The town has its first glimpse at what its long-awaited downtown district could look like.
The 4-acre first phase of the Morrisville Town Center is expected to be complete by the end of 2019, when a new Wake County library is set to open at the site on Town Center Drive. Designs call for four-story buildings with a mix of shops, restaurants and apartments, lawns and courtyards, and a 350-space parking deck.
On Tuesday, the Morrisville Town Council debated how to use taxpayer money to get the decade-old project off the ground. The town has already agreed to pay about $2.5 million for road construction and stormwater improvements, and some council members said they would prefer for private developers to pay for a parking deck, which could cost between $6 million and $8.4 million.
“If we take on this project, it’s a significant loss for us every single year with the cash flows,” Mayor Mark Stohlman said. “We’re notorious for underestimating what things cost throughout our history. I don’t think we should be in the business of running a parking deck.”
Morrisville needs to invest a significant amount of public money to attract private developers who could build retail space and apartments, according to the Development Finance Initiative, a program through the UNC School of Government. The town is partnering with the initiative, which helps municipalities with attracting private investment for projects.
If we want a downtown, we need to make an investment and show commitment so developers know we’re in this for the entire project.
Morrisville Town Councilman TJ Cawley
“Things are going to cost what they’re going to cost,” Councilman TJ Cawley said. “If we want a downtown, we need to make an investment and show commitment so developers know we’re in this for the entire project.”
Wake County will build and pay for a 8,500-square-foot community library, but the only other for-sure plan is that Morrisville will build a new network of streets for storefronts, starting with the extension of Carolina Street to Town Hall Drive and Foxglove Drive to Carolina Street.
The council will vote this fall on a final design for the first phase of construction.
A new, purpose-built farmers market site nearby will be incorporated into later construction phases, which are expected to wrap up in 2021 and 2025.
For the second phase, the council will decide whether to act on the Development Finance Initiative’s recommendation to build a community center at the downtown district. The project would likely require a bond referendum.
Building a destination
Morrisville isn’t the first Wake County town to try to reverse-engineer an urban core, but it has the least to work with. The town doesn’t have anything that resembles a traditional main street.
Locating more of its commercial base closer to neighborhoods could be a boon for the town’s economy. A market analysis by the Development Finance Initiative shows that Morrisville residents spend about $93 million a year elsewhere in the Triangle.
“If you have someone coming from out of town and you want to take them somewhere, what do you do in Morrisville?” Stohlman said. “This makes Morrisville a destination.”
DFI’s Eric Thomas, the town center’s project manager, said Morrisville is one of many suburban communities in the Southeast that has responded to growth by designing roads and neighborhoods that prioritize vehicle travel to and from nearby employment centers.
People want to ditch their car.
Eric Thomas, with the Development Finance Initiative
“But you lose out on opportunity to connect with your community, you lose out on this vibrancy of a main street,” Thomas said. “Everyone talks about ‘Main Street America,’ the ability to walk from store to store, going to local boutiques instead of driving your car to one big-box retailer. There’s a feel and a sense of place that you’re trying to establish.”
Older cities like Raleigh and Durham that first thrived in an era when fewer people used cars have always had densely built downtowns. These days, such cities are more concerned with revitalization than building new urban areas from scratch, Thomas said, but they’re responding to the same demands.
Millennials and baby boomers are increasingly driving development markets in the Triangle, and research shows that both groups want walkable communities.
“People want to ditch their car,” Thomas said. “They don’t want to be dependent on an automobile. That’s why downtown environments are being revitalized.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan