In the most prominent items on the City Council agenda last night, the Council voted unanimously to defer a vote on the Ninth Street Plan for 60 days, opening the door for new debates between neighborhood activists and major landowners.
Aaron Cain from City/County Planning opened the discussion, reminding Council of the requirement of Durham's Comprehensive Plan that this small-area plan be created for the Ninth Street area and the other areas around Durham's compact neighborhoods and future transit station zones.
He noted that even should this plan pass, it would represent just the start of a longer process to include a number of steps:
- The discussion before Council of numerous Comprehensive Plan amendments, intended to change the boundary of the Ninth Street compact neighborhood, to change some future land use designations, to allow high-density residential in peripheral support areas of the plan area, and to create a new future land use district of Design District to support the form-based region. Notably, Duke's campus would be largely removed from today's compact neighborhood boundaries, while the boundaries would extend further to the west past Anderson/Fifteenth St.
- The adoption of a hybrid form-based code, a change to the UDO to focus on height, massing, building location and orientation, density and intensity -- and much less on the uses allowed within buildings themselves. Minimum densities, not just maximum densities, would be regulated in order to create more of a base demand for transit services.
- Transportation recommendations, including the proposed re-routing of US 70 Business off Ninth and onto W. Main St. instead, as well as pedestrian, bicycle and bus transit improvements.
- Redesign of Safeway St./Hillsborough Rd., the little bridge street connecting Ninth and Hillsborough, which could be re-imagined for more parking. Additionally, the City would look at reducing parking requirements within the compact neighborhood area (especially once a transit system were in place) while expanding on-street parking areas.
Mayor Bell asked for clarification from Cain on what was intended by "minimum density" -- not surprising, as it's a fairly new concept for a community in which, as Bell's predecessor Nick Tennyson is known to opine, the only thing Durhamites hate more than sprawl is density.
Bell also looked for clarification on how much affordable housing would be offered by the development bonus, while Howard Clement seemed a bit confused about how massing differed from location and orientation. (Hey, this form-based stuff is new.)
Meredith Emmett from Alabama Ave. came to speak on behalf of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association, which noted the association's opposition to a 30-day deferral to the plan vote. "We've all had two years to create a planning tool to move forward on developing the Ninth Street area in a way that respects, and I might even say protects, the character of Ninth Street, a Durham jewel, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods," she said.
Emmett noted the process has been "open and inclusive with lots of dialogue," and that the concerns of neighbors and today's business community are happy with the plan as it's come forward.
"All of us have given up some of what we want" in order to bring
this plan together -- including the WHHNA's concern about the impact of
the increased heights and densities allowed in support and core areas.
"It's a good foundation for moving forward, for future policies, for
Tom Miller, longtime land-use advocate and expert for Watts-Hillandale, noted that the neighborhoods had made their comments and concerns public -- a dig at the development community approach to the process, as John Schelp and others have portrayed it -- and said the plan, though imperfect for neighborhoods, was the best compromise possible.
"We were disappointed by the decision of the Planning Commission. We didn't get everything that we wanted," Miller said. "But with the compromise that's been proposed by the planning staff, although we still didn't get everything that we wanted, this process is never going to end if we don't get to a point where we cinch the top of the bag and move forward."
Miller noted that the current development environment had grown up as an historical accident due to the old industrial nature, but that today's supposedly liberal development zoning actually carried with it parking and other requirements that didn't fit with the character of buildings and development that had managed to grow up there.
"What this plan proposes, and what it would permit, is the most dense housing in the City of Durham," said Miller. "As a matter of fact, it will require it. And that's transit friendly."
"It also, though, promotes protecting that portion of Ninth Street, those two business blocks that everybody loves, and are the reason everybody's talking today," added Miller. "We've got to be careful to make a plan that we don't love this area to death."
Terry Sanford Jr., George Stanziale, and -- most intriguingly -- Denise Hester (the Fayetteville St. strip mall owner, and a longtime transit critic concerned about the gentrification impact of dense transit-oriented development on seniors and the poor) lined up in opposition to the plan.
Sanford noted he was here for a postponement for the Ninth Street plan, repeating his concerns outlined in his letter to the Council back on Friday. Sanford claimed that Frank Duke had promised the plan would "ease" future development on the street, and that the ex-Planning director promised that he would promise a plan that was not in keeping with the landowners' interests.
