Thursday, April 30, 2015

Council Worksession on TDFs and Building Design Standards Downtown

The council held a worksession this past Tuesday to discuss a number of items to include a proposed increase to Cary’s Transportation Development Fees (TDFs), Land Development Ordinance Text Amendments and updates to the town’s Building Design Standards.

Council members Robinson and Smith were both absent from the meeting.

Transportation Development Fees:

Town staff and consultants recently completed a comprehensive study of Cary’s transportation development fees on the basis of full cost recovery of thoroughfare improvements and presented their findings and recommendation for a fee increase to council.

The two primary recommendations and discussion items were;

1)      Increase Cary’s TDFs to 60% of full cost recovery. This represents an approximate 10% increase over Cary’s existing TDFs.

2)      Continue to increase TDFs annually at a rate of 5% during the budget process.
Cary’s TDFs were last increased in 2013 and 2008 respectively.

Town staff and consultant’s justification for the proposed increase include inflation and rising construction costs.

Current TDFs for a single family detached home in Cary are $1359.00. The proposal would increase that amount to $1573.00. Raleigh currently charges $1661.00 and Durham charges $1405.00 so while Cary’s fees would become higher than Durham, we would still be lower than Raleigh.

The cost differentials remain about the same for multi-family construction as well – Cary would still be lower than Raleigh but higher than Durham.

Office and commercial construction is a different story.

TDFs for retail development in Cary are currently $1466.00 per 1000sq ft. The proposed increase would take that number to $1637.00. Raleigh currently charges $2695.00 and Durham’s fees are $4423.00. Both Raleigh and Durham’s fees would remain significantly higher than Cary.

TDFs for office development are currently $2004.00 per 1000 sq ft. The proposal would increase Cary’s fees to $2113.00. Raleigh’s fees are currently $2055.00 and Durham’s are $3366.00. This would make Cary’s fees higher than Raleigh, but lower than Durham….whose fees on commercial and office are ridiculously high when compared to their neighbors.

Note – Cary’s numbers above apply to development outside the central district (inside the Maynard Loop) Cary’s fees inside the Maynard Loop are set lower to incent new development/redevelopment.

My concern(s) with the proposed fee increase pertains to the commercial/office side more so than the residential. I struggle with increasing costs on the job creators. You know, the folks like MetLife, Bass Pro Shops, CBC Americas, Deutsche Bank, HCL, SAS and hundreds of small businesses; many of which have fled high tax/fee states looking for a more business friendly climate and highly educated and talented employees like we have here in Cary. Heck, Cary was even one of two finalist cities for USA Tennis out of New York. Unfortunately we lost out to Orlando on that one (tough to compete with Disney World, beaches and year-round warm weather) but it’s just another example of what we have to offer here in Cary and what employers and organizations are looking for.

Unfortunately (for me anyways) Cary does not have legislative authority to only increase fees on say residential but not office or commercial. If we choose to increase our TDFs, we must increase them across the board.

So again, while I might could be ok with a TDF increase on residential, I really struggle with increasing costs on businesses here in Cary.

Cary’s unemployment rate is around 3.5% which blows away most everywhere else in the country. I want to keep it that way. So if lower costs are an important factor in why many businesses are relocating to Cary, why would we want to increase their costs? And when you consider that a number of companies were provided city, county and state financial incentives, well, I just don’t see how increased costs compliment our job recruitment efforts.

Building Design Standards

Much of the discussion centered around the proposed changes for building materials in downtown and Cary’s Historic Districts.

Cary’s design standards throughout town call for a minimum of 35% masonry material on new construction of commercial or attached residential. In 2012 the council raised the masonry requirement for downtown to 75%. The thinking was that the increased standard would result in higher quality development downtown.

The result? No development.

Quality projects such as Samuel’s Keep, The Townes of Madison, Highland Village and my personal favorite – Frantz Automotive Center ;-) were developed under Cary’s 35% masonry standard and have added value to our downtown. We have not seen a new project like those since the masonry requirement was raised to 75%. It simply increases costs to the point where projects are no longer financially viable. Look at the two images below. Neither of them meet the current design standards of 75%. Why would we want to discourage any more development like this in downtown?

Samuel's Keep
Townes of Madison

Just so we are clear, a 35% requirement doesn’t mean that is all you get. Samuel’s Keep for example is roughly 42% masonry. It is simply the minimum that would be allowed.

