Obey Creek panel wants more data, new plan for 15-501 project

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2013 

— A committee decided Tuesday the town needs better data and a revised plan before negotiating a development agreement for the Obey Creek project.

The proposed 1.6 million-square-foot project could include a hotel, offices, retail and several hundred apartments on roughly 40 acres off U.S. 15-501, across from Southern Village. By comparison, University Mall has 366,000 square feet.

Steep slopes and wetlands surrounding Wilson Creek limit the project. Roughly 80 acres could be set aside for community trails, recreation and green space, with a wide pedestrian and bike bridge for safe passage across the highway. The bridge also could serve as a gateway to the town.

“I would encourage you to think more aspirational and more broadly about a significant piece of architecture, a significant piece of art, a significant component in the greenway system for southern Chapel Hill,” committee member Will Clark told the developers.

The committee will meet again Dec. 16 to finalize its recommendation to the Town Council. The report could address key concerns with East-West Partners’ plan and recommend whether the town should pursue a long-term deal to guide the project’s development.

Residents and some Obey Creek Compass Committee members said one of the biggest worries is the reliability of data being used to evaluate the project, including its potential effect on traffic and its economic costs and benefits to the town. More complete data is due early next year.

“You have to be able to articulate what everything you want is, and I don’t think that we have the information right now,” committee member Susan Dancy said.

The council approved the two-part development agreement process earlier this year to create predictability in how projects are built, how they look and whether street improvements or other community amenities are required.

The council or the developer can leave the talks at any time before signing a deal to seek a traditional rezoning and special-use permit instead.

Lingering issues

The Obey Creek project is central to the town’s South 15-501 focus area – one of six areas identified in the Chapel Hill 2020 Plan for future development.

The committee resolved lingering issues Tuesday, including how long blocks should be within the proposed development, how tall buildings should be and how much square footage or the number of floors a large, urban retail store might find attractive.

They settled on a mix of building heights between two and six stories, maxing out at 75 feet, plus rooftop mechanical features.

Preferred model

Committee members said Southern Village’s business district is the model for what they would like to see, not a repeat of developer Roger Perry’s East 54 project, which was panned for its long, streetside brick facade.

Resident Mary Buonfiglio said she sees Obey Creek as an investment decision.

“What will the true net benefit be to the town, to the county, to the citizens of Chapel Hill and to the citizens of the southern area?” she said. “I don’t think this committee should accept answers that sound like, trust me, this is good enough, it’s on the way, and we’ll get to it when we get to it. I think this is all information you need now before you make your decision.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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