After two and a half hours of public input last month, the members of Elon’s town council had a chance this week to ask questions of their about a proposed development that could bring over 400 new homes and up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space to the community.
The council ultimately spent the better part of two hours dissecting the plans for Parc Northwest, as this development is dubbed, during their latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
The six-member group spent much of this time cross-examining the project’s developer about this so-called “traditional neighborhood development,” which would occupy some 57.72 acres at the juncture of University Drive and Shallowford Church Road. The council also consulted with the town’s staff members about the development’s proposed zoning, which takes advantage of a new “conditional” overlay district that the town introduced earlier this year.
Tuesday’s conversation allowed the town’s leaders to plumb deep into the nuts and bolts of this project, addressing everything from parking provisions to the development’s relatively small residential lot sizes.
During the course of these inquiries, the council head from the project’s would-be developer, Jeremy Medlin of the Raleigh-based GreenHawk Corporation, about his vision for this particular venture. Its members also learned about the project’s affinity to some well-known developments in the Triangle, like Chapel Hill’s Southern Village, which is famed for clustering residences within walking distance of retail and recreation. The council even had a hearty exchange about traffic with the developer and his associates, who acknowledged they could easily dispense with one of their two proposed entrances off of Stone Gable Drive – which had been a persistent source of criticism from neighbors during last month’s public hearing.
“We saw Southern Village, and we saw Briar Chapel…and I was very impressed by the look of the homes…I [also] wrote down the lot sizes in Cable Square [an existing development in Elon], and these lots are all smaller than those…It is problematic for me that the lots are so small.” – Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe on her inquires into Parc Northwest, a proposed development along the same lines as Southern Village and other compact, pedestrian-friendly communities in the Triangle
In the end, however, the council chose to postpone its vote on the requested zoning so that it can continue its discussion about the project at its next regularly-scheduled meeting on July 25. This decision to effectively put off the decision was made with the full blessing of Elon’s new town attorney Bob Hagemann.
“Nobody is entitled to have a rezoning or even a decision on a rezoning,” Hagemann assured the council at the end of Tuesday’s discussion. “I think the development community would expect a decision in a reasonable amount of time. But you do not have to make a decision tonight. You don’t have to make a decision at your next meeting. You have a lot of discretion.”
On the condition that…
From the council’s perspective, one of the biggest conundrums of this endeavor has been the developer’s appeal to a newly-introduced form of conditional zoning to make his plans a reality.
A relatively common option in other municipalities, the concept of conditional zoning was nevertheless novel enough to Elon’s town council to warrant a few words of explanation from Hagemann.
“Over the last 20 years, [conditional zoning] has become one of or the most predominant form of zoning in North Carolina,” the town’s attorney elaborated. “The beauty of conditional zoning is, as the word connotes, that conditions are imposed…and I have seen that process really been used and work to develop a better product.”
The proposal which appeared before the council on Tuesday contained a list of 24 putatively self-imposed conditions that addressed everything from the development’s proposed layout to the accommodations for traffic during construction.
According to these conditions, Medlin will be able to build up to 130 single-family homes and 80 townhouses within the development’s site – although 10 of these 210 residences would be located within a portion of the project that’s billed as a “village center.” He would also have permission to erect a trio of three- and four-story buildings along University Drive with up to 200 rental apartments in their upper stories and a maximum of 100,000 square feet of commercial space at street level.
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The developer will be required to develop these structures in accordance with a site plan that also specifies that size and orientation of the single-family lots as well as the internal road network and pedestrian accommodations that will serve the development.
In addition to the provisions that the developer has sought to consummate his vision, the project’s list of conditions also includes items that have been added at the behest of municipal staff members or neighbors. Hagemann told the council that the potential for these sorts of concessions by a developer are among the features that have made conditional zoning so popular in many other communities.
“The council, applicants, and neighbors can build in unique and specific conditions…to mitigate the impact and address the concerns of the neighbors,” he added. “The neighbors can engage in conversations and communication with the developer, and they can engage in conversations and communication with the council.”
In Parc Northwest’s case, this give-and-take between the developer and his critics have resulted in several additional conditions that Medlin had proffered since last month’s public hearing. These recent concessions include some additional clarification about the project’s maximum number of dwellings, which weren’t consistently spelled out in the developer’s earlier submissions. Medlin has also agreed to increase the side setbacks to five feet for residential lots that are at least 50 feet wide and to construct two “speed humps” or “speed tables” along Old Towne and Ralston drives – which would connect his development to an existing subdivision called Cable Square.
A “traditional” neighborhood
Another quirk of this particular project is its classification, under Elon’s land development ordinance, as a “traditional neighborhood development,” or TND.