I am pleased that at our worksession the council supported reducing the requirement back to 35%. Town staff and Cary’s Downtown Development manager, Ted Boyd also supported a reduction in the masonry requirement. There will be a public hearing prior to official action by the council.

In regards to Cary’s historic districts – Downtown, Carpenter and Green Level – the thinking was a little different. In downtown for example, many buildings have some amount of brick, while in Carpenter, most buildings are completely wood. To require a brick building in an area such as Carpenter would be very much out of character. In downtown however, a partially brick building would be in character with its surroundings. So, we decided to continue to require the 35% masonry in the downtown historic district while allowing for all wood construction in Carpenter and Green Level.

I am hopeful the proposed changes will spur more of the private investment in our downtown we are looking for. Time will tell.

That’s all for this post. As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Downtown Cary Library

At a council retreat in 2010, the council unanimously selected a site adjacent to the new downtown park near the intersection of Walnut Street and Kildaire Farm Road and across the street from the Cary Arts Center and Cary Elementary as the location for the new downtown Cary Library.

There have been a couple of articles in the Cary News lately that have implied that the council may be reconsidering that decision.

That is incorrect.

While one council member wants to reconsider that decision – the council does not.

While I can respect and appreciate this councilmember’s position, this decision was made years ago and there has been plenty of time for folks to express any concerns they may have had.

There are a number of reasons the council selected the site we did for the new downtown Cary Library.

·         Create a synergy with Cary Elementary School and The Cary Arts Center
·         The library’s location in a park setting will encourage folks to stay in downtown a while and maybe relax with their new book in the park, or visit one of downtown’s many restaurants and shops
·         The town already owns the property
·         Proximity to the existing Library’s location – pretty much across the street and near the corner of Walnut and Kildaire Farm/Dry Ave – a few hundred feet from Academy Street
·         Close to neighborhoods so that area residents can walk to the library
·         Potential plans include structured parking, which the Cary Arts Center desperately needs and could take advantage of – and not to mention our downtown festivals that mainly occur along that stretch of Academy Street
·         Our vision for downtown Cary is bigger than the intersection at Chatham and Academy Street
·         Allows for redevelopment of the existing library site – which Wake County wants to keep open until the new library is constructed

I do not subscribe to the notion that the new library “seems too far way to benefit our downtown businesses”, and that “people won’t want to walk half a mile to Chatham Street”.

If that is the case, then why are we spending millions to improve Academy Street to include wider sidewalks, lighting, bike racks and artistic elements to promote walkability if no one is going to walk up and down the street? Why did we invest $13 million in the Cary Arts Center at the end of Academy Street? Why did we partner with Belle at the Jones House restaurant at the corner of Academy and Dry or the Mayton Inn located halfway down Academy Street?

I also fail to comprehend how the same folks who don’t support the new library site out of concerns that it will not benefit businesses along Chatham Street are the same ones who supported a small 2-4 acre park in downtown so that the majority of land could be developed into high density residential, retail and businesses…. that would directly compete with those same Chatham Street businesses they are so concerned about.

While the council’s plan does allow for redevelopment of some of the “opportunity site” as some like to call it, the majority (7 acres) of the property remains what was promised to our citizens– a large downtown park.

The council recently visited downtown – excuse me, Uptown Charlotte for our council retreat. One thing we learned from them was not to solely focus on one area of downtown. Charlotte supports and encourages development and redevelopment anywhere and everywhere around downtown regardless of proximity to “the core”. They discovered that development doesn’t have to start in the center and work its way out – it can also occur on the fringes and work its way inward. The same can and will happen here in downtown Cary.

I am pretty sure that when the Metropolitan in downtown Charlotte was proposed that a number of folks probably asked, “Why are you building that way over there? How is that going to help us?” Heck, it even needed a new road constructed to even get to it. But just look at it now.

No one project will make or break downtown Cary. Each and every one is but a small piece in a rather large puzzle. The more projects we see completed in downtown, the more that will come – success breeds success.

One of the reasons I ran for council was that I was sick and tired of all the talk and no action downtown. The town talked a good game, but nothing was happening. Absent from the council majority was the political will to invest in downtown. That changed in 2007 when a new council was elected. Since then we have been making steady progress, but acknowledge that we have a long way to go.

I will always remember a comment I heard while on a visit to downtown Greenville, SC. a few years ago. “Downtown revitalizations are a twenty year overnight success”. It is so true. Nothing happens overnight, but if things keep happening, success will come.

I plan on keeping things happening.