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Planning board splits, 4-3, against new apartment complex near University Drive

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Burlington’s planning and zoning commission has given an ambivalent thumbs down to an out-of-state developer’s plans to build 330 high-end apartments off of University Drive.

During its latest monthly meeting on Monday, the commission voted 4-to-3 to withhold its endorsement from this proposed rental development, which Switzenbaum & Associates hopes to construct at the intersection of Rural Retreat and Williams Mill roads – not far from Rural Retreat’s juncture with University Drive.

The commission ultimately conferred this negative recommendation on the proposed apartments despite a full-court press from the project’s Philadelphia-based developer as well as the unreserved blessing of Burlington’s planning staff.

Among those who tried to sway the commission’s support for this project was Amanda Hodierne, a Greensboro-based attorney in the developer’s employ. In her pitch to the commission, Hodierne argued that her client’s proposal would prove advantageous for more than just the project’s prospective tenants.

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“We’ve been working with staff for almost two years now to make sure that this is the right offering, in the right place, in the right way,” the developer’s attorney added, “and we’re excited that this particular [development] offers benefits to the larger community.”

 

Seeds of an idea

Christened as “Sycamore at Burlington,” this proposed rental complex is based on a template that Switzenbaum & Associates has already implemented in several other locations. Sam Switzenbaum, the firm’s founder, assured Burlington’s planning commission that these various “Sycamores” have gone on to flourish in every community where they’ve, so far, been planted.

“The first one we built was in Charlotte on Tyvola Boulevard, and it was a home run…and we just finished one in Concord,” Switzenbaum recalled during Monday’s proceedings. “This is not like a typical rental community…The project has no three bedroom units. It is not a family-type of project…It is basically an adult community without calling it an adult community… and the amenities package is gorgeous.”

Switzenbaum’s vision for the proposed community in Burlington calls for a grand total of 330 dwelling units distributed among six, four-story buildings. These buildings would include 138 one-bedroom apartments that are expected to go for $1,590 a month as well as another 192 two-bedroom flats, which have been tentatively priced at $1,950 a month.

In addition to the dwellings themselves, the developer’s plans call for various amenities, including a clubhouse with a “resort-style” pool, several gazebos, sidewalks, bike racks, pickleball courts, facilities for shuffleboard and bocce ball, and a “neighborhood park” complete with a putting green. Switzenbaum’s plans also include parking for 567 vehicles – 50 of which would be stabled in garages scattered across the development’s grounds.

 

Best-laid plans

At the suggestion of Burlington’s planning staff, Switzenbaum and his colleagues have congealed these various features into a package known as a “planned development.”

A relatively new addition to Burlington’s zoning repertoire, this designation was specifically developed for complex subdivisions that don’t fit neatly into the city’s development rules. The zoning applications for such projects are generally submitted for the city’s review along with detailed site plans, design and landscaping standards, and development conditions that describe both how the project would deviate, and improve on, the prevailing standards.

During her time at the podium, Hodierne reminded the city’s planning commission that transparency of purpose is one of the foremost advantages of the “planned development” classification.

“This is the only zoning district that allows you to be super specific,” the developer’s attorney explained. “You know not only what the use is going to be, you know the site plan, you know the scope and intensity of it, you know what the open space is going to look like, and you know what the architecture is going to look like…Everybody knows, if approved, exactly what’s on the table.”

[Story continues below photos.]


Greensboro attorney Amanda Hodierne, Philadelphia developer Sam Swizenbaum, and Josh Karrick outlined the high-end, 330-unit apartment complex Swizenbaum hopes to build off University Drive in west Burlington.
Planning board members voted 4-3 against the proposed apartment complex.
The developer’s proposed community in Burlington calls for a grand total of 330 dwelling units distributed among six, four-story buildings. These buildings would include 138 one-bedroom apartments that are expected to go for $1,590 a month as well as another 192 two-bedroom flats, which have been tentatively priced at $1,950 a month.

As part of this hyper-specific rezoning request, the project’s developer has proposed 15.15 acres of open space – or roughly 2 acres in excess of the city’s mandated minimum. Switzenbaum has also pledged to build a “multi-use path” along Rural Retreat Road that will ultimately feed into an existing sidewalk along University Drive.

In the meantime, the developer has agreed to set some property aside for a future entrance off of University Drive. This outlet, which would feature a roundabout, may one day augment the project’s lone egress onto Williams Mill Road – provided that another developer decides to do something with vacant land that presently separates Switzenbaum’s site from University Drive.

These sundry concessions were, in the end, sufficient to earn Switzenbaum’s plans a vigorous nod from Jamie Lawson, Burlington’s planning director.

“We have spent a lot of time working with the applicants,” Lawson assured the city’s planning commission. “Staff has to balance the areas where their exceeding density controls and other restrictions with the enhancements that they’re providing…So, we are recommending this rezoning request.”

