As we speculated here on Saturday, developers are indeed proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center and residential development in North Durham.
Neighbors got their first chance to offer feedback in a meeting tonight at Easley Elementary School. And unsurprisingly, residents in the largely-suburban environs north of the Eno River weren't hesitant to share a range of concerns -- notably traffic, but also including worries over property values, impact to area character, and duplication of commercial activity elsewhere on Guess and Roxboro.
An overflow crowd that appeared to number 250 residents or more strained to hear updates from Florida-based developer Tom Vincent from Halvorsen Development, Morningstar land-use attorney Patrick Byker, and a number of project team members working on traffic counts, site planning and other topics.
A real estate program manager from Florida-based grocer Publix confirmed their intent to open a store on site, while staff from Cimarron Homes confirmed they would plan up to 70 residential units on the site in keeping with mixed-use requirements.
We weren't able to take an exacting account of opinions, thanks to standing-room only ergonomics and a back-of-room vantage point; if we were to take a swag, the crowd was generally as much as three parts opposition for every one part proponent and every one part what we might call "accommodator" -- the latter being residents who saw lemons but posited lemonade, like asking the developer for extra traffic improvements or wondering about possible help to property values.
Byker projected the project won't make it through City Council's legislative process for between six and twelve months, while more detailed design work takes place. Yet neighbors are already girding for an opposition campaign, with literature from one opposition leader encouraging residents to begin contacting Durham Planning Commission staff with their thoughts.
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Vincent, after apologizing to an already-hostile crowd upon a late arrival due to travel delays from Ft. Lauderdale, pledged that this would be the first of multiple neighborhood meetings, and stated that in thirty years in developing shopping centers, he knew there needed to be back and forth with residents on any development.
He said that Halvorsen had developed more than ninety Publix centers in three decades, and that while the developer and Publix were working on T&C's for their lease deal, Halvorsen was committed to developing the site only if a Publix were the anchor tenant.
Responding to the audience's question of why a fifth grocery store was needed with two Food Lions, a Harris Teeter and a Kroger nearby, Vincent (to some jeers) pointed out what he described as Publix's unique shopping experience. He went on to describe a study area of 35,000 residents in the target market, over 17,000 of whom he described as living to the north of the proposed site and therefore other existing grocery stores.
Vincent argued that a development such as that proposed wouldn't draw new traffic to the area, but would instead be a destination for the existing residents who already pass by the site, adding that the development team's big concerns were the "turning geometries," lane stacking/queuing, and other measures needed to ensure that the project didn't contribute to traffic tie-ups.
A common theme of concern among neighbors, however, was the problematic nature of even the existing level of traffic already in the area, particularly along two-lane winding Latta Rd., which one resident pointed out was (along with Milton to the north and Horton to the south) one of only three east-west bisecting roads, and one that is curvy and narrow to begin with.
Several residents described living in the area since the late 1990s and having witnessed traffic grow worse almost as soon as they arrived.
For his part, Vincent described his own surprise at the state of Latta Rd. in terms of road condition and volumes, but pledged a desire to work with neighbors to make any development compatible.
While a few residents talked about opportunities to negotiate sidewalk, traffic calming, turn lanes, signalization and other improvements, the majority of the group tended to oppose the concept of a shopping center/mixed use development at the intersection, regardless of other changes.
A common refrain from residents: many said they chose to move to North Durham in order to get out of and away from the city, with many describing their area as bucolic and peaceful, expressing regret over any clear-cutting of a site for development (and concern at the idea of new, less-screening landscaping in its place), and of a love for what one resident described as the "intangibles" that led this to be a home for everyone from families to retirees.
It's dangerous to generalize about residents' demographics from a relatively short, crowded meeting like this one. With that caveat: the room tended towards a senior crowd, with a few families/middle-aged residents and fewer younger residents.
Generally, older residents seemed more likely to be opposed or concerned about the program; while many younger residents or more newly-arrived residents also were opposed, I'd wager that most of the supporters and accommodators were in this crowd.
Vincent stated that the assemblage is under contract though the sales have not closed -- we'd bet a Publix deli Cuban sandwich that there are options to buy that have out-clauses if entitlement to build isn't cleared up.
