In 1997 my job was relocated to RTP. We could have lived anywhere in the Raleigh metropolitan area, but we were drawn to Chapel Hill because of the excellent school system, UNC, the lack of traffic and related congestion, and Southern Village.
In recent times the Obey Creek proposal has come along, with plans by a well-connected developer to rezone the area from low-density, single-family homes for a multi-use commercial and housing development. The town’s motivation appears to be a desperate need to improve the town’s finances by capturing retail sales that are leaving Chapel Hill.
The developer’s proposal ranges in size from 640,000 square feet to 1.6 million square feet, which is a size similar to The Streets at Southpoint mall. Yet, at both size extremes, only 30 percent of the development would be allocated to retail sales; the bulk of the development will be apartments and office space.
Financial analysis by the town has been lackluster, with town departments using placeholders for their costs, rather than a department-by-department look at actual costs for this massive development: How much is a fire station expansion and ladder truck to serve the taller buildings? How many new police officers? A fully-staffed police substation? Transit costs for the projected 2,500 daily transit riders?
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In response to public questions about Obey Creek, the Town Council appointed two groups to investigate and provide feedback on the developer’s plan:
▪ In 2012 the15-501 South Discussion Group, which was part of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan, recommended a mixed use similar to Southern Village: two to three stories commercial with clustered single-family housing.
▪ In 2014 the Compass Committee Report recommended a maximum three-story buildings fronting on 15-501, a maximum building height of six stories, and blocks and buildings with a look and feel consistent with Southern Village.
Comments from both groups suggested the development size should be biased towards the low vs. high end of the size range.
Where are we today? The developer continues to push the Town Council toward the maximum end of the square-foot range. The documents show four- to six-story buildings fronting on 15-501, with a maximum building height of eight stories. For perspective, think of UNC Hospitals. As it starts to take shape, Obey Creek looks more like a city than like Southern Village.
Additionally, the developer’s traffic study says that traffic on and access to 15-501 would be severely impacted, adding more than 20,000 cars to the current 25,000 that use that road. The developer has sweetened the deal by offering to help with traffic mitigation, offered 80 acres for a town park on the east side of the property, and land for a school.
Unfortunately the traffic assistance will not be nearly enough, and the land for a town park is unbuildable and therefore does not have the value the developer is assigning to it. The School Board has indicated they have no use for the land in the conservation area.
I have yet to meet anyone in my conversations who is against development in the south side of Chapel Hill; we all hope the developer is successful. I however have concerns that fall into three groups.
▪ The developer’s size target is too big for this area.
▪ There is no established plan to effectively deal with the negative impact to traffic.
▪ The concessions by the developer to sweeten the deal for the town do not appear to have value at the level attributed to by the developer.
If Town Council wants to negotiate a deal with Roger Perry and Maryland-based Obey Creek Ventures, it should have a clear understanding of the costs and benefits of this particular proposal – financial and otherwise – and be prepared to explain its rationale to the committees they appointed and to residents and voters in southern Chapel Hill. What is proposed isn’t what we’ve asked for.
Steve White is a retired engineer who lives in Southern Village.