CHAPEL HILL - Amid speculation about what a Walmart off U.S. 15-501 in northern Chatham County might mean for the proposed Obey Creek development nearby, there’s only one thing for sure.
“Obviously, it means we won’t have a Walmart there,” said Ben Perry, East West Partners project manager for Obey Creek. “But then I’d be lying if I told you that was under serious consideration in the first place.”
East West Partners hopes to put 1,200 residential units, a hotel and more than 450,000 square feet of retail space on a 120-acre site across U.S. 15-501 from Southern Village.
About a mile and a half south of that site, just across the Chatham County line, Walmart plans to build a 148,400-square foot store. The company confirmed long-held rumors that it was eyeing that site when it filed a development application March 2.
Some observers have wondered whether the 15-501 corridor can support both projects. Would Walmart render Obey Creek less feasible?
“Not at all,” said Roger Perry of East West Partners, which also built Meadowmont and East 54. “If anything, it creates more demand, not less. Walmart stores tend to generate a lot more interest and serve as a catalyst for more development. So more retailers are going to want to be on that corridor. They’re coming.”
The question is whether that spinoff development will wind up on the Chatham County side of the border, where Walmart will be, or on the Orange County side, where Obey Creek is proposed.
Millions of dollars in property and sales tax could ride on the answer. And time is of some essence.
"If Chapel Hill wants to be competitive and wants to retain any of that market share, then it's going to have to move in a timely manner to capture it before other areas do,” said Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill’s economic development director (until March 23, when he leaves to take a similar post for the City of Raleigh).
Chapel Hill is not known for having a speedy development approval process, and Obey Creek is essentially on hold until the town completes its Chapel Hill 2020 process, which is designed to help establish a new Comprehensive Plan to guide future development.
“Chapel Hill, for better or worse, has a very long and expensive review process,” Ben Perry said. “I don’t think the market is going anywhere, but if Chatham County moves quickly to fill that market, we could be out of luck. That’s not going to happen in the next three weeks.
“Nobody really knows how long it will be, but there is a certain window of opportunity that will close.”
Chapel Hill 2020 is scheduled to conclude with a plan to be presented to the advisory boards and Town Council this June.
“Come June we’ll have a lot clearer sense of the direction we can go,” Ben Perry said. “Once that happens, we’ll be ready to move.”More upscale project
East West Partners hasn’t identified any specific retailers for Obey Creek, but if the company’s previous projects are any guide, the development will be geared toward a somewhat more upscale customer base than Walmart traditionally targets.
Ben Perry said it was too soon to talk about who the tenants at Obey Creek might be, but he said the project would be designed “to serve the Chapel Hill demographic.”
Obey Creek’s concept plan has drawn opposition from some residents who don’t want to see what is now largely rural land turned into high-density urban uses.
And in addition to waiting for the 2020 process, Obey Creek is to a certain extent pinned between two conflicting town reports.
One is a 1981 Small Area Plan that stipulates low-density uses for the southern part of town, including the 15-501 corridor.
“The Small Area Plan that was created back then was a good plan,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “At that time, 15-501 was a two-lane country road and Southern Village was in the concept stage.
“Now the infrastructure is there. Conditions are different. We need to consider whether that plan continues to serve our interests. I don’t mean we should pave every acre and put retail there. But not every acre of southern Orange County is so sensitive that it should necessarily be off-limits.”
The other report is a recent economic development study that identified the 15-501 corridor as a suitable area for commercial development.
“Obey Creek in general meets the economic development study’s examples of what would be possible there,” Kleinschmidt said. “There is some sensitive property that needs to be protected, but there is also some room for other uses.”
Kleinschmidt said the 2020 process has spun off a corollary project specifically to study the southern area. That project is just under way, he said, and has not yet reached any conclusions.
Meanwhile, Obey Creek waits.
“Along with everybody else, we’re waiting patiently for the 2020 plan,” Roger Perry said. “But while we fiddle, the flaming arrows of the barbarians will soon be raining down on our heads.”