Known in other areas as a “compact community,” this jargony label refers to a single development that puts homes of various kinds within walking distance of retailers, professional offices, and recreational options. In Elon, a traditional neighborhood demands a special kind of overlay zoning, whose requirements are spelled out in the town’s land development ordinance.
Among the requirements of this overlay district are specific allocations for attached and detached residences, workplaces and offices, and even civic facilities. Detached residences, for instance, must comprise 15 to 50 percent of any traditional neighborhood – with Parc Northwest’s 29 percent well within the required proportion. In some cases, however, Parc Northwest falls outside the mandated range, and the discrepancies are noted in the development’s requested zoning.
The idea of a dense, walkable, mixed-use development may be something of a departure from the sorts of residential subdivisions that Elon has customarily seen. But the concept behind a traditional neighborhood development is nothing new, according to Medlin and his associates.
Tony Tate, the landscape architect who designed Parc Northwest, told the council about other developments in North Carolina that have been built along a similar model.
“We’ve been working designing TND developments for about 25 years,” he recalled during Tuesday’s discussion. “I think my first experience was Southern Village in Chapel Hill. These kinds of [developments] are very common throughout the Triangle.”
Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe conceded that she had an opportunity to see some of these comparable developments prior to the council’s meeting on Tuesday. Sharpe told her colleagues that she recently embarked on a road trip with the town’s fire chief and his assistant to scope out these comparable developments.
“We saw Southern Village, and we saw Briar Chapel,” she recalled, “and I was very impressed by the look of the homes.”
A new spin on an old idea
Tate told the council that all of the traditional neighborhoods he has seen through the years share certain defining characteristics with the plans for Parc Northwest. These features include closely-packed residences on relatively small lots, easily accessible accommodations for pedestrians, and layouts that literally put motor vehicles in the rear.
In the plans for Parc Northwest, the lots slated for townhomes and single-family dwellings are laid out with the garages in the back of the residence. Public alleyways would provide access to these garages – with additional room off the alley to park up to two more cars outside each single-family garage and one car behind their townhome equivalent.
Tate told the council that this back-of-the-house orientation is based on a time-tested approach to residential development that predates the rise of the automobile.
“The concept is to get the eye clutter in the back of the unit…so you’re looking at houses and not looking at cars,” he told the council. “It’s those details that make a community nice…and we’re not recreating the wheel; that was the way things were done in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”
The town’s mayor ultimately concurred with Tate’s assessment of this layout based on her own experience with neighborhoods that actually date back to that earlier era.
“In my hometown, the houses were built in the early 1900s,” Sharpe reflected. “They’re very close to the road and the cars are parked behind, and it’s certainly cleaner…but I had to see it to understand that concept.”
The development’s de-emphasis of the ubiquitous automobile triggered some concerns about the adequacy of Parc Northwest’s parking accommodations.
Chad Huffine, a local civil engineer in Medlin’s employ, assured the council that his client’s plans do provide ample parking for vehicles. In addition to the garages behind every home, and the spillover space off of the alleyways, Huffine noted that there will be on-street parking along the development’s main drags, although it would be prohibited along smaller streets.
Huffine also alluded to a wealth of additional parking in the development’s commercial areas – which he said will ultimately give Parc Northwest 50 to 150 more parking spaces than the town mandates.
“It’s very well parked,” he insisted. “It’s excessively parked in some cases. It’s amply parked for the town center area.”
Watch for oncoming traffic
Another matter that perplexed the council is where the development’s vehicles will go when they shift out of park.
In order to accommodate the development’s traffic, Medlin and his associates have crafted a street plan that offers two primary outlets onto University Drive and two secondary entrances onto Stone Gable Drive, which wends its way through the Cable Square subdivision.
Tate told the council that this redundancy of access is based on the current wisdom of the state’s transportation department, which encourages street connections between neighborhoods. This interconnectivity was nevertheless one of the overriding objections among the many residents of Cable Square who confronted the council during last month’s public hearing.
Jeff Moore, a transportation engineer in the developer’s employ, assured the council that the two outlets onto Stone Gable aren’t expected to carry much of the development’s traffic.
“Most of the traffic is going to go to University Drive,” he stressed. “That’s what those entrances are set up for.” Moore added that the potential removal of one of these alternate entrances “really isn’t going to matter” in response to an inquiry from councilman Quinn Ray.
Lori Oakley, the town’s planning director, nevertheless pointed out that such a revision could run into some friction from the town’s own development rules.
“Our ordinance does say that they shall connect to other developers,” she recalled. “Of course, the board does have the right to change that connection.”
Meanwhile, Huffine voiced some objections of his own against the proposed speed tables that the developer had added to his list of conditions at the urging of the town’s municipal staff.
