Since the development agreement was passed in summer 2015, Obey Creek has been quietly moving forward.
In June 2015, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted to approve the Obey Creek development — a mixed-use retail and residential space from East West Partners. The 1.5 million-square-foot development will be located on Highway 15-501 across from Southern Village.
The development was approved with mixed reactions from residents. Since that day in June, the project has been quietly moving forward.
Ben Perry, finance director of East West Partners, says the developers are mainly focused on attracting retail tenants as of right now.
“Retail tenants are the anchor tenants for the project,” he said. “They will drive the final design of everything around and above the development.”
Perry estimates construction could potentially begin within 8 to 12 months.
While surrounding communities like Raleigh and Durham host similar developments, Obey Creek will be the first of its kind in Chapel Hill, Perry said.
“In Chapel Hill we mostly have old strip centers and old sort of 1960s-style malls, but we don’t really have the open air … lifestyle-type shopping environments,” he said.
East West Partners is also optimistic about the residential opportunities provided by the development. The town has required that some affordable housing, which is scarce in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, be provided.
But not everyone is satisfied with the final agreement voted on by the Chapel Hill Town Council.
Council member Nancy Oates, who was elected in November 2015, was against the final agreement during the election and still has concerns.
“I’m disappointed that council and town did not negotiate more workforce housing for the modestly paid,” she said.
“The hospital and university rely on modestly paid employees to keep functioning, and in town we have many restaurants and bars, transit workers, public works employees, teachers and others we couldn’t function without, but housing costs are too high for them to live here.”
Town Council member Jessica Anderson, also elected in November 2015, voiced concern with the size of the development, which will rival the Streets at Southpoint in Durham.
“I would have rather have seen this development built on a smaller scale, especially since I believe that the analysis showed it could generate the same tax revenue with a smaller footprint,” she said.
While it is yet to be determined exactly how much space will be dedicated to retail and how much to residential, there are a few certainties of what will be part of Obey Creek.
Obey Creek will have lots of office space, a new hotel and an 80-acre public park. The park will be open to the public and maintained at the cost of the owners of the project.
New office space is a feature Oates said she is excited for.
“I would like to see (Obey Creek) increase the amount of office, research (and) startup space and decrease residential and retail space. Everybody loses if we become simply a bedroom community,” she said.
Part of the initial controversy surrounding the project when it was first submitted to the Town Council was the environmental impact it would have on the area. The land proposed for the development is actually an environmental offset property to Southern Village, originally for a restricted level of residential development only.
This changed when former Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and the Town Council at the time dismissed the Southern Area Small Area Plan, which had formerly designated the property as an environmental offset, in favor of the Chapel Hill 2020 plan, which favored the Obey Creek development.
Chapel Hill resident Joe Buonfiglio said he thinks the approval of Obey Creek is an example of what happens when government is unresponsive to its citizenry and more concerned with special interests than with the people.
“Even though significant public outcry was brought before the Town Hall dais over and over again, even though not one but two steering committees and the town’s own planning commission recommended evaluating smaller development at the Obey Creek site, ex-Mayor Kleinschmidt and the then Town Council gave developer Roger Perry the go-ahead for the full 1.6 million square feet of development,” he said.
Kleinschmidt was not re-elected in 2015. Controversy over the development also initiated the beginning of CHALT, or Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town. CHALT’s opinion of the development is plainly stated on its website: “Benefits for a few, costs for the rest of us.”
CHALT endorsed Oates, Anderson, and Mayor Pam Hemminger in the November 2015 election.
Aside from the original and ongoing land-use tension, Oates said she is also concerned with how surrounding bodies of water will be affected.
“The site plan seems like more stormwater runoff will be shunted to Wilson and Morgan creeks, increasing the risk of flooding downstream,” she said.
Ben Perry also addressed this concern.
“There is a creek running through the site, so we have to be very careful with that,” he said.
“We wrote that into the development agreement with the town’s incredibly stringent requirements for how the site will be built to protect the creek. That goes way above and beyond standard practices you would see virtually anywhere.”
Perry also said East West Partners has committed to green building practices on the buildings themselves and that the development is inherently more environmentally friendly than older-style single-use suburban developments.
“We … are building (the development) in a way that is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the way things have been built in the past,” Perry said.
Still looming is the ever-present concern of how Obey Creek will affect traffic and if the infrastructure improvements will be adequate to handle it. The James Taylor Bridge over Morgan Creek is projected to contend with nearly 17,000 extra car trips a day due to the development.
“I think overall I’m very concerned about the traffic it will generate on an already congested road: (U.S. Highway) 15-501,” Anderson said.
But Perry said traffic ramifications of the Obey Creek development will be nominal compared to what’s already here.
“It’s bad and getting worse, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to everything that will be built in the future.”