Start of hearings on Self-Help project delayed

Feb. 13, 2013 @ 07:17 PM

Self-Help credit union managers until Tuesday were pushing a redevelopment effort at the corner of West Chapel Hill and Kent streets a bit too fast to suit some city leaders.

The credit union is orchestrating a mixed-use project for the intersection’s southeast corner that would combine about 10,000 square feet of retail space with 38,000 square feet of offices.

It has asked for a rezoning, but to date hasn’t linked the application to a formal development plan that would give neighbors, the Durham Planning Commission and ultimately the City Council a platform for asking Self-Help to make binding promises about the project.

That drew complaints from elected officials and neighbors, which Self-Help responded to on Tuesday by asking that the Planning Commission postpone the scheduled start of hearings on the proposed Kent Corner project until March.

The delay buys it “more time to talk to neighbors and be sure we had all their concerns heard,” Self-Help executive Dan Levine said on Wednesday. He added that “going forward, [adding] a development plan is certainly something we’re considering.”

Tuesday’s postponement came less than a week after city/county planners had warned elected officials that the project lacked a development plan.

The omission was problematic because a formal plan “simplifies things in a lot of ways and clarifies things for the neighborhood,” City Councilwoman Diane Catotti told fellow members of an oversight panel that includes council members and county commissioners.

Durham’s governments encourage, but in most cases don’t require, the submission of a development plan with a rezoning application.

The benefit to developers of not filing one is that they retain maximum flexibility to change a project at the behest of financial partners or would-be tenants. They can build anything a site’s zoning allows and, in theory, can get through the review process more quickly.

Including a development plan opens the door to negotiations with elected officials. Once it’s open, any promises a developer makes about a project are binding, not just on its current sponsors but on anyone who acquires the property in the future.

Planning Commission members usually take a dim view of zonings that lack a development plan, for fear of a developer reneging on an announced plan or flipping property to other companies that have different ideas for it.

They did endorse one application that lacked a development plan on Tuesday, for the proposed Triangle Curling Club near RTP, after deciding that the property involved was small and far away enough from nearby homes that there’d be little risk to the community from a blown deal.

But Self-Help’s project is in anything but an out-of-the-way location. It’s in the heart of Durham, adjacent to the Morehead Hill neighborhood, just down the street from the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center.

It would occupy a corner that the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development has long considered a redevelopment prospect.

Morehead Hill leaders wrote the Planning Commission on Feb. 4 to say that while there’s “widespread support for the goal of well-designed commercial development along West Chapel Hill Street,” residents nonetheless want city officials to pay close attention to traffic issues and see to it that Self-Help works with neighbors.

That in the eyes of some residents means insisting on a development plan, the Morehead Hill Neighborhood Association board said in its letter, which added that the association hadn’t formally adopted a position on that yet.

The letter said that traffic worries are front and center, because the neighborhood has to reckon not just with Self-Help’s project, but with the possibility of redevelopment farther east in the Chapel Hill Street corridor.

It singled out the corner of West Chapel Hill and Gregson streets as a key prospect. A Memphis developer bought the former Urban Merchant Center there late last year and has talked of building 350 apartments.

Durham’s nearby police headquarters could also be in play, as officials are talking about building a replacement for it elsewhere in the city.

The Morehill Hill letter also noted that the city rezoned part of the Self-Help site in 2011, labeling it appropriate for commercial infill. The credit union’s application seeks looser controls, and also seeks the inclusion of some vacant land that’s now zoned only for homes.

The existing zoning, though commercial, “is really set up either for renovations or very small new development,” Levine said. “When we’re proposing something that’s going to be a little more transformative, it’s going to require a bigger process.”

Levine acknowledged that Self-Help has been in “serious negotiations” with Durham Central Market, a would-be cooperative grocery store, about the planned retail space. The market’s project manager is City Councilman Don Moffitt.

Levine also said there’ve been talks with a couple of potential tenants about the office space, but declined to identify them.

As for the decision to file without a development plan, Levine said Self-Help had assumed that since it was “carrying out a project that’s so closely aligned” with the city’s vision for the corridor, it could do without one.