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BIG CITY: Obey Creek: a slippery slope

Like a lot of folks in the southernmost part of Orange County, I watched with great interest the presentation by East West Partners on the latest concept plan for Obey Creek.

The plan, reduced from the previous version, now features only 600 new residences and more retail/commercial space than University Mall right on U.S. 15-501 across from Southern Village.

I certainly can’t fault developer Roger Perry for doing his best to maximize the potential of the land for his Baltimore clients. And like almost every other developer who has rolled out a big plan for the council, he’s tried to take advantage of the council’s obsession with adding commercial space by dangling the prospect of a big-box store to anchor the place.

None of this is surprising. What is surprising, especially coming on the heels of a year-long visioning process for the town’s new comprehensive plan, is how easy it seemed to get a council made up of bright, engaged people to take the bait.

Obey Creek is a slippery slope, both literally and figuratively. A small portion of the 124-acre project is on somewhat flat land near the highway, but most of it falls off quickly down to Wilson Creek, which flows into Morgan Creek not far from the James Taylor bridge. The land has so many natural constraints that it has proven hard to develop. It was rejected as an alternative site for the school district’s third high school because it didn’t have enough land for all the fields, buildings and infrastructure.

The project is also a slippery slope in that it compromises not just the original agreement struck with residents in the area when Southern Village was developed but also the most recent thinking on the area developed during work on Chapel Hill 2020, the town’s newly minted comprehensive plan. If the council somehow decides to buy into the project, it will set a new town record for tossing principles and community participation under the bus.

To make this plan attractive, Perry has promised something just shy of the moon, including “off-site improvements” to 15-501 and the N.C. 54/15-501 bypass along with new park land on the portion of the land that’s pretty much unbuildable.

In exchange for this, the council will have to buy into the idea that you can build that number of residences and a massive commercial center ­– right now the plan looks like the retail strip across from Southpoint Mall – and somehow not turn the only route for southern Orange and northern Chatham county residents to Durham and Raleigh into a parking lot.

At this point you may wish to note that University Mall, the future smaller cousin to Obey Creek, is flanked by three four-lane roads and one two-lane road, all with ample turn lanes.

In addition to the traffic-congestion issues, there’s also the issue of stormwater runoff, construction-caused siltation and all the other impacts to the watershed. The creeks that run through the area run into the already severely impaired upper portion of Jordan Lake, which both Carrboro and Chapel Hill are mandated to improve via new standards for reducing pollution caused by runoff.

These concerns alone should have caused the council to answer East West Partner’s plea for guidance with a resounding “nah.” But the majority of the council seem to have made the calculation that somehow the sales tax and property tax dollars are too tempting just to say no now and let Perry’s clients consider an alternative to a traffic magnet. (The site, for instance, would make a lovely gateway-to-Chapel Hill site for a company headquarters.)

Instead, the council seems ready to use entertaining the concept of Obey Creek as a way to convince Chapel Hillians that it is determined to add retail space and spur economic development. This without anything other than back-of-the-envelope math on the possible revenue and no serious look at traffic impacts and actual costs to the town.

The saving grace here is that the project is still in the concept-plan phase, a process which a previous council wisely put in place to give developers a sense of whether an idea would fly or not. After hearing out the concerns of south-of-town residents, this council opted to give Perry a definite “maybe,” pleasing almost no one.

At one point, council member Matt Czajkowski said the project was an opportunity to show that the council is serious about retail.

I agree, because in 20 years of watching and writing about development in Chapel Hill, I can’t recall a bigger fantasy.

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