Who’s in your wallet?

Who do the executives at Lowe’s know that the executives at Altridge Group don’t?

On the agenda for public hearing at the Town Council meeting tonight is the request by Lowe’s Home Care Center (what the rest of us would call a home improvement center, so as not to confuse it with a big-box nursing home) for a modification of its special use permit. Lowe’s wants to sacrifice 113 parking spaces to expand its outdoor display area.

The Lowe’s parking lot melds with that of Border’s Books next door and a park-and-ride lot fronting U.S. 15-501, and I’ve never been out there when every single parking space has been taken, even when the ever-popular “How to lay tile” workshop coincides with a Harry Potter book release party. But we won’t know what the neighbors think of the idea until tonight.

What caught my attention as I was looking over the documents was that the special use permit modification application breezed through the review process in one month. The Planning Board, reviewed and approved it Aug. 3; the Transportation Board, Aug. 12; the Community Design Commission, Aug. 18; and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, Aug. 24. And here it is, slated for public hearing on Sept. 20.

Compare that to Altridge Group, a husband-and-wife real estate development team who bought the former Delta Zeta sorority house at 420 Hillsborough St. that had been vacant and on the market for years. Altridge planned to re-purpose what had been bedrooms on the lower-level into small offices that could be rented on a short- or long-term basis by solo practitioners, start-ups and other small businesses. The larger gathering spaces and kitchen on the upper level could be rented out for catered dinners, parties and business meetings. The property already had a parking lot sufficient for the size of the building, and Altridge would need to disturb no additional surface area. Other than sprucing up the interior, the building was ready to go.

The only barrier is that Altridge is seeking a modification of the special use permit that allowed a sorority to be built in a residential area. Altridge needs a modification so that it can charge rent to entities other than the university. Word from the town is that the process would take at least a year and a half. And when Altridge began building a stone retaining wall to keep the soil from washing onto the sidewalk during the rainy season, the town halted the work.

I asked Phil Mason of the Planning Department staff why such a seemingly simple matter would take a year and a half. He said that going before all the numerous review boards was a very time-consuming process and couldn’t possibly get through any faster. And besides, Mason said, the property is in the middle of a residential area, an inappropriate area for a business.

Altridge isn’t asking for a reduction in parking; all it wants is to extend its client base beyond the university. I doubt the students in the large apartment complexes nearby care whether Altridge’s clients pay with a state check or private funds. It would be nice to see the property in use and, more importantly, bringing in additional tax revenue.
– Nancy Oates

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16 Comments

  1. James Barrett

     /  September 20, 2010

    Let’s not forget that it isn’t really a “residential area”. It is a very busy through street leading into downtown that has apartment complexes and condos on it. When I think of “residential area” I think of an area where people living would be impacted by a business’s traffic. This location will not in any way.

  2. George C

     /  September 20, 2010

    “What caught my attention as I was looking over the documents was that the special use permit modification application breezed through the review process in one month. The Planning Board, reviewed and approved it Aug. 3; the Transportation Board, Aug. 12; the Community Design Commission, Aug. 18; and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, Aug. 24. And here it is, slated for public hearing on Sept. 20. ”

    Nancy, the time involved in the review process is not just the time of review by the advisory boards. By the time these applications get to the advisory boards the Town Staff have been meeting with the applicants and working out all the details that go into the stipulations that are associated with a Special use Permit (SUP). This is where the bulk of the review time occurs. In the case of the Lowe’s application this was a modification of an existing SUP so there were only about 20 stipulations but for a new SUP there might be as many as 60-70 stipulations. These cover everything from allowable square footage to parking to stormwater management to landscaping, etc. Most of the details are ironed out by discussions and negotiations between Staff and applicants before the applications ever go to the advisory boards.

    The Lowe’s application could move quickly through the boards because it was a relatively straightforward modification and there weren’t a lot of details remaining to be answered. Nonetheless, the boards did raise a few concerns for Council to consider tonight.

  3. Duncan O'Malley

     /  September 20, 2010

    I’m trying to write an intelligent comment that expresses the anger and frustration I feel towards our town’s dysfunctional approval process…but all that comes to mind is @#%$&!

  4. Duncan O'Malley

     /  September 20, 2010

    George C.

    I can’t helping thinking you’re missing the whole point here: The town needs to use more common sense and less bureaucratic b.s. if it wants to expand opportunities for local businesses and developers. “60-70 stipulations?” You gotta be kidding.

  5. George C

     /  September 20, 2010

    Duncan,
    Have you ever read through a resolution approving a SUP? Yes, there might be a lot of stipulations but many are straightforward, common sense things that need to be included to insure that an applicant is going to do what they say they will do. In a way, a SUP is like a contract between an applicant and the citizens of the Town. The applicant wants to do something that may or may not affect the other citizens. In order to allow that project to move forward the citizens, through their government, ask for certain assurances (you will not pollute the adjacent stream; you will not build on more space than you agreed to; you will not park more cars than you said; etc.)