"This morning, I read a letter from a neighborhood representative, and I was absolutely stunned at the tenor and content of what the individual had to say," Sanford said. The letter, Sanford said, claimed that the landowners were making a "last-minute obstacle" and "worked in secret" on this plan.
"I guess that due to our twenty-five year history of remarkable generosity [with free Ninth Street parking], he thought we would let them go to the City and simply downzone our property," said Sanford, claiming that his and Stanziale's opionions had fallen "on deaf ears."
Sanford noted his properties had contributed $4 million in property taxes, and had provided parking for $1 a year on Ninth, while spending $2 million on environmental clean-up on the old factory site while preserving old properties.
"We have added to the vitality of Ninth Street in a way that, in our opinion, is in conjunction with the spirit that lives on both sides of the street," said Sanford. "So where have we been? We've been right here. We've been providing what we could as good neighbors and have not asked the city for a dime, nor did we request to have the properties downzoned."
Sanford noted his property valuation had risen 40%, yet this change would reduce his land's development potential by over half, while not solving what he described as the parking challenges facing Ninth.
George Stanziale noted he was representing Erwin Square as well as NSN Properties -- the group behind Ninth Street North, and that these together owned 60% of the affected land on Ninth.
Stanziale noted that a decade ago he had helped write the station area development guidelines for the Triangle Transit rail plan, and that while he appreciated the City/County Planning use of the book for the Ninth Street Plan, it had been ten years since it was written -- and that today, the rising fuel prices actually required higher densities than those called for a decade in the past.
"We believe that based on rising cost of fuel, and the cost of infrastructure, that there'll be major shifts in where people choose to live in the Triangle," Stanziale said. "They'll begin to want to live closer to their jobs. We need to get those 50% of Duke employees [who live outside Durham] back into Durham."
Noting that parking decks ran more than $20,000-30,000 a space, Stanziale said, the densities and building heights were too low -- "that equals less people," he said -- and that the parking problems today couldn't be solved without a project that generated the necessary density.
"Ninth Street dries up," he intoned.
Denise Hester, the wild-card in tonight's debate, "applauded" the efforts of both sides in the Ninth Street planning process.
"Now I really don't have a dog in this fight," said Hester. "I don't have a position on the decision" to approve or delay the project. But she noted that while the Council was listening carefully to neighborhoods and affected properties, transit concerns loom large over many Durham neighborhoods.
"If you go to the TTA Final Environmental Study, they reference a US Dept. of Transportation study that refers specifically to the inadequacy, specifically of Ninth Street and other streets in downtown, if there were to be high-intensity development around the rail stations in those areas," Hester said.
Hester used her time to complain that the Fayetteville St. plan has "languished" without the same "consideration and due process" that Ninth Street has received.
Bill Bell closed the public hearing, and asked the opponents both why they're asking for 60 days' delay, and whether they have any rezonings planned during that period. Stanziale noted that a rezoning application would be submitted for the Phase II portion of Ninth Street North, and that that would be proposed for mixed-use with an internal parking deck with "four to five stories" of residential.
Cain noted, however, that the new development would fit in within the newly-proposed Ninth Street Plan, as would the Hilton Garden Inn currently in the site plan phase, and that in fact the landowners could have made that project taller under the new zoning.
Bell seemed satisfied that landowners could get their current projects underway within their current zoning, deferring his further questions until later in the discussion. Farad Ali was similarly interested that today's development was allowable under the proposed changes.
"That is not the issue," Stanziale said. "The idea would be to get back with [the neighborhoods] and talk about the issues that we have with this current plan. That has nothing to do with the two impending projects."
Ali also noted that parking was, to his mind, difficult on Ninth, and asked neighborhood representatives their thoughts. Miller pointed out that today's zoning already offered significant impairments, given 50' height limits on industrial land that apply today, making it difficult to think of the project as a downzoning. "It's a tradeoff, and we're moving from the impossible in the zoning environment to the possible."
Yet Miller's answer -- which addressed the fact that parking requirements would not be as strong under the Plan -- didn't address Ali's question about the difficulty of finding parking on Ninth today. On redirect, Miller added he was "satisfied" with the plan's two-phase liberalization of parking -- again referring to parking requirements.
