After two months of handwringing and heartache, Elon’s town council has signed off on a controversial mixed-use development that promises to bring up to 400 new homes and 100,000 square feet of retail space to this small college town.
The council’s anguish over this project ended on Tuesday when its members voted 4-to-0 in favor of a rezoning request that will enable the GreenHawk Corporation of Raleigh to build this tightly-packed subdivision at the juncture of University Drive and Shallowford Church Road.
Dubbed Parc Northwest, GreenHawk’s foray into Elon’s development market is consciously modeled on existing “masterplanned” communities in the Triangle that put clustered residential development within walking distance of shops, businesses, and recreational venues. In Elon, GreenHawk hopes to replicate this same concept on a 57.72-acre site that’s already zoned for a combination of residential and commercial development.
GreenHawk’s plans for this project call for an expansion of the property’s commercial component in order to accommodate up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space within three separate buildings. These hulking structures would also house as many as 200 rental apartments on their upper levels. Meanwhile, 200 single-family homes are earmarked for the remainder of the property, which is already zoned for relatively dense residential development.
In order to follow through with their plans, GreenHawk’s representatives have taken advantage of a new option for “conditional” zoning that Elon recently added to its development repertoire. This tool, which has a long history in other communities, allows developers to offer up various conditions to make their plans more amenable to a municipality’s decision makers. In Elon, however, the town’s relative inexperience with conditional zoning has made GreenHawk’s proposal a rather hard pill for some of its leaders and residents to swallow.
The complexities of conditional zoning have only been exacerbated by push back from neighbors – particularly the residents of the Cable Square subdivision, who turned out en masse when GreenHawk’s plans came up for a public hearing in June.
Among their various grievances, the residents of this neighborhood have objected to the density of GreenHawk’s proposed dwellings, the prospect of traffic congestion, and the potential impact the new development may have on their own property values. They’ve also taken issue with plans to establish road connections with Cable Square – an idea that the developer had originally adopted at the behest of Elon’s municipal staff.
Mayor thinks specific aspects of conditional zoning better than alternative
In spite of the controversy that has swirled around this development, the project’s advantages seemed clear enough to Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe, who acknowledged as much immediately before Tuesday’s vote on the rezoning request. Sharpe assured the project’s detractors that GreenHawk’s self-imposed conditions will actually make for a better development than the site’s existing zoning allows.
“I want everyone to understand that the current zoning allows things that a lot of individuals have issues with,” she said. “With the current zoning, you can put 275 single family homes and you can get probably 150 apartments based on the size [of the property]. “With the change to this, there will be a maximum of 200 single family homes and they’re asking for approval of up to 200 apartments. I don’t know if they’ll get 200 in those three buildings.
“We don’t have the ability to say ‘no’ to everything that is already here,” the mayor added. “What we do have ability to say ‘no’ to is tract housing…but [we can] only [do that] through the conditional zoning process.”
As part of the conditional zoning process, the developer has also made substantial changes to its original slate of conditions for the development. These nips and tucks apparently continued all the way to the buzzer, as Lori Oakley, the town’s planning director, conceded when she presented the council with some late-coming revisions shortly before Tuesday’s decision.
Among the changes that Oakley outlined that evening were two that directly addressed the developer’s proposed street connections with the Cable Square neighborhood. The town’s planning director stated that the developer has agreed to nix one street connection along Ralston Drive, leaving only a sidewalk to link the two neighborhoods in that location. She added that the developer has maintained the other connection along Old Towne Drive but has decided to do away with some speed humps which were previously proposed under pressure from municipal staff members.
[Story continues below layout of the development.]
Oakley told the council that GreenHawk has also agreed to amend another condition in order to provide pedestrian access between Parc Northwest and the grounds of Elon University. Meanwhile, in deference to a discussion at the council’s last meeting, the developer has pledged to leave enough space for a car behind each of its single-family dwellings to prevent vehicles from blocking the roadway.
These latest conditions generally got a favorable response from the council, which applauded the developer’s willingness to make changes in response to its critics in the community.
“All your letters and comments and emails didn’t go unheard,” councilman Quinn Ray said as he addressed the project’s opponents prior to Tuesday’s vote. “The conditional zoning allows you guys to have a hand in it…and I think this opens up a lot of opportunities for the town to move forward.”
Ray went on to vote in favor of GreenHawk’s rezoning request along with Elon’s mayor pro tem Mark Greene, and councilmen Monti Allison and Randy Orwig. Council member Stephanie Bourland was absent from Tuesday’s meeting due to a medical emergency in the family.