At this Monday night's City Council meeting, the body will vote on the long-discussed Ninth Street Plan -- and, in the last hours before the vote, a battle is brewing between landowner and neighborhood interests on whether to defer the vote for still-further discussion.
The Ninth Street Plan -- called for in the Comprehensive Plan passed by the city and county several years back, and under development itself since at least 2006 -- contains a number of proposed changes for the compact district in and around Ninth Street adjacent to a once-and-possibly-future transit station.
The Plan includes a so-called "hybrid form-based zoning" approach to Ninth Street, creating restrictions on buildings' shapes and sizes as opposed to traditional use-based restrictions, even while allowing more height and density along the W. Main St. corridor.
Intended to maintain Ninth Street's scale and shape and its pedestrian/bicycle orientation, the outcome of the process has rankled Terry Sanford Jr., developer of Erwin Square (and Brightleaf Square before that) and led his firm to call for a delay to the plan's adoption.
Development on the west side of Ninth Street itself would limited to 35 feet in height in the proposed Plan, or 45 feet with a special use permit. More than Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale asked for (the associations sought no such exception) -- but certainly less than landowners would have liked.
In the figure at left, the orange areas would be classified as "pedestrian business" and subject to the strictest height requirements. Core (brown) areas would be limited to 90-110'; Support I areas (green) could be 60-75' in height, vs. 45' standard for Support II (purple).
Sanford and his land planning consultant, George Stanziale, communicated their displeasure with the plan in communication on Friday to the City Council, in which they asked that a vote on the Plan be delayed one month for further negotiation and discussion.
According to Sanford's letter to the Council, the developer (and son of the Duke president and N.C. governor) agreed with the sentiment of clustering density near the eventual transit station site while drawing down heights closer to neighborhoods, but he complained that the Plan should have allowed high density throughout the Erwin Square property, all the way to Hillsborough St. and including all the undeveloped land between the old Erwin Mill, Erwin Square and Station Nine.
Sanford also complained at what he seems to feel is a raw deal for the land that he and his partners control along the west side of Ninth Street -- including land that supports free parking for the street, something the developer claims he has provided without charge for two decades.
The new lower building heights along the west side of Ninth Street (lower than the currently-allowed 90' by right, 145' by special use permit), Sanford claims, would not support the intensities needed to develop parking decks on that and other sites. "As development occurs to support transit, structure parking will be required. Three story buildings will not support this. We are also curious why we are being singled out after being so generous with our parking," Sanford writes.
Indeed, Sanford argues, the 35-to-45' heights proposed for the west side of Ninth Street between Main and Hillsborough is just too low: "We feel this is a reaction only to what is existing on Ninth Street and does not reflect its true potential as well as the intensity required to support transit."
Intriguingly, Sanford claims that when he and his partners -- who collectively control more than 50% of the property affected by the plan -- approached one-time City/County Planning chief (and now universal zoning scapegoat) Frank Duke about their concerns, he was told, fuggedaboutit:
[W]e were told that the form-based code would regulate building heights, setbacks/build to lines, public spaces, as well as architectural characteristics. However, this information would be used with the idea of maintaining or increasing property values and supporting transit since TTA Station #9 was directly across Main Street. It was not intended to diminish values or densities.
Frank Duke asked us to meet with him numerous times and on each occasion we indicated to Frank that in no uncertain terms would we support a plan that diminished our ability to develop our property to its highest and best use. He repeatedly indicated that he fully understood the issues of values and that if we were not supportive, the plan would not move forward since we were one of two major property owners.
Just 2 1/2 hours after Stanziale/Sanford's request for a deferral, John Schelp and Kelly Jarrett from the the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association countered with a communication to the mayor and Council calling for the vote to go forward as scheduled.
Schelp and Jarrett noted that while Sanford and his partners had maintained industrial zoning for the old Erwin Mill area -- something that's been a point of wary dissent between the neighborhoods and developers for some time -- OWD had been supportive of both the height and density of Station Nine as well as the tall Hilton Garden Inn planned for W. Main St. at Erwin Square.
Both projects, of course, bring more people to the Ninth Street area, providing support for the iconoclastic business district located there. Too much height on the west side of Ninth, on the other hand, might be seen to change fundamentally the character of the district -- something the form-based zoning proposed is pledged to support and maintain.
As Schelp and Jarrett put it, the time for debating that part of the plan's fundamental nature is over:
We've made our position public (on community listservs, local blogs and area press). They've worked in secret and now they're in panic mode. We have no idea what they want because they been working in the dark.
Now, after ignoring the community for two years, Stanziale has launched a last-minute desperate appeal to delay everything. That's unfortunate. Where has he been all this time?
This is our community. This is our home. We didn't get everything we wanted but we reached a compromise. It's time to move on.
As they note, the Ninth Street Plan -- like the Comprehensive Plan itself -- is advisory, and further Unified Development Ordinance amendments and other legislative actions would be required from the City to enact the goals the Plan creates.
Still, as we've seen with the Comp Plan, those goals are quite meaningful once enacted, and it's not hard to see why. The Ninth Street Plan would essentially preserve the size and character of the district, containing and managing density pressures and, I assume, reducing the commercial redevelopment pressure that Ninth Street's existing commercial structures would face from rising land prices. (All the while, of course, allowing more density elsewhere -- including at Erwin Square and around the Ninth Street North complex.)
With stakes that high, a battle's never far off. Look for this to be a major source of sparks come Monday night's Council meeting.