A crowd of more than one hundred packed the Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church's sanctuary on North Roxboro on Thursday night to hear the latest from the development team proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center at the corner of Guess Road and Latta Road in north Durham.
The logistics contrast from this fall's last go-round on this subject couldn't be starker: a crowded, uncomfortable elementary school cafeteria where speakers couldn't be heard and unruliness reigned at times, versus the pews-and-pulpit auditorium with PowerPoint, amplified audio, and (Publix-provided, natch) refreshments.
Similarly, while the developers were often on the defensive in the first meeting, in this session the agenda (there was an agenda) was tight, the presentation carefully crafted, and unanswered questions that raised hostility the first time were sometimes -- though crucially, not always -- answered in this second go-round.
Most crucially, residents got to see the developer's projections on the impact their Latta Road improvements would have on the congested road's traffic flow. It was an argument, backed by simulation data, that seemed to get murmurs of assent from the crowd, but follow up questions from two residents asking for before-and-after vehicular volume counts were pointedly left open.
The developer also put forth a working site plan and likely renderings for the commercial district, along with examples of single-family detached homes that Durham-based homebuilder Cimarron Homes is proposing for the site.
There were again clear opponents in the audience -- though this time, met by what appeared to be, based on who was applauding, an equal number of proponents.
Proponents noted their complaints over the lack of retail (or the poor quality of current retail) in north Durham, the corporate track record and store experience of Publix, and the positive impact to traffic flow from the road improvements planned.
Opponents shared their love for the quasi-rural nature of the northernmost city limits, concern on adding more retail where strip centers exist down the Guess and Roxboro corridors, and a reminder to residents that City legislative action is still needed and the project isn't a done deal.
All of which has a Durham Planning Commission and City Council hearing window targeted to summer 2016 looming as the project moves forward.
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The development team, helmed by Morningstar attorney Patrick Byker and Halverson Development president Tom Vincent, spent a fair amount of time talking through their conceptual site plan for the parcels, shown above.
The plan, as expected, shows a the Publix facing westward towards Guess Rd. along with outparcels, with a landscaping barrier separating 60-70 homes on the eastern side of the property. Stormwater management features would be located on the southern edge of the site.
Vincent noted the development team had looked through twenty to thirty designs for the site, and cautioned that while changes were possible, he was used to providing this level of detail at the rezoning -- an omission from Durham's process that the Florida developer said was bizarre to him.
"We're starting to settle in on the site plan," Vincent said. "The rub there is, the site plan is not something that we're allowed to use for the zoning hearing. But to me, if I were sitting out in the audience like you, I would want to know ... what the site plan looked like."
The developer noted that while the site plan could not be used in the zoning meeting -- a process Vincent called "backwards," describing it as the only rezoning he's done in twenty years that doesn't require it -- the team had cleared with City/County Planning that these could be shared during neighborhood meetings.
Questioned later on a related point by an attendee who asserted that developers could not link a retail tenant like Publix to a rezoning, Byker noted that he had represented a Lowe's and Walmart in south Durham and that both projects were linked to their retail partners at this stage and during planning commission and City Council hearings.
The developer also showed the range of localism they had attempted in various designs -- Spanish architecture for a Boca Raton store, a Charleston-style evocation for a South Carolina store -- and showed proposed elevations for the north Durham Publix and outparcels as well.
Additionally, the development team stepped out of the PowerPoint midway through their discussion in order to play back what they described as a traffic simulation of before-and-after the improvements they planned to Latta Road in order to build the project.
Vincent and Byker told the assemblage that they were estimating $2.1 million to $2.2 million in developer-borne improvements to Latta Road, including three-laning a fifth of a mile of the road east of Guess, and adding a second dedicated left turn lane and dedicated right turn lane to the intersection.
"For a project this size, that's really off the charts," Vincent says, noting a typical similar project would ordinarily not exceed $500,000 to $600,000 in traffic improvements.
They also added, in what they noted was project boosterism, that the City and State have no current plans to otherwise improve today's Latta/Guess intersection.
Earl Llewellyn from Kimley-Horn discussed the traffic conditions their team had seen out on the site, noting that during peak movement hours such as the 7:00am to 7:15am period, backups of five minutes or more with cars backing up past Autumn Dr. and Green Oak Dr.
Llewellyn's before-and-after simulation showed car queuing on Latta down significantly after the road improvements were made, after factoring in the new traffic levels from the development and what they described as the organic growth merely owing to Durham's ongoing increase in population.