    It reminds me of the Time Warner commercial where the fellow is sitting on his porch and he says “Just imagine a perfect day: bacon will be good for you, you master nunchucks, etc.” Well, in a perfect world we could just take the word of applicants and developers that they will do exactly what they promise, that they will clean up after themselves, that they will act responsibly. Do you not think that some developers would try to cut corners or would not deliver on their promises? You might argue that the rules for applicants such as the husband and wife team Nancy mentioned should be different than those that apply to a large corporation such as Centex or Lowes or McDonalds. But you have to be careful where you draw the line. The Town does have procedures for allowing smaller projects to avoid going through the lengthy SUP process. It allows for smaller projects (site plans) to go directly to the Planning Board where that Board acts as the only reviewers. And what has happened recently in Chapel Hill is that developers are subdividing their land to enable them to do just that with the end result being that there is far less scrutiny of these projects.

    You may think our review process is too onerous but but I wouldn’t be surprised if BP had said the same thing about the oversight process for drilling in the Gulf. Unfortunately, the lack of good oversight only becomes readily apparent when things fail. and then eveyone asks “Where was the oversight?” Just MHO.

  6. Linda Convissor

     /  September 20, 2010

    Please check behind me, but I don’t think there is a park and ride lot there.

  7. George C

     /  September 20, 2010

    Linda, I’m not aware of one either. But there is one at the Lowe’s on 15-501 in Pittsboro.

  8. Duncan O'Malley

     /  September 20, 2010

    George,

    “You may think our review process is too onerous but but I wouldn’t be surprised if BP had said the same thing about the oversight process for drilling in the Gulf.”

    Are you sure you want to draw a comparison between our local development community and BP?

    Sometimes I wonder if the Planning Board and others don’t actually view new projects this way.

  9. George C

     /  September 20, 2010

    Duncan,
    The comparison I choose is: given a choice between having someone tell you what you can do or just doing what you want to do, most will choose the latter. It is human nature – but that choice doesn’t necessarily equate with the best outcome(s).

  10. Tanya Freeman

     /  September 20, 2010

    As a resident of the downtown historic district (living on Hillsborough Street) I take STRONG exception to Mr. Barrett’s comment that this is “not really a residential area”. Perhaps he would like to wait for the bus with me at 3 pm to ensure that the people who fly up the hill don’t pass the stopped school bus. Trust me, this is a very residential area, and there are 10 children 7 years of age and under on Hillsborough Street alone, not just college students.
    That being said, the proposed project sounds very interesting and would likely meet a need of our community. The special use process is extremely lengthy, which was a mixed blessing to the residents of Hillsborough Street when Ram Development came forward with its plans for the Town House Apartments site. With enough time and money, the developers were able to procure a special use permit and a zoning change for their project. As concerned citizens we were kept informed and generally had enough time to react but were forced to remain vigilant for almost 3 years. At the end of the day, we were able to add some minor stipulations to the permit to address our concerns about traffic flow and were granted funds to install traffic calming measures on the street. (These funds will not be released until the project begins, so don’t worry, you can continue to use our street unhindered for now.)

  11. Nancy Oates

     /  September 20, 2010

    You’re right — no Park and Ride near Lowe’s/Borders. I guess it was just wishful thinking on my part.
    George — You make a good point that I don’t know what Lowe’s had to go through to get to the stage where it could present to the various advisory boards. But the Altridge Group request for SUP modification would not involve any new construction, no land disturbance, and would not disturb neighbors’ peace and quiet any more than a sorority would. It seems like whatever stipulations the town wants to impose, it would not take staff a year and a half to come up with them.

  12. Steve Brown

     /  September 20, 2010

    In a town largely driven by one employer, UNC, that is one HUGE bureaucracy, it is really no surprise that the local town government has taken a page out of their playbook. After all, making a decision with out untold meetings, conferences, “charettes” (my favorite) etc is just way too risky.

    What is really hilarious is the ferocity with which some people justify and defend this overbearing and cumbersome approach. Of course none of the defenders are businesspeople.

    And what is funny and sad at the same time is how these same people wonder why there is a lack of businesses in town. Talk about clueless. One can only imagine the response of the “dream corporation” Costco to a list of hurdles such as Chapel Hill would hand them.

  13. Mark Marcoplos

     /  September 21, 2010

    I know it would be a lot of work, but it would be very useful to have a case study of a business going through the process. Then actual requirements could be discussed instead of the predictable back & forth that has gone on for so many years around this issue. I’ve often wondered why the Chamber doesn’t commission a study. It would be a great contribution. I guarantee we would find ways to move the process along and we would also identify key requirements that we would not want to compromise.

  14. Duncan O'Malley

     /  September 21, 2010

    Great idea, Mark.

    I’d also love to know what the town charges for various fees. Someone told me recently that a major development request can cost over $700,000 in permits etc. paid to the town and county.

  15. Jon DeHart

     /  September 23, 2010

    Yes, the process is onerous and expensive .

    What I am watching is to see if the Town will treat the IFC project the same as any other developer . Or will they get preferential treatment .

  16. Steve Brown

     /  September 24, 2010

    Well, at least we can all be happy that the Carol Woods non profit will not have to spend any more money for their request. Good job, Carol Woods!

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