“What I would encourage you to do is not something abnormal like speed bumps where they aren’t expected,” the civil engineer said. “What I can do is design a network of streets that’s two to three hundred feet between intersections that keeps speeds at 25 to 30 miles an hour.”
Too close for comfort?
Although the aesthetic appeal of a “traditional neighborhood” seemed to hold an appeal for the town’s mayor, Sharpe also raised some misgivings about the small lot sizes that also characterize these developments.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Sharpe conceded that her own research revealed that even the largest parcel in Parc Northwest would be dwarfed by those in the neighboring Cable Square subdivision.
“I wrote down the lot sizes in Cable Square, and these lots are all smaller than those,” she acknowledged. “It is problematic for me that the lots are so small.”
Parc Northwest’s lot sizes also raised the eyebrows of councilman Monti Allison, who pointed out that, at the low end of the scale, the proposed development’s dwellings would sit on
parcels as narrow as 26 feet. These relatively slender lots would also leave little room between houses – which vexed councilman Randy Orwig when he noticed the tight squeeze between homes in photos that Medlin had submitted to illustrate what would be in store for Parc Northwest.
Orwig’s observation ignited a debate about the potential fire hazard of such close separation – an issue whose flames were only fanned by a recent fire at another residence in Elon.
These concerns were largely extinguished by Elon’s fire chief Landon Massey, who pointed out that the sidewalls and windows of the most tightly-packed homes in Parc Northwest would be required to have one hour fire rating. Massey also expressed his confidence that the town’s firefighters will be able to negotiate these tight quarters in the event of a fire.
“I think, with the recent fire, we’re all a little bit sensitive about that topic,” Massey added. “But, last week, our fire fighters were already training on those widths.”
Is it affordable?
Regardless of how small the lot sizes may be, the price points at Parc Northwest aren’t expected to be correspondingly diminutive.
Medlin told the town council that he expects the sale prices of the townhomes and single-family dwellings to “fluctuate from the high two[-hundred thousand]s to the low five[-hundred thousand]s.”
“I would say that this would be a very desirable location,” he added, “easy to support those dollar amounts…and typically what you see is that the new builds command higher prices than the existing housing stock.”
Medlin added, however, that these anticipated rates would still be within reach for many middle class homebuyers who he insisted are in danger of being priced out of the competitive real estate markets in places like Elon.
Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner echoed this sentiment based on his own conversations with officials at Elon University – which easily ranks as the town’s largest employer.
“One of the recurring things that comes up in our conversations time and time again is that the employees…can’t afford to live near the university. They can’t afford to live in Elon,” the town manager said.
“There are just not enough homes for the people who want to live here and a lot of folks can’t afford to.”
Councilmember Stephanie Bourland, who is herself an employee of the university, agreed with Roedner’s assessment about the town’s dearth of modestly-priced housing stock.
“It’s a real problem,” she insisted. “I’m probably the only person in my department of 24 people who lives in Elon. But I’ve lived here for years. I got here while the going was good.”
Some big asks
Medlin went on to assure the council that he ultimately hopes his development will attract a wide cross section of residents. Even so, Sharpe hinted that there is one category of resident that she would prefer not to see in this neighborhood.
The town’s mayor insisted that she’s well aware the law technically doesn’t allow a conditional zoning request to place restrictions on a developer’s prospective residents. She suggested, however, that Medlin should consider measures to discourage absentee landlords and “undergraduate student housing.”
“I know that this will change the economics of this project,” she said. “But I think it will make for happier residents in your single family homes.”
As counterintuitive as Sharpe’s request may seem for an official in a college town, it also didn’t seem to gain very much traction with Medlin.
“We are in the business of cultivating happy homeowners,” he assured the town’s mayor. “But keep in mind, whoever does live here we’re going to try to comingle them in the amenities.”
Medlin was nonplussed, however, by another suggestion that Sharpe tossed out in order to help the developer meet the development’s quota for “civic” facilities.
Under Elon’s land development ordinance, a traditional neighborhood is expected to set aside 2 to 15 percent of its space for civic use. Medlin insisted that he had just learned about this provision earlier that day and conceded that he didn’t have any ideas about how to comply with the rule.
Sharpe, meanwhile, proposed that the developer could meet this provision by allowing the town to commandeer the spot at the juncture of University Drive and Shallowford Church Road that’s currently reserved for one of the project’s three, large multi-use buildings. She added that, in exchange, the town could offer him the present site of its municipal building at 104 South Williamson Avenue.
“What if we work out something where that [spot at the intersection of University Drive] becomes town hall, and you develop this property [along Williamson Avenue],” she asked the developer. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity right here where we’re sitting…[It’s] just a thought.”
See earlier coverage, including the concerns of neighbors: https://alamancenews.com/large-elon-development-with-homes-on-small-lots-draws-neighborhood-opposition-at-town-council-meeting/