Chapel Hill: Opinion

Amy Ryan: How to make Obey Creek work

In last Sunday’s paper, I was quoted about my place-making and connectivity goals for Obey Creek. It’s important to understand them as part of my larger point that if the Town Council decides to allow this major new development, we need to get something meaningful back in exchange for the huge impacts it will bring.

I don’t want the community to think I’m advocating for massive change in the southern area; that’s not the case. But being a realist, I believe that in the current political climate it is very possible Roger Perry may succeed in selling his vision for big new development. If that happens, we need to make sure that it is well planned, sized to work with our infrastructure, and a real benefit to the southern area and the town as a whole.

As envisioned, Obey Creek would have a dramatic and transformative impact on this part of town, adding square footage equal to that of Patterson Place plus New Hope Commons plus two Greenbridges – and that doesn’t include the massive parking garages that will be built. All to be fit into a quiet forested part of town, home to schools, single-family suburban developments, a mixed-use village, and natural preserved land along Morgan Creek and in Merritt’s Meadow.

How can we make all that impact worth it?

First, Obey Creek will be worth it if it lets us “retrofit” this suburban part of town and make it a more walkable and exciting place to be.

If we plan this as part of a connected southern area, with an integrated bike and ped system, the teens in Southbridge could hop on the Morgan Creek Greenway and travel, off-road, to afternoon jobs in Obey Creek. My husband and I could walk to a Friday night dinner on a patio overlooking the preserved open space. Friends in Southern Village who work at UNC could commute on their bikes – safely – to jobs at the medical center, stopping at the Obey market on the way home to pick up groceries or have a cup of coffee with a friend.

Connectivity is the key, place-making is the key. Make Obey a “same-old” isolated development, and all you’ve done is shorten my drive to the store and increase the time I sit in traffic. Make Obey the hub of a connected southern area, and you’ve given me an exciting place to live.

Second, Obey Creek will be worth it if it achieves some important town goals. For example, this is a great spot for moderate-priced housing. The area has plenty of high-priced single-family homes already. Let’s ask for units that cater to UNC employees who can then bike or take the bus to work.

Third, Obey Creek will be worth it if we minimize negative impacts on quality of life and area character.

This means keeping the building profile along 15-501 moderate to fit with the surroundings, as the current plan recommends. It means making sure we get traffic mitigations that work. It means addressing impacts on side roads, like conflicts between Culbreth Middle School traffic and stacking at the morning rush hour.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked about heights or square footage or density. To my mind, once the Town Council has clarified its goals, then it’s time to take up member Matt Czajkowski’s suggestion and use the town’s technical team and modeling tools to look at how those goals can be accomplished. By testing different scenarios for mix of uses and density, we’ll see which combination works best for the town and the developer and doesn’t turn 15-501 into a parking lot.

These are my goals for the Obey Creek. I hope as the council thinks about its goals, it will think about how exciting a vital, connected southern area could be.

Amy Ryan is a resident of southern Chapel Hill and vice chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission.