norm,” Buitrago said.

Relief is coming

Western Cary’s road needs aren’t lost on town leaders, who note that relief is coming.

Among the projects in the pipeline:

Completing the extension of Morrisville Parkway from N.C. 55 to Green Level Church Road. The project includes an interchange with N.C. 540, also known at the Western Wake Expressway.

Widening Carpenter Fire Station Road from N.C. 55 to Cameron Pond Drive.

Realigning Carpenter Fire Station Road from N.C. 55 to Morrisville-Carpenter Road.

Safety improvements to the intersection of Morrisville Parkway and Carpenter Upchurch Road.

Studying Green Level Church Road to develop an overall vision for the corridor as it passes through the Green Level Historic District.

And earlier this year, the town opened the four newly built lanes of Green Level West Road from Glenmore Road/Capistrane Lane to N.C. 540.

Generally, the above projects are designed either to accommodate more cars or improve connectivity between the town’s more heavily traveled roadways.

But road needs, in any town, take time and money to study, design and build. In western Cary, for example, the first public workshop on the widening of Carpenter Fire Station Road won’t take place until winter 2019.

In the meantime, development continues apace, bringing people and their cars to western Cary, another fact not lost on town hall. Recently, the Town Council gave Green Level Baptist Church a pass on two road-improvement requirements, in part because Cary doesn’t yet know what it wants to do with Green Level Church Road.

“The church’s construction needs have outpaced the town’s study,” said Kevin Hales, a senior Cary planner.

Of course, the closer people live to where they work and play, the less time they need to spend on Cary roadways. And the town’s comprehensive planning document, the Cary Community Plan, gives developers the flexibility to build essentially self-contained communities in areas where they make sense.

“That’s really what the Cary Community Plan speaks to,” said Scot Berry, Cary’s director of development services.

“There are certain areas where .... if you want to do just residential, the plan says yes, that makes sense,” he said.

But the plan also encourages “destination centers,” places with a mix of homes, restaurants, stores, small businesses.

“So it’s the whole spectrum of let’s build a gas station close to where people are going to live or a daycare where people are going to live, or let’s take a very specific area and let it become more dense so that you’ve got the whole live, work, play,” Berry said.

“We always look for that whenever possible,” added Debra Grannan, Cary’s assistant planning director.

“The Cary Community Plan has created the opportunity for a little more flexibility,” Grannan said. “We don’t have any development plans approved yet, but we have a few pockets of zoning where they’re looking at slightly higher densities than what we’ve seen in the past. The area is ripe for redevelopment in the eyes of the developers. We’ll see how it goes.”

Beyond the frontier

One day, though no time soon, western Cary will be largely developed. Where does the town grow from there?

The Cary Community Plan “contemplates that we’re going to grow out to our borders and our future is infill and redevelopment,” said Russ Overton, Cary’s deputy town manager and chief development officer.

Infill is simply developing the occasional lot or small tract that remains after an area is largely built out. That’s happening in places in Cary already, and “that trend will continue as developers buy up and do infill,” Overton said.

Redevelopment is turning an old use into a new one — maybe a long-vacant car repair shop becoming home to a craft brewer. Or maybe an acre lot with one home becomes an acre lot with two or three homes.

Redevelopment is already taking place in Cary’s older neighborhoods, especially downtown, Overton noted. “As we reach our borders, now people are coming back into the oldest areas, and I think you’ll see that phenomenon as we grow out yet again,” he said.

If that happens, Buitrago, the Habitat for Humanity driver, wouldn’t mind if a redeveloped Cary looked more like a small town than a generic city. “I would want a variety of small businesses, not mega chain corporations,” she said. “I would love to see a local honey store.”

And assuming Cary will never be done building or maintaining roads, Buitrago would like multiple, well-publicized detour options around road work. In her experience, “your first two backup options are just as bad” as the road drivers are trying to avoid, she said.

Whether Cary is developing, redeveloping or filling in, Geska would do just one thing differently. “I would preserve much more nature around the greenways,” she said.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack
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