Chapel Hill Town Council moves Obey Creek negotiations cautious step forward

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

A sketch from consultant Dover, Kohl and Partners shows retail and apartments fronting a tree-lined U.S. 15-501 at the Obey Creek site. The sketch was presented to the Technical Team in October as an example of how the project might look from the street.

DOVER, KOHL & PARTNERS — Dover, Kohl & Partners

  • The Process

    The Town Council’s vote split the two-phase development agreement process approved last year into four phases. The council will decide at the end of each phase whether to move forward to the next.

    The four phases leading to a development agreement are:

    •  Exploratory: Compass Committee of community members and Technical Team of development experts examine the project.

    •  Technical: Experts and town staff work with the community to study important issues, such as the environment, traffic and school capacity; the concept plan gets revised to reflect new information

    •  Council negotiations: The council holds work sessions with the community and developer to consider a draft agreement

    •  Approval: The council decides whether to sign an agreement with the developer or leave the negotiations.

    The town or the developer can back out at any time, and until the agreement is signed, there are no guarantees. If the agreement fails, the developer still could seek a special-use permit and rezoning.

— Town Council members made two things clear Monday: They won’t be negotiating with the Obey Creek developers for a while, and moving ahead with talks doesn’t guarantee a deal.

Council member Jim Ward said he is willing to walk away if the deal’s not right.

“We are a long way from (a decision), and you will have the opportunity to be part of that process, to analyze on your own and within groups what that information means to you,” he said.

Obey Creek, a 124-acre property located across U.S. 15-501 from Southern Village, is being considered for a mix of commercial, residential and civic uses on about 40 acres. Roughly two-thirds of the land could be set aside for public use.

In June, the council appointed a 17-member Obey Creek Compass Committee to talk about the potential benefits and problems to address in a development agreement. Such agreements ensure predictable results and timetables as projects on more than 25 acres are built over 20-plus years.

The council voted 8-1 Monday to move into the second phase of talks with Obey Creek developers Roger and Ben Perry, of East West Partners. The next step is to study the potential effects on traffic, school capacity, the environment and other concerns.

Council member Matt Czajkowski voted no, advocating instead to adopt the Compass Committee’s recommendations. The Planning Board also endorsed the committee’s ideas, such as asking for a revised concept plan based on the group’s report and more data reflecting the revised plan.

In three years, the developer hasn’t offered a smaller plan, he said.

“Just as with Central West, the fundamental question is to what degree (will it be developed), and I very much share your concern in terms of the dynamics of the process that if we go forward this evening ... we’ll end up with something pretty close to (1.6 million square feet),” he said.

The council did include suggestions from an alternative citizens’ resolution to widen the study area and amend the consultants’ contracts to cover existing and planned developments.

The council also voted 9-0 to split the town’s two-phase development agreement process into four phases. The new process has a third step for council negotiations with the developer and a fourth step for the council’s final decision. That could be next year, town officials said.

Or it might never happen. The town or the developer could stop negotiating at any time, leaving a special-use permit and rezoning the only option.

‘Good ideas’

Consultant Victor Dover, a technical team member from Dover, Kohl and Partners, said the site is complex but “good ideas” include a compact mix of building shapes and sizes, multiple transportation connectors and a walkable, human-scale community.

A large retail tenant could co-exist with natural spaces within and around the development, and a pedestrian bridge could create a town “gateway” and ties to Southern Village, he said.

Stormwater and transportation master plans are key to Obey Creek’s success, he said. What NCDOT lets the town and developer do to counter increased traffic will help determine the final plan.

Roger Perry said they’re willing to work with the town.

“It may turn out that the cost of mitigating a plan of this size is something we can’t afford. We don’t know what these studies say either. We have the same issues and concerns that the community has,” he said.

Most of the more than 120 residents at the meeting supported the Compass Committee’s recommendations. The biggest concern is traffic on U.S. 15-501, the James Taylor Bridge at N.C. 54 Bypass and surrounding roads, they said.

Deborah Gerhardt said she used to hear two songs on the drive from her Southern Village home to work at UNC. Now, it’s four songs, she said.

“The traffic for us is not just a word. It is a daily reality that we have seen change just in the past five or 10 years we’ve lived here,” she said. “It is incomprehensible that you would take a further step in this process without doing a really meaningful, substantive study about the traffic situation.”

Dave Godschalk, a UNC professor emeritus in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, urged the council to seize a rare opportunity for community development and preserve the rural buffer by developing Obey Creek and other areas identified in the town’s 2020 Plan.

Godschalk also is a former Town Council member and focus group leader for the town’s 2020 Plan town growth talks.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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