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Developer plans shopping center and apartments along US 15-501 in Southwest Durham

A rendering of a future section of the Oakridge development that would include residential units.
A rendering of a future section of the Oakridge development that would include residential units. Courtesy of Beacon Properties Group
This story has been updated to include a response from the developers of Oakridge.

A Chapel Hill developer is eyeing a wooded piece of land off U.S. 15-501 in Durham for a 100,000-square-foot shopping center that would also include office space and restaurants.

The potential shopping center would be on land next to New Hope Creek near the Patterson Place shopping area, just across Interstate 40 from Chapel Hill. That strip of 15-501 has become a nexus of retail for Durham and Chapel Hill shoppers, with Walmart, Home Depot, restaurant chains and several car dealerships nearby.

Beacon Properties Group submitted the plans for the 108-acre property, which the company bought last year for $7.6 million, according to county records. Beacon has a long history of developing office and apartment projects across Chapel Hill and Durham, including several along Farrington Road in Chapel Hill.

The plans it submitted detail a shopping center that would have eight separate buildings built around a surface parking lot. The project would include 25,000 square feet for office space; 57,000 square feet for retail space; and 17,000 square feet of restaurant space.

The developers want to connect the project directly to 15-501. The state’s Department of Transportation is reviewing whether that connection is feasible. Currently, neighboring businesses like the New Hope Animal Hospital are connected to the major throughway by a service road.

The plans, which call the shopping center Oakridge, show that the restaurants would have drive-thrus, likely indicating that they will be fast-food or casual-service restaurants, and that the entire project would be built across multiple phases.

Edward Lammas, Beacon’s developer for the project, said he anticipates the project opening in 2021. He noted that while Beacon hasn’t officially begun marketing the project to tenants, the company has already had discussions with several parties.

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The layout of the proposed shopping center Beacon Property Group wants to build off of U.S. 15-501 in Durham. Courtesy of Durham City-County Planning Department

“We’re already attracting a significant amount of interest from higher-end restaurant groups and retailers who’re looking to enter the region for the first time,” Lammas said in an email. “... We’ve also attracted a significant amount of interest, as would be expected, from more traditional commodity fast food players, although pending the ability to create this urban-like environment, we’re putting them on hold.”

Not included in the submitted plans, Lammas said, is a second section that would include 346 apartments. That addition — whose plans should be submitted to the city in the next 30 days — would be influenced by the city’s proposed compact neighborhoods plan, which is meant to increase high-density developments near light rail stations.

Since that plan was put forward, however, the Durham-Orange light rail project fell apart. The city is set to continue discussion around the plan on Aug. 5, said Lisa Miller, a senior urban designer with the city’s planning department.

The proposed first section of the Oakridge project only needs administrative approval from the planning department to move forward and wouldn’t need to go before the Durham Planning Commission or City Council.

For years, however, local environmental groups have been wary of development around New Hope Creek, claiming that construction near the banks of the creek could damage the waterway. Specifically, it has been the New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, established in 1992, that has raised objections.

Last year, the group expressed concerns about an apartment developer clearing vegetation from slopes near New Hope Creek. The committee also flagged the Oakridge property as problematic, after Beacon moved to remove many of the trees on the property.

The advisory group argues that the slopes near the creek help maintain water quality and provide important habitation for many species of animals and plant life in the New Hope Creek corridor.

Robert Healy, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences and policy at Duke University and co-chair of the New Hope Creek group, said current laws around the creek aren’t strong enough — though he noted that the developers are doing what is within their rights.

“I think there is very little anybody can do about it because they decided to go under the existing zoning,” Healy said in a phone interview. “The existing laws are inadequate to protect New Hope resources.”

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A sign in the New Hope Creek corridor in Durham. Environmental groups have raised flags over the years about development near where the creek crosses U.S. 15-501 in Durham. Courtesy of the City of Durham

Last year, the planning department floated a proposal that would require a setback of 300 feet from the floodplain around the creek and its tributaries, Indy Week reported. That rule would have affected the Oakridge project because tributaries from the creek cut through the property.

The New Hope Creek committee wrote a letter in support of the proposal, saying it was necessary to protect the overall New Hope Creek corridor and the portion of the creek that runs near 15-501.

“As development has taken place along 15-501 and Southwest Durham Drive, the remaining natural lands are a ‘pinch point’ in a corridor that is many miles long and quite wide to both the north and the south,” Healy wrote in the letter. “Further development in this area, if not properly planned, could reduce the functionality of the entire corridor.”

Beacon also responded to the proposal, hiring an environmental engineering firm, ATC Services Group, to write a report about the need for a 300-foot buffer. The report noted that a buffer of that size is usually only recommended when there are endangered species living within the area in question.

“The on-site survey did not indicate the presence of threatened and endangered species or any habitat outside of the flood plain therefore a wider buffer would not be warranted,” wrote Benjamin Wilson, a principal engineer at ATC.

Lammas said Beacon doesn’t want to place the development in the most sensitive parts of the property.

“We are also working with the city and other stakeholders to agree a way forward which could facilitate the units being placed in a more environmentally agreeable manner than is currently entitled,” he said.

Lammas added that if the compact neighborhoods plan is approved then Beacon could build more densely away from the creek.

For his part, Healy said the New Hope committee is “open to discussions with the developer.”

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.