 

Notes from the board

The developer’s plans have nevertheless proven a much harder sell with the planning commission’s members, who questioned everything from the project’s proposed traffic configuration to its provisions for trash pickup. (In the latter case, Switzenbaum said that his tenants would benefit from a “valet” garbage service that will spare them from having to roll their own garbage cans to the communal dumpsters).

Meanwhile, the very raison d’etre for the Sycamore at Burlington came under fire from commission member Charlie Beasley, who noted the large number of other rental developments within a short distance of this project’s site.

Planning board member Charlie Beasley

“There are four to six apartment complexes within three quarters of a mile of where you’re going to plant this thing.  There are apartments going up in Whitsett, Mebane, and Graham. . . Why in God’s name does Burlington need another 330 apartment units?” – Planning board member Charlie Beasley

“There are four to six apartment complexes within three quarters of a mile of where you’re going to plant this thing,” Beasley observed at the meeting. “There are apartments going up in Whitsett, Mebane, and Graham…Why in God’s name does Burlington need another 330 apartment units?”

Developer Sam Swizenbaum

“I wouldn’t build a project anywhere in America that I can’t make money on.  I wouldn’t take a plane to be here and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these guys, including the attorney, if I didn’t think this would be a grand-slam homerun.”

– Philadelphia developer Sam Swizenbaum

Switzenbaum went on to declare that he wouldn’t be standing before the city’s planning commission if there wasn’t a market for his proposed apartments.

“I wouldn’t build a project anywhere in America that I can’t make money on,” he asserted. “I wouldn’t take a plane to be here and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these guys, including the attorney, if I didn’t think this would be a grand-slam homerun.”

 

The homefield reaction

Switzenbaum’s plans nevertheless provoked cries of “foul” from a number of neighboring residents – many of whom hail from the exclusive Waterford subdivision off of University Drive.

Waterford homeowners association president Scotty Tanner

“The most concern that I’ve heard from the community is about the construction traffic, and as you know from the Keystone project, we do not want construction traffic going across the bridge [that serves as the main entrance for Waterford].” – Waterford homeowners association president Scotty Tanner

Homeowners from Waterford were ultimately well represented among the two dozen residents who were on hand when Switzenbaum and his colleagues appeared before the city’s planning commission. Many of these same individuals were also apparently present when the developer convened a neighborhood meeting ahead of his presentation on Monday.

Switzenbaum told the planning commission that he did his best to assuage the 40 or so neighbors who took part in this conclave. He noted, for instance, that he had agreed to widen his project’s proposed buffers and shift a number of garages away from the perimeter in deference to the concerns that some residents of Waterford had raised at the time.

“This kind of project, like it or not, generates emotion,” he went on to recall. “And we’re sensitive to these kinds of issues…So, I sat in the meeting with a pen and told the planners to move the garages and double the size of the buffer.”

The planning commission’s members nevertheless heard some lingering objections from a handful of residents who attended the meeting on Monday. Chief among these misgivings were concerns about runoff and traffic as well as calls for even more plentiful buffers.

Meanwhile, Scotty Tanner, the president of Waterford’s homeowners association, harked back to another pitched battle that he and his neighbors once fought with the Greensboro-based tract builder Keystone Homes.

“The most concern that I’ve heard from the community is about the construction traffic,” Tanner said as he reflected on the uproar that took place when Keystone purchased an undeveloped section of Waterford from the original developer, “and as you know from the Keystone project, we do not want construction traffic going across the bridge [that serves as the main entrance for Waterford].”

William Mill Road resident Rhonda Custer

“We have a major problem with them putting this amount of apartments at the end of our road.  We have a quiet little neighborhood. We live on well and septic…and there’s no telling what’s going to happen to our property.”

– Rhonda Custer, a homeowner along Williams Mill Road, near the proposed apartment complex

The planning commission also heard an adamant protest from Rhonda Custer, a homeowner along Williams Mill Road, who complained about the high impact that the proposed apartments would have on this rural, two-lane byway. Custer added that, unlike the residents of Waterford, she and her neighbors had been left out of the developer’s previous efforts to placate the community.

“We have a major problem with them putting this amount of apartments at the end of our road,” she added. “We have a quiet little neighborhood. We live on well and septic…and there’s no telling what’s going to happen to our property.”

John Black, the chairman of Burlington’s planning commission, encouraged Swizenbaum and his colleagues to meet with Custer and her neighbors along Williams Mill Road regardless of how the commission’s members ultimately vote on his rezoning request. As it happened, the group’s final decision didn’t bode entirely well for the Philadelphia developer.

After an hour of back-and-forth over this project, Beasley made a motion to recommend the denial of the rezoning request. Joined by fellow members Richard Parker, Joan Zec Nelson, and Ethan Raynor, Beasley was able to push through this motion over the objections of Black, the commission’s vice chairman James Kirkpatrick, and commission member Hilary Hill.

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