With the improvements, the Kimley-Horn engineer's revised simulation showed cars more easily flowing through the increased capacity at Latta/Guess without today's backups beyond Autumn Dr.
"One might initially expect that if you have that much traffic going through one lane, if you put two lanes, you shorten the queue by half. Actually, you do more than that, because what's happening now is, everyone's getting through one [light] cycle."
"Basically, what we've done with these improvements is not only serve the site, traffic in and out, but reduce the queues that are already out there today from 1200 feet to about 300 feet," Llewellyn said.
The project would maintain level of service (LOS) C, over the D required by the City.
In other facts and figures raised by the development team:
- Byker, using City/County Planning algorithms he stated were empirically-proven, found that local schools should only see an increase of 21 students, assuming no townhouses on the site, which would likely lessen further the impact.
- Property appraiser Jarvis Martin compared housing prices from recent sales in adjacent neighborhoods to 2008 tax values, and found that prices had generally stayed flat or declined in the adjacent area, in contrast to what he said was much stronger appreciation south of I-85. (Small, less-expensive houses in the subject area had predominately been the properties to see price increases, Jarvis said.)
- The development and site plan team spent a fair amount of time on stormwater, noting that legally, developers were required to ensure the amount of stormwater flow after development matched conditions before, and citing the stormwater bonds and BMPs on the site as mechanisms to manage stormwater effectively.
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While the site plan, housing description, and particularly the traffic information seemed to address a number of concerns raised in the first meeting, and the development team certainly had more facts, figures and data on hand than in that elementary school classroom, there were some seeming glaring omissions.
The first was back to the question of traffic.
While some audience members seemed satisfied with the simulation data on traffic flow, two audience members questioned the actual nominal increase in vehicular flow.
When first asked, a Kimley-Horn staffer promised to review the details and provide it, searching notes while other questions continued. When pressed for the number, though, project representatives noted the question was "academic," stating that they should really care about whether the "road network" and capacity can manage whatever that volume was.
At least two residents raised concerns about not being able to see what that actual nominal change was; one noted he lived almost immediately adjacent to the site, while another noted that with more cars, even if they flow better, there was more risk to children running in the street and the like. That's "more of an important consideration to me than if I have to spend five minutes to turn," said one.
"I think the point is, I would submit that it's probably safer to have this area developed as a destination with activity going on," and presumably turns slowing traffic, than to have drivers "rushing through" this stretch of Latta with the current development pattern, one Kimley-Horn engineer said -- though this didn't stop questions from the audience on the traffic count impact.
Similarly, while Martin's data on home prices were interesting -- and confirm yet again what is frankly the market challenges that suburban north Durham has while central and south Durham have boomed -- they also didn't seem to fully address the spirit of the first meeting's discussion.
While Martin's data did capture stagnation in the immediate area for pricing, as one resident noted, that didn't address the forward-looking question of whether homes would appreciate more with a Publix shopping center there, or less due to commercial bringing traffic in.
Some in attendance were unqualified in their support for the project, while others were clearly opposed. (When applause opportunities arose, the volumes were roughly the same for each side, and we saw about the same number of hands clapping on the "for" as "against.")
One man cited the run-down, "dumpy" grocery stores in north Durham, while citing Publix's employee ownership and strong track record as a top employer. Another, who moved to Durham from Florida three years ago, said that his choice of north Durham "would have been a slam dunk" if Publix were there.
Others were clearly opposed.
One speaker, a teacher, noted the developers' use of future tense and wished they would have used conditional tenses instead, imploring residents that this was not a done-deal project. "We have a choice," she said. "Yes, this has been zoned for single family residential, and the City Council has not passed this yet, and this does not have to be here," she said.
The majority of residents asking questions didn't express such outright support or opposition; outside of the repeated, iterative discussion on traffic and the asks for traffic count changes, there were questions on stormwater maintenance, school impact calculations, heat islands, the feasibility of including a dog park, and more.
As one of these questioners said, he remained "ambivalent" about whether the project proceeds or the developer cancels, but did feel the session gave him a sense of "some confidence" versus the initial discussions.
Byker and the team noted they expect to submit an application by year's end and project that the effort will take six months to make its way through staff review, the Planning Commission and City Council.
If approved, construction would begin in late 2016 or early 2017 and run for up to a year.