Stanziale rejoined that this was a downzoning; Cain replied that it was in certain areas a downzoning, but an upzoning in other parts of the district, especially the Support I regions of the district, which cannot today be developed to their new heights.
Cain added that while any development built on the west side of Ninth would require parking, the buildings could be designed to be massed along Ninth with parking in rear, especially with reduced parking requirements, including non-overlapping shared parking between retail (daytime) and residential (nighttime) uses.
Eugene Brown spoke up, describing the discussion as "frustrating," given the goal he has of seeing two sides being able to reach a compromise. "And we're not there yet. And I must say, I have friends and acquaintances on both sides of this issue," noting he received an email from a former City Council member with a Ninth Street business calling for one more round of negotiation.
Brown described himself as "perplexed" that Sanford, described by the councilman as a "shrewd" businessperson who took a risk on Brightleaf Square and Erwin Square, how "we could have a process that included public dialogue and public meetings and charrettes that went on for two years, and then here we are here tonight."
"I don't know how that happened, why here it appears to me, at the last minute, that you're raising issues that, in my judgment, should have been raised a year ago, or six months ago," Brown said. "Where do you see any additional compromise?"
Stanziale noted that concerns had been being raised with Cain and other staff for months. He also quibbled with the idea of what is being defined as the "core" of Ninth Street -- a decision intended to add density while preserving the historic Ninth Street feel -- claiming that if the core was going to be 1,200 ft. from the station, it should include more density and height all the way to Hillsborough Rd.
"I gave the very same presentation at the Planning Commission," Stanziale complained. "It might seem to you that there hasn't been any involvement, but there's been a dramatic amount of involvement," he said.
Stanziale added that it's very much the "core" area of concern, in terms of not wanting to lose height and density in core areas -- likely those along the Ninth Street corridor. "You could never build anything there and have it succeed without parking," he said, noting the lack of market demand for development, particularly retail, without parking.
Miller rejoined that City/County Planning essentially played Solomon, "dividing the baby" in terms of a settlement between neighborhood and developer interests. "I hear that they're not happy, and that they want more than they got, but I haven't heard any indication of giving anything to get anything," noting that further negotiations could lead the plan to unraveling.
Sanford responded, calling back to Becky Heron's claim that rezonings were "privileges," a point Sanford agreed with. He noted that this plan would convert into a rezoning change on property owners who've been present for a quarter-century, without having called for that privilege. "There's an opportunity to do something [on Ninth Street] very, very special," he said.
"I'm not going to build a ninety-foot building," Sanford said, noting his long tenure in the community. "This is us simply saying, we want to do something nice there. I can't tell you if 35' or 55' work, but whatever it is, it's going to be complementary to both sides of the street," while not being an "architectural nightmare."
"If the old mill were to burn down, which we don't want it to do... we can build a 35' building there. It would look ridiculous" there. "We don't need to be put in that box."
"I renovated the mill. I own over 50% of that property," he said. "We're stalemated."
Woodard noted that Tom Campbell of The Regulator had asked for the 60-day deferral as well, adding to the number of individuals raising questions about the timing.
Diane Catotti noted her preference to move forward with the plan as it stood forward tonight. "This is already a compromise," she added, reminding the Council of the split vote at the planning commission. "I just don't know that we're going to get there."
Bell added that he "doesn't have the knowledge" of this that some of his colleagues had from their time on the Joint City/County Planning Committee. The mayor noted that 60% of the property owners have concerns, but also won't be immediately affected by the plan change either way.
"Two years; what's another 60 days?" Bell asked. He also noted that he had sat in on the Treyburn project debated by the County, implying the positive track record that Sanford has in the community. "You see where Treyburn is today. I don't think we hurt ourselves by waiting 60 days."
"I value the fact that to date we've had a responsible developer [Sanford] in this community," Bell said. "Gene, you alluded to the fact that they made an investment in probably something else [Brightleaf Square] that probably no one else would touch," the mayor added in calling for supporting a 60-day deferment.
Clement moved for such a 60-day continuance -- also clearly hearkening back to his long relationship in seeing "good projects" from Sanford, and mentioning that he still cares about "the 40% interest" of others in the region, not just the Ninth Street North and Erwin Square developers. That motion passed by a unanimous vote.