Speaking of the Florida chain: a representative from Publix's real estate group (replete with de rigueur Publix-green tie) noted that their department had approved this site for a store, and stated that a lease signing was being worked on.
Byker noted that the site is currently zoned for residential with half-acre minimums, with a resident noting that rezoning in the area to allow for quarter-acre lots is fairly common. Because the site is within City limits and just below the much more restricted Northern Durham low-density tier, it's also allowed to have higher impervious surface levels than more northerly areas, which the developer team noted explained a great deal of their interest in this site.
And of course, there was a goodly bit of discussion as to how land use and the comprehensive plan play into the matter.
A resident pointed out that Durham's future land use plan calls for that lower-density development that Byker acknowledged for the site. But Byker noted that the UDO allows mixed-use throughout the City; in the case of a project like this one, Byker said that the developer could cluster a residential component with a minimum density of 4 units/acre in a part of the site and then add retail, commercial and the like elsewhere.
Mixed use arose in Durham's UDO and other municipalities' planning documents as an attempt to avoid segregating residential, retail and commercial, all typically requiring car-based trips between them; the theory is that this reduces vehicular trips, though residents seemed skeptical of the development team's assertion that, besides internal traffic to the site, the retail component wouldn't draw new drivers to their area.
The proposal calls for the retail component on the western half of the site near Guess Rd., with the residential development by Cimarron Homes on the eastern side, adjacent to other neighborhood areas. Cimarron proposes the units to be a mix of townhomes and single-family homes, priced around the $200,000 price point.
Neighbors of these adjacent residential areas along Latta Rd., however, raised the most consistent and pointed concerns throughout the conversation:
- Some neighbors noted pedestrian-vehicle accidents, and were concerned that while the development has to add sidewalks adjacent to it, there would not be sidewalks into their older developments, making it difficult and dangerous to walk to the retail area.
- Several noted that their streets, like Greenough, were often used as cut-throughs for drivers looking to avoid Latta, Guess and other roads, or cutting to and from Northern High.
- A couple of residents recalled the history of accidents at Easley Elementary before a road was signalized, and fretted that the traffic impact analysis might miss the school dismissal timeframe.
Property values were also a source of concern among residents, with concerns focusing on the project's ability to either diminish or improve property values, or on future tax values.
Local appraiser and former Durham Planning Commission member Jarvis Martin of the development team shared findings from three other area developments where shopping centers abut residential, and found that homes in all were selling at just below asking price in a reasonable time (75-120 days on market.)
To this observer, the selection of the new Food Lion center off NC 98 in eastern Durham County was an interesting comparison point, given Sherron Rd.'s resemblance to Latta and 98/Guess as similar thoroughfares. Martin also used Meadowmont and Governor's Village in Chatham as comparison points, to some relatively vocal disagreement from the crowd.
Several residents worried that the development could reduce their property values, although some argued that the presence of an upscale retailer could have an opposite effect -- "Guess Road is pretty trashy," one said, though several others lamented that the developers couldn't have picked an underutilized center like the Willowdaile center to rehab.
(For what it's worth: pure speculation on my part, but I did find it very interesting that Greensboro-based retailer The Fresh Market, with stores all around the eastern and central U.S., had no stores in Durham -- until, that is, shortly after Publix entered the North Carolina market. One can't help but wonder if the old Food Lion at University Dr./MLK Jr. Pkwy. would have been Publix's best entry point in Durham, and if The Fresh Market didn't snag it to lock up a potential Publix pad.)
Martin added that tax values would be impacted by the 2016 revaluations long before the mixed-use development opened, though acknowledging that future reappraisals could see local property tax assessments increase due to the new neighbor.
The development team promised to take concerns over traffic flows, landscaping and the like into consideration, with Vincent promising to meet with residents three, four or more additional times as needed to try and reach the best consensus possible.
If tonight's crowd is representative, some of the proposed project's neighbors may be interested in finding ways to improve existing local problems with the new build.
But a larger segment is quite happy with North Durham as it is, and didn't seem from tonight's meeting to be interested in seeing new retail on this site. And from the organization and skepticism to date, there's no doubt that a pitched fight to culminate in the Planning Commission and City Council is just getting started.