Many downtown Cary business owners say a proposed $51 million mixed-use development, with retail and office space, apartments and a parking deck, will be the jolt the area needs to attract more visitors and private investment.
“It’s really, I think, going to change the whole face of what we see and what we know as downtown,” said Sheila Ogle, owner of the historic Guess-Ogle House on South Academy Street and the Matthews House on West Chatham Street.
In late April, a proposal was presented to the Cary Town Council of Northwoods Associates LLC’s plan to build a 55,000- to 75,000-square-foot retail and office building on the southeast corner of West Chatham Street and South Harrison Avenue. An access road would run between the building and Elizabeth’s Home and Garden Shop on West Chatham, leading to a 188-unit apartment building and a 466-space parking deck. NorthView Partners LLC would develop the apartments.
The project would require a $5 million commitment from the town for construction of the parking deck, stormwater facilities to serve the entire site, surface parking and access roads.
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To proceed, the project will require approvals from First Baptist Church, at the corner of Park and South Academy streets, and the town. Both entities own pieces of land at the site. A public hearing will be required at a later date.
Downtown business owners believe the long-awaited development not only will attract more people to the area but more private investment, like new shops and restaurants.
“It’s going to bring a lot of people downtown,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, owner of Elizabeth’s Home and Garden Shop. “It’s going to bring better access to parking. It’s a big deal. I think it could be good for our location.”
Change is coming
More people living and working in downtown means more attention and visibility for downtown stores, restaurants and events, Ogle said.
“For any of us associated with the Chamber (of Commerce) that have been on site visits to other areas, we can see what the downtown area can be like,” she said. “This is just a step in the right direction.”
Keith Bliss, whose Bliss Real Estate Group office is downtown, said the first step in making this vision possible is building more multi-family housing.
“The fact is, we need density,” he said. “We need people sleeping in beds in downtown for other things to come downtown ... This is a big boom and a tremendous opportunity to bring a whole new set of residents into our downtown fabric.”
Surrounding home values and rental fees will go up as more investment is made downtown, Bliss said.
“Just like anywhere else, like a downtown Raleigh or a downtown Durham, the rents of a lot of the homes downtown will go up, the demand for people to come downtown and live downtown will go up.” he said.
Bliss anticipates seeing similar mixed-use developments come to downtown Cary over the next 10 years.
“More project like this high-density, mixed-use will create the other pieces down the road of an urban type market,” he said. “A grocery store, other eateries that will be coming. I’m sure we’re bound to have another brewery or two come into play.”
A quaint downtown
While many local business owners are excited about the exposure nearby apartments and offices would bring to their businesses, others are concerned the project could diminish the area’s quaint character.
“We have some work to do,” said Leesa Brinkley, owner of Leesa Brinkley Graphic Design. “It doesn’t fit really in my mind of what the Cary downtown could be.”
Brinkley also is president of the Friends of the Page-Walker Board of Directors, a group devoted to preserving and promoting Cary’s history.
Brinkley is most concerned about the scale of the new structures. Preliminary schematics show four-story buildings, and while building designs have yet to be completed, four-story structures are a possibility.
“I think it’s too much on that corner,” she said, citing concerns about traffic generated by the density. “We want to create a downtown where people want to go, not to where they are frustrated to get around.”
Brinkley said she is hesitant about building so many new structures instead of revitalizing older ones.
“We want to be Cary,” she said. “We want to be a small town. We don’t want to feel like we’re an all brand-new, cookie-cutter downtown. ... I know downtown is not Apex with cute little storefronts and everything, but let’s make it better than that.”
Brinkley, in her role with the Page-Walker board, also is concerned about the project’s impact on the historic Ivey-Ellington house, which would have to be moved to accommodate construction. This could result in it losing its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, which its held since 2008.
“I think that when you have a National Register Historic property, you build around it,” she said. “You don’t move that property to just accommodate new development. That’s really the opposite way of thinking.”
An investment in downtown
This is one of the first large-scale, mixed-use private investments in downtown Cary that has been announced since the town began investing in the area.
The Cary theater opened in early 2015 after the town spent $6 million to renovate the 175-seat theater on Chatham Street. The town also backed plans for The Mayton Inn, a boutique hotel on South Academy Street.
“I think it helps the private developers know that this is an area the town is serious about improving,” said Ian Henshaw, a managing director at the Cary Innovation Center, where entrepreneurs and startups can rent private office space.
The completion of the Academy Street streetscape project is one more investment hurdle that needs to be cleared before downtown business owners expect foot and vehicle traffic to increase.
“For most people here, business has slowed, and I’m looking forward to it coming back strong and bold like I know it will,” Sullivan said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608, @